Feature: The Rise Of Safety At Sea After The Sinking Of The Titanic

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A nautical compass, recently on display at the career showcase held to mark Maritime Week. (A. Miller/BGIS)

The Titanic was dubbed as the safest ship ever built and was said to be unsinkable when it set sail on April 10, 1912. It was considered to be so safe that it carried only 20 lifeboats, accommodation for only half of its 2, 228 passengers.

That was until the night of April 14, 1912, four days after setting off on its maiden voyage from Southhampton, England en route to New York when it struck an iceberg.

Two hours and 40 minutes later, the "great ship" sank to the bottom of the ocean, taking with it over 1, 500 passengers. There were only 705 survivors.

Now, 100 years later, the shipping industry has come a long way, making numerous strides in ship building, and in manufacturing safety equipment to ensure the safety of all those going to sea for leisure, recreation or work.

In fact, safety at sea is high on the list of priorities as Barbados joins the rest of the world in focusing its attention on the theme for World Maritime Week: 100 Years after the Titanic – Safety of Life at Sea. World Maritime Week culminates on September 28.

In the words of Shipping Superintendent, Walter Best: "Anyone going to sea now without the necessary safety equipment and provisions on board is doing so at their own peril. There is no need to go to sea now without the requisite equipment."

Mr. Best stated that the onus was on operators of vessels to ensure that they were well equipped, maintained and fit for the intended voyage, while patrons should ensure that they were given the necessary safety briefings, operating instructions and life-saving equipment before setting out.

However, aspects of the safety of people and vessels at sea are not simply left to those who use them on a daily basis.

Mr. Best explained that the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, four days after it set off on its maiden voyage, formed the genesis for the establishment of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which is a United Nations specialised agency with specific responsibility for all matters relating to shipping, except the commercial aspects.

"After the Titanic disaster in 1912, the tragedy was so horrific with the loss of 1, 502 lives that the United Kingdom government convened a meeting with other Western European states to see what measures could be taken to prevent such an accident from happening again," he pointed out.

This meeting resulted in the first SOLAS Convention (the Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea), which later formed the basis for all safety conventions, codes and protocols.

Barbados also became a member of the IMO in 1970, and was required to develop certain regulations to bring the country in line with international conventions. This led to the establishment of the Shipping Act (1994), the Shipping Regulations and the Shipping Water Sports Regulations Act (2004), and the Shipping Oil Pollution Act (Cap 296 B), in addition to the 36 international conventions which the country has signed onto.

"Coming out of this culture of safety developed across the globe over the years, Barbados has a responsibility to implement these international maritime law instruments in its maritime domain because it is not alone in the world.

"We have cruise ships and cargo ships that bring vital supplies to our shores and we have to create a safety environment within which they can operate," Mr. Best said.

He added that there was the safety aspect of coastal operations whereby many small vessels that carried passengers on a daily basis for cruises, charters, and tours, also had to do so within a safe environment.

"That, too, is an activity that has to be regulated in accordance with the Shipping Water Sports Regulations and other international instruments such as the Safety of Life At Sea Convention and the international Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions," he explained.

The official pointed out that such regulations prescribed standards which pertained to the avoidance of collisions; the launching of life rafts; the wearing of life jackets; for retrieving persons who fell overboard; for the proper functioning and maintenance of vessels; for the training, certification and competence of operators; for the use of flares; use of radio equipment which is critical; relay of distress calls, and search and rescue.

An important part of the process is monitoring, to ensure that the regulations are being followed by operators and users, and which is a function of the Maritime Administration of the Ministry of International Business and International Transport.

"We go in the field and check vessels, we inspect them for safety and compliance with the international provisions and the local rules and regulations," Mr. Best explained, adding this was done almost daily.

He said that there were Caribbean Memoranda of Understanding on Port State Control that covered about 16 countries, and required them to inspect 15 per cent of all ships calling at their ports for compliance with safety provisions under the conventions.

Noting that these inspections involved all ships, cruise ships included, that came into the Bridgetown Port, Mr. Best said they also had the authority to inspect smaller vessels in the Careenage and the Shallow Draft.

"Generally, when these vessels come to register or renew the registration, we have four ship inspectors that inspect them to ensure that they are sea worthy and are fit for the intended voyage or purpose," he noted, adding that Port State Control was the last line of defence for ensuring the safety of vessels.

In the event that vessels fail to comply with the necessary regulations, they may be called upon to fall in line before proceeding on their journey, depending on the nature of the infringement.

Assistant Shipping Superintendent at the Ministry, Jessica Taylor, explained if the infringement was something that could be rectified before the vessel left Barbados, its operators would be called upon to do so before it departed. "That is called detaining the vessel," she said.

Infringements that could see a vessel being detained include improper certification and not having the correct safety gear on board and functioning. Ms. Taylor explained that there were cases where certificates may not be valid, expired, or even fraudulent.

She added that there could also be cases where the qualifications of the vessel’s crew may not be valid, or sufficiently qualify them to do their job.

"That too is very serious. [In such cases] you would have to get into contact with the agent for the vessel and have those issues rectified as soon as possible," she said.

Ms. Taylor further pointed out that a vessel not having adequate fire extinguishers, which were serviced, an up-to-date, a functioning fire hose, and adequate live saving devices such as flares, could also be detained. "You don’t want that the vessel is out there sailing and the crew and everyone is not safe," she highlighted.

However, the reality of the situation is that not all safety infringements, especially those requiring extensive repairs, may be rectified in Barbados due to a lack of facilities such as ship yards.

In such cases, Ms. Taylor said the vessel would be allowed to go on to Trinidad or its next port of call where they would be required to have the problem fixed. "We would also advise the inspectors at the next port of call to follow-up to ensure that it, [the infringement] has been rectified. We would also inform the flag (the country the vessel is registered in) so that they may also follow-up and make sure everything has been fixed," she explained.

But, while acknowledging that there were infringements, the Assistant Shipping Superintendent made it clear that the situation was improving within recent times.

Overall, the shipping experts noted that a number of lessons were learnt since the Titanic disaster, and regulations were in place to ensure the safety of all those travelling by sea, and prevent another disaster from occurring.

julia.rawlins-bentham@barbados.gov.bb

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