The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 11
The Dangers of the Sea
The Dangers of the Sea.
Probably no more appalling tragedy of its kind than the burning of the emigrant ship Cospatrick ever occurred on the ocean. The captain throwing his wife overboard to drown rather than burn, and then leaping after her; the surgeon throwing his little son, and himself following, are incidents which will not quickly pass from memory. Amidst a long recent, calendar bearing witness to the dangers of travel, it stands the foremost in magnitude. Yet there is no fear of the tide of emigration being checked so long as the inducements held forth make it worth a man's while to change his locality.
It is all the more the duty of officials to lessen these dangers by every possible arrangement which practical science can suggest. Too many theories, along with gross disregard to their application, seriously increase the perils of the sea, while lulling people into a sense of false security. Of what service are boats in an emergency if they be turned bottom up inboard on ships, or placed athwart-ships, frequently in situations where the greatest skill is required, even under ordinary circumstances, to hoist them in and out? Given a heavy sea, the horrors of a fire, and last, as is too common, an undisciplined, disobedient, and unseaman like crew to work with, and the results are easily calculated. What is required is not more boats, but more precautions and arrangements, to make their, at best, doubtful aid unnecessary. I will ask anyone who has the slightest knowledge of that wild piece of water between Queenstown and New York, if the expensive system of boats, which crowl our magnificent ocean steamers, materially lessens the chances of danger? The sea of that stormy region requires them to be securely swung inboard, and secured with six or eight chains each; yet with these precautions a bad winter never passes without a serious loss or injury to these cumbrous fittings. When a distressed vessel has to be boarded to take off or relieve the crow, the greatest care is necessary to get the boat safely clear of the ship; and in hoisting up damage generally occurs to such an extent as to cause abandonment. Several instances have occurred during the present winter.
With such facts before us it is evident that other life-saving appliances are worthy of mature consideration by the Board of Trade; and in appointing a committee they will act wisely in giving the merchant nautical element every opportunity to bring their experience to bear, in lieu of depending so much on the testimony of naval officers who, as a body, really know nothing of the difficulties shipmasters have to contend with under such trying circumstances as a fire, or the abandonment of a ship at sea. From my own knowledge of the subject, I unhesitatingly say the late Royal Commission on ships and seamen have, in the evidence of an old Liverpool shipmaster (Mr. Ballantine), all that is required to point out the alarming condition of the personnel of the mercantile marine of this country, and the entire absence of power on the part of the masters. The loss of the Cospatrick points out a singular anomaly in maritime law, viz. the emigrants are entirely under the authority of the surgeon, not the commander.page 369
The writer of this article is personally cognisant that many of the young surgeons who hold this responsible appointment are only a year or so from college, and is not aware of any existing law to debar them from obtaining it immediately they receive their diploma. Such a system places all authority and discipline in the hands of an inexperienced youth who has no idea of the responsibility of his situation, or the knowledge and tact it requires to rule a large body of men by moral force alone. Maritime law provides no other. To the commander should all power be given to make what regulations he thinks best for the safety of the large number of lives committed to his care, and on the arrival of a vessel in a British colony, at least, any infraction of them by the emigrants or abuse of them by him personally should be rigidly enquired into. A few examples would quickly work a salutary effect on the delinquents; and should be posted up on the lower deck of all emigrant ships as a warning to offenders, just as we see them in railway stations.
As a general rule, the emigrant is provided with a straw mattress. The Board of Trade should compel the vendors of these articles to soak the straw in a solution which would prevent its kindling into a blaze. He also stocks himself with a large quantity of cheap lucifer matches of the most inferior quality. There is a law against the carrying of the latter dangerous article by passengers, but anyone who has made a voyage in an emigrant ship will remember the constant crackle and flash of the match as the smoker lights his pipe, at a companion way, or other sheltered spot. A few months back, a startling instance of the danger of fire from this cause alone came under my observation in an emigrant ship. The luggage was being hurriedly struck into the hold, and a portmanteau on being unslung emitted smoke from the interstices of the cover. It was hoisted on deck, opened, and among its contents were two boxes of wax vestas, each containing several hundred matches, which had caught fire by the shock of the portmanteau striking the lower deck. These had set fire to the linen, and it is highly probable that had the smoke not been noticed the ship would have been on fire in a few hours. Such gross infractions of the law require prompt punishment, but what power has the shipmaster to meet such cases? It is not uncommon in bad weather to catch some reckless or thoughtless individual smoking in his berth with his head wrapped in a blanket to avoid the observation of the steward on watch, if the supervision on board be sufficiently vigorous to enforce such a judicious precaution.
It is to be regretted that in all classes of merchant ships smoking below is an acknowledged custom. Jack lies on his dirty bed of straw with pipe in mouth, reading some old scrap of a newspaper, or the pages of a novel, and not unfrequently falls asleep with the burning embers beside him. The mystery is not why the Cospatrick was burned, but why such accidents are not constantly occurring from this and other causes. To mention one which happened not long since in a magnificent steamship. During a gale of wind a steward was unpacking a cask of wine, when a sudden send of the vessel unhooked the glass lantern from the beam overhead; it broke in the fall, set fire to the straw, and in a few minutes the smoke rolled in volumes from the hatchway. Fortunately, the fire hose was always ready near the spot, and in a short time the flames were got under. Immediately adjoining the store room, and sepa- page 370 rated by only a thin partition of wood, several hundred bales of cotton were stowed, and had the fire reached them the ship would have been in a blaze forward, and perhaps totally destroyed with all on board. Then conjecture would have been actively at work concerning her fate, just as it is at this day about the President, the Pacific, the City of Boston, whose mysterious disappearances remain amongst the secrets of the great deep.
The Board of Trade might do much by judicious management to alleviate or lessen the chances of fire and shipwreck, but it is a matter of doubt whether their present system is not productive of more annoyance to the shipowner than benefit or safety to the passengers and crew, except in regard to victuals, where it is rigorously carried out in the majority of inspections by emigration offices. In this particular branch the matter is simple enough; anyone can tell good meat from bad, old biscuit from new, and the passengers would soon find out if they were badly treated, and complain of it. It is right, no doubt, to look after such things, even though their inferiority would seldom endanger human life. More essential, however, than quality of food, and less easy to examine into, are the arrangements for the instantaneous extinguishing of a fire, the ordinary handiness of the boats' positions for lowering or hoisting out, and the position, construction, and adjustment of the standard compass. It will be best to take these subjects in their regular order of precedence.
Of all the perils of the sea, fire is decidedly the most to be feared. Men fight cheerfully to the last against wind and sea, but there is something in the cry of fire on shipboard which damps the energy of the bravest, because, in many instances, its origin or position are unknown. In the coal-laden ship it may have been silently increasing for days before the flames burst forth from the charred deck. As coals increase in price the danger from spontaneous combustion appears to increase in an equal ratio. The reason is evident. When they could be had for a few shillings per ton there was no object in weighing the scales down with iron pyrites, which, when damped, cither with sea or freshwater, and excluded from the atmosphere in the hold of a ship, are at all times liable to ignite, especially in the tropics. It has, however, been known to do this on the steamers plying between Liverpool and New York in mid-winter, after being a few days in the bunkers. With this fact before them, insurers are to be blamed for allowing shippers to insure above the market value.
On the cotton ship the stevedores men are proverbial for their recklessness in smoking amongst the bales. It is the general belief that the majority of accidents occur from this cause, not only in port, but at sea, as it is a well established fact that cotton will smoulder for days, if excluded from the air, before it bursts into a flame. Another source of danger is the presence of tar, oil, and cotton waste in the store-rooms. In emigrant ships these inflammable articles should be stowed in a deckhouse, as the records at Lloyd's distinctly prove that a large number of ships have been destroyed from this cause. It is the old story of a naked light, a sudden plunge of the ship, and the mischief is irretrievably done. In all ships, if possible, but especially in the emigrant, spirits, wines, and beer should be stowed aft, in order that they may not be broached by the crew, many of whom openly declare that stealing 'grog' is no sin. It would be well, by-the-bye, for the shipowner page 371 and the merchant if these formed the only objects of the seamen's larcenous attention; a glance at their books will prove that the annual amount of reclamations is enormous from this cause alone.
Where a large number of lives are at stake, more than ordinary precautions should be used, and all respectable shipowners will cheer-fully meet the views of the Board of Trade, if they be founded on a proper basis.
It may not be amiss to suggest a few additions to the present arrangements of emigrant ships. Under the deck, in each compartment, a pipe of a certain bore should run fore and aft. At intervals, couplings with a short hose screwed on should be placed so that in the event of a fire two streams of water could be brought to bear on any place where it might break out in the emigrants' quarters. Again, a small taut or scuttle butt, with a baler hanging over it, should be placed in each store-room and the forecastle. A fire is easily put out at first, but every fitting of a ship being more or less inflammable it soon gathers head.
Experience confirms what nantical men have so often asserted, that boats are a sorry resource in the hour of danger, and often lull people into a state of false security, owing to the undue value which is attached to their presence. In all sailing emigrant vessels at least one-half of the boats are stowed bottom up on skids, and in positions which require great care and skill to get them out free of damage (witness the case of the Cospatrick, where these were destroyed before an attempt could be made to extricate them). As a general rule, the oars, sails, and other essential fittings are stowed below, often in some unknown place. In the case of the Cospatrick a woman's petticoat formed the sail of one boat.
Such a state of things ought not, for one moment, to be tolerated. A penalty should be attached if any of the fittings of a boat were removed from her after the Government officers had inspected her. In a merchant ship there is so much to do, and so few to do it, that nothing should be left to chance. It may well be doubted whether boats afford the most efficient means for saving life when a large number of people, without discipline, suddenly meet with a great disaster which compels them to abandon the ship. In every instance we hear of the violent rush to the boats, of the strong trampling down the weak, of overcrowding, and finally upsetting. Some two years since the writer saw a man leap overboard from an emigrant ship which probably had twelve or thirteen hundred souls on board. The boats had been swung inboard for bad weather, and the crew immediately commenced to swing one out. Under ordinary circumstances this would have been done in a few minutes, but the yelling of the emigrants and their unskilful eagerness to aid the crew rendered all exertion useless for some time; not a command could be heard, and it was not until some of them had been violently thrust aside that order could be restored, and the boat lowered. Had that ship been in danger, a legion of boats would not have aided her. In addition to these perils is the serious one of previous damage by heavy weather. It is a well-known fact, as I have before stated, that on the Atlantic a winter never passes without accidents to the boats of steam-ships. The present winter has been prolific of them.
On the other hand, pontoon rafts are easily secured and disengaged, will support a much greater number of people than boats of corresponding dimensions, can generally be launched without damage, page 372 and are not easily upset under any circumstances. Anyone who is conversant with the dangers attendant on the abandoning of a ship at sea, will allow that the chances of safety are in any case small indeed, if immediate succour be not at hand; cold, hunger, thirst, and the gale, all conspire to reduce them to a minimum. But in the event of a collision—such as the Ville du Havre, for example—rafts would have saved numerous lives, whereas boats were from many causes useless. Other cases might be quoted, but none which is more vividly impressed on the mind of the public than the accident to this unfortunate ship.
Shipowners would gladly substitute a certain number of rafts in lieu of boats, as this would be more serviceable and economical than the present expensive system. By a few simple fittings a certain quantity of bread and water could always be in place, as it is in the quarter boats of all men-of-war. It is idle to expect more; the leaving of a ship at sea is not a picnic, but the result of grim necessity where one holds his life in his hand, often on conditions which some would think unendurable. In the recent case of the coal-ship Euxine the poor Italian sailor, after drawing the fatal lot, meekly and without a murmur bared his breast to the knives of his starving associates, who eagerly drank his blood and ate his quivering flesh. Most of us read such things with a shudder, and presently forget them; and what the old song says is still true—
Ye gentlemen of England,
That live at home at ease,
Ah! little do you think upon
The dangers of the seas!