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Titanic's Quickly Assembled Crew A Recipe for Disaster - 1914

Crew Members From the Titanic Wear Lifejackets for This Publicity Photo Taken on the Boat Deck.

Crew Members From the Titanic Wear Lifejackets for This Publicity Photo Taken on the Boat Deck. Francis Patrick Mary Browne, SJ, MC & Bar (3 January 1880 – 7 July 1960). GGA Image ID # 1109195855

3 April 1912: Cargo and supplies are loaded onto the ship in Southampton, and the first crew members are hired. On Saturday, 6 April 1912: The rest of the crew is hired, many were local residents of Southampton. This was the same day the coal strike ended. Most crew members are drawn from the British Seafarer's Union and the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union.

Titanic's Quickly Assembled Crew

The Titanic disaster focused on the vision of the world for the moment upon the weak points of ocean travel as perhaps never before In history.

It is apparent to those familiar with exact conditions obtaining in the transportation of passengers at sea that the development of protective and remedial legislation has not kept pace with this world change.

In fact, the Government of the United States continues to license passenger carrying steamships under antiquated (i.e., sailing vessel) laws written on the statute books, primarily covering the era before the introduction of power craft.

After the loss of the Larchmont a mass meeting of citizens was held in New York City, a "navigation conference" of the Nation, to which boards of trade and chambers of commerce from all parts of the United States sent delegates, which unanimously passed resolutions asking Congress for the passage of a Federal statute making obligatory a crew of trained seamen for each steamer licensed to carry passengers.

As a direct result of this movement an amendment to Revised Statutes 4463 relating to "complement of crews of vessels, and for better protection of life" was passed by the Sixtieth Congress, at its first session, and was made law and still retains its original status and authority.

While tills bill was a significant advance over existing conditions in the protection of life and property at sea, it was not altogether satisfactory. Supervising Inspector General George Uhler, of Steamboat-Inspection Service.

Washington, however, urged me, as head of the National Movement for Government Inspection of Crews of Passenger Steamships (13 January 1908), to lend the influence of this organization for the passage of this bill, as the best possible result to be obtained as "an entering wedge" and because of political and economic conditions at that time.

This was done, but with the purpose at a later and more favorable moment to obtain if possible, more adequate protection to life at sea than this bill promised to afford.

Under the provisions of this bill the master of the steamship is fined from $100 to $500 if his vessel makes a single passage "insufficiently manned," and an indorsed record of the number of the crew is required for each trip, on the ship papers.

Before passage of this bill many passenger steamships were often practically unmanned (as in case of Larchmont) except by an inexperienced, irresponsible class, a heterogeneous lot of freight handlers and lumpers picked up promiscuously along the wharves and streets, who are more familiar with cant hooks and freight trucks than with lifeboats and life-saving apparatus, often already overworked and not receptive to practical training.

The navigation conference registered its endorsement and recommendation that a law should be enacted, making obligatory the employment only of competent seamen capable of manning and handling the lifeboats in case of an accident. The launching of a lifeboat In a seaway is a complicated task even for a competent crew.

Loading and Lowering Lifeboats During a Drill

Loading and Lowering Lifeboats During a Drill. The Unsinkable Titanic (1912) p. 43-b. GGA Image ID # 1075178d21

It will be noted that further legislation is now required to cover this critical provision for better protection of life at sea.

A steamship soon after being commissioned, had to launch a lifeboat in a heavy seaway. "Put all seamen in that boat." roared the captain from the bridge. "He's in, sir," responded the executive officer, and even the captain scarcely repressed a smile at this illustration of existing conditions.

In the Titanic accident, owing to unusual sea conditions of smooth water, the lack of boats in which to transport passengers became apparent and developed the fact that this condition also obtained upon nearly every steamer afloat at that time.

Life-saving devices, boats, rafts, preservers, systems of signaling, and other collateral equipment of the vessel at sea are of elemental importance.

Such equipment which is to be taken for granted in this advanced age is now legally provided for. Upon this hypothesis, the whole problem of safeguarding the lives of the passengers is reduced to the question of personnel.

Without officers and crew skilled and trained to meet emergencies, the inanimate life-saving apparatus becomes useless.

The efficiency of the latter exactly corresponds to the ability of the ship's personnel—to employ it to the full.

The human element, the personal equation of mathematicians, is then evidently of dominating importance.

Under conditions of to-day's practice, while the captain, pilot, mates, and engineers must pass an exhaustive examination as to experience, knowledge, temperament, and even habits, the crew, on the contrary, is passed and accepted numerically, but upon the most superficial examination as to previous experience and qualification.

Yet these are the men who must be depended on in an accident to handle the lifeboats and life-saving equipment, and this is the provision made under our laws today for the protection of men, women, and children, exposed at all times to the possibility of accident and the perils of the sea, and dependent for their safety upon the lifeboat and its crew.

The steamer at sea with her human freight, while a single unit, must be organized upon the assumption that this single unit shall become in an accident as many units as she has lifeboats, each of which should be as expertly manned and officered as the original unit itself.

If the public is to be safe at sea, a steamer should be required to have not only trained and experienced officers for each position but also competent and experienced men for each lifeboat.

Is it right for this vital part of the steamship's equipment to be weak and inefficient in an accident?

When it comes to the final test, it is more the fiber and quality of the men handling the boats in a heavy sea that counts than it is the means of escape (i. e., rafts, lifeboats, used wreckage, etc.).

Steamship companies licensed to carry passengers enter into a contract for their safety as well, and should now be required, regardless of political or economic or any other conditions, to provide competent crews for every lifeboat as decidedly as officers for the ship itself.

Accident and perils of the sea cannot be too carefully guarded against, and our existing lax laws and the conditions destined to arise from them promise a continued yield of suffering and death.

Former Secretary of Navy John D. Long wrote: "You are right in your estimate of the importance of having trained men on passenger steamships. There cannot be too much care where human life is at risk."

The Government of the United States has no moral right to issue papers to steamships for transportation of its citizens, whom it is bound to protect upon the high seas, until practical demonstration of the steamer's preparedness has been made before United States inspectors, and such license should be continued in force only so long as the required standard of equipment, and competent personnel shall be maintained.

Government papers should be, in fact, evidence and assurance to each citizen and passenger that the steamship so authorized to transport passengers is in every part adequately constructed, equipped, officered, and manned.

The Baltimore American wisely said, editorially: "Steamship disasters have served with terrible emphasis to illustrate the fact that often crews were entirely undisciplined and untrained. Every passenger steamship should be organized upon the supposition that the time will come when passengers must be transferred to small boats in mid-ocean, and crews of these boats should be thoroughly trained to such emergencies."

How much longer will the patient American public tolerate present political and economic conditions in our navigation laws and "let well enough alone "?

It is poor policy to wait for the lessons of great disasters, and more inferior policy and indefensible neglect to fall to take advantage of whatever is taught through death and suffering.

The way to prevent other catastrophes is to gather from those of the past the means of future security.

Former Secretary of Commerce Oscar S. Straus advised me (12 March 1907) "that he had insisted upon the employment of a better class of men for crews of passenger steamships, but that this was as far as the law permitted him to go in this respect."

A law should now be enacted making competent crews for passenger steamers compulsory before they are eligible for a license, and thus strengthen the hand of authority for all future time.

The Titanic disaster developed the fact that many transatlantic lines are unable to hold the same crew together for more than one trip ordinarily, with the result that practically every voyage is undertaken with elements of a green crew.

It is thus self-evident to the practical and humanitarian mind that these steamships do not pay adequate or competitive wages to command the employment of competent crews, and those steamship companies must now be required by further Federal enactment to employ a sufficient complement of competent seamen for each and every trip, and no longer he legally permitted, as now, to traffic and economized with promiscuous and incompetent crews at the risk of human lives.

The time is at hand "to drive home the wedge" and for boards of trade and public-spirited citizenship to demand the passage of Federal legislation which shall require our common carriers to afford adequate protection to the lives of passengers entrusted to their care in the interest of public safety and humanity.

Extract from "Proposal for Federal bill covering "Character, competency, and efficiency of crews of steamships and better protection of life," in The Seamen's Bill, Hearings Held Before the Committee on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries, House of Representatives on S. 136: an Act to promote the welfare of American Seamen in the Merchant Marine of the United States, to abolish arrest and imprisonment as a penalty for desertion and to secure the abrogation of treaty provisions in relation thereto and to promote safety at sea. In two Parts, Part 1, Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1914. p.317-320.

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