Recreational Boating Safety – Last Voyage of the Titanic

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
On April 15, 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg 700 nautical miles off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and sank over a period of several hours. Over 1500 passengers and crew died, with some 710 survivors in Titanic’s lifeboats rescued by RMS Carpathia a short time later. There was initially some confusion in both the USA and the United Kingdom over the extent of the disaster, with some newspapers at first reporting that the ship and the passengers and crew were safe. By the time Carpathia reached New York, it had become clear that Titanic, reputed to be unsinkable, had sunk and many had died. Official inquiries were set up in both countries to investigate the circumstances of the disaster. The SS Californian had seen the Titanic distress signals, has attempted to contact Titanic by lamp signals, but did not turn on their radio to attempt to contact the ship. They sailed on and did not attempt to render aid.

The Station Galveston Flotilla of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary operates out of the USCG Station Galveston base on Galveston Island. They aid the Coast Guard by providing maritime observation patrols in Galveston Bay; by providing recreational boating vessel safety checks; and by working alongside Coast Guard members in maritime accident investigation, small boat training, providing a safety zone, Aids to Navigation verification, in the galley, on the Coast Guard Drone Team and watch standing.

United States Senate Investigation Committee Findings
Senator William Alden Smith recognized an opportunity to establish an inquiry to investigate marine safety issues when he heard of the sinking of Titanic. He proposed a Senate resolution on April 17, 1912, to give the Committee on Commerce powers to establish a hearing to investigate the sinking. It was this quick action that allowed the hearing committee to meet the survivors as they arrived in New York and to hear their testimony. A naval escort was provided to Carpathia to prevent survivors from leaving the ship before it docked. The committee heard testimony from over 80 survivors over a period of 18 days. The final report was presented to the United States Senate on May 28, 1912. It was 19 pages long and summarized 1,145 pages of testimony. Its key findings lead to many changes in safety practices. The key findings were:

  • A lack of emergency preparations had left Titanic’s passengers and crew in “a state of absolute unpreparedness”, and the evacuation had been chaotic: “No general alarm was given, no ship’s officers formally assembled, no orderly routine was attempted or organized system of safety begun.”
  • The ship’s safety and life-saving equipment had not been properly tested.
  • Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith had shown an “indifference to danger [that] was one of the direct and contributing causes of this unnecessary tragedy.”
  • The lack of lifeboats was the fault of the British Board of Trade, “to whose laxity of regulation and hasty inspection the world is largely indebted for this awful tragedy.”
  • The SS Californian had been “much nearer [to Titanic] than the captain is willing to admit” and the British Government should take “drastic action” against him for his actions.
  • J. Bruce Ismay (ship’s owner) had not ordered Captain Smith to put on extra speed, but Ismay’s presence on board may have contributed to the captain’s decision to do so.
  • Third-class passengers had not been prevented from reaching the lifeboats but had in many cases not realized until it was too late that the ship was sinking.

Committee Recommendations
Senator Smith made many recommendations for new regulations to be imposed on passenger vessels wishing to use American ports:

  • Ships should reduce speed on entering areas known to have drifting ice and should post extra lookouts.
  • Navigational messages should be brought promptly to the bridge and disseminated as required.
  • There should be enough lifeboats for all aboard.
  • All ships equipped with wireless radios should maintain communications at all times of the day and night.
  • New regulations were needed to govern the use of radiotelegraphy.
  • Adequate boat drills were to be carried about for passengers.
  • Rockets should only be fired by ships at sea as distress signals.

Lessons for Recreational Boaters
There are several takeaways from the Titanic disaster that we can apply to recreational boaters. The most important is that as the captain of your boat you are responsible for the safety of your passengers. Here are my key findings that may be applied for recreational boaters.

Emergency Preparations
As a boat operator, or captain as we in the Coast Guard call you, you must prepare for emergencies. Here are some requirements and recommendations for this element:

  • Obtain a free Coast Guard Vessel Safety Check to help ensure that your boat is safe to operate (recommendation)
  • Carry visual distress signals appropriate for your area of operation (requirement)
  • Attach the Emergency Kill Switch lanyard to yourself when underway (requirement)
  • Make sure all passengers under 13 wear their Coast Guard approved and properly fitted life jacket when underway (requirement)
  • Make sure all passengers have a life jacket readily available (requirement)
  • Have an emergency float cushion immediately available (requirement)
  • Have a method of making an emergency call for help such as a marine VHF/FM radio or smartphone with the Coast Guard app (recommendation)
  • Have another person aboard who is trained to operate the vessel and the radio
  • Keep a well-stocked first aid kit on board (recommendation)
  • Have the required number of Coast Guard approved fire extinguishers (requirement)
  • Check your safety equipment to make sure it is in good working condition

Safe Operation Requirements and Recommendations
The Coast Guard has several requirements and recommendations for the safe operation of your boat. Although it will be several months before we have accident statistics compiled for 2020, we have noticed an alarming increase in the number of collisions between recreational boats. The number of collisions based on past statistics has doubled over the previous year’s statistics. The accident investigations point toward lack of boater education and the proliferation of high-powered outboard engines used on recreational boats. Another cause of the increase in accidents is the number of people who have had the horsepower on their engines increased via a process that uses a computer to tweak the horsepower. Thus, a 450 hp engine might be tweaked to actually produce 500 hp or more, thus exceeding the plate capacity horsepower rating of the boat. Here are the requirements and recommendations.

  • Provide a proper lookout. A lookout is the only crewmember actually required by law. Titanic may have been saved if they had had proper lookouts.
  • Follow the Rules of the Road (required)
  • Take a Boater Safety course (required for everyone born after August 31, 1993, recommended for everyone else)
  • Slow down in areas with which you are not familiar, in close proximity to other vessels, and when coming into docks and marinas (requirement- you must operate your boat at a safe speed)
  • Follow the capacity plate for horsepower and number of persons (requirement). Many accidents are due to excessive speed and overloaded boats.
  • Do not mix alcohol and boat operation (requirement- Boating Under the Influence is just like Driving Under the Influence)

You can learn safe boating practices in many ways, including by looking at the cause of famous boating accidents. The most important thing you can do beside learning the lessons is to follow the recommendations for avoiding the same type of accident. By the way: RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship. I know you were about to Google it.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] SAFE BOATING!


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