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Safety at sea

April 14, 2012

Titanic is in the news at the moment with the 100 year anniversary coming up. There are so many aspects of the Titanic sinking that are significant. I was listening to a padcast by BBC Discovery this morning which focussed on the wireless communications. That has only just started being used on ships. Comms have certainly developed so much over the last 100 years. Now we have EPIRBs, satelite phones, VHF and many other forms of calling for help no matter where we are on the globe. So to think that morse code wireless transmissions were the height of modernity is quite a leap back in time.

What we also see is that when disaster strikes, then more advanced comms allows the world to see and it all seems more real. Ships have sunk ever since they were first afloat. When a call for help was not possible, then ships simply disappeared and “lost” really did mean lost. Thousands and thousands of mariners and passengers disappeared without trace and without those left behind knowing what happened.

Another aspect of Titanic that I find amazing, is that they thought the ship was unsinkable. What incredible overconfidence. I wonder if the engineers that built the ship also thought that, or was it just some hype created by the salespeople and marketers. Somehow, I suspect the engineers thought it as well. The ship was considered so modern and new: new methods of construction, faster, stronger. All the bells and whistles. As I’m an engineer, I don’t understand the overconfidence. Words like impossible, never and always are not in my volcabulary. Man versus nature usually results in nature winning in the end. Its not really a contest. When it comes to the sea, the forces of nature are so incredible that we are weak and live a fleeting existence in comparison. I’ve only been in more than 50kts of wind speed once when on the water, and I’m not in a rush to repeat the experience. So when we imagine what the builders of the Titanic thought, did they not appreciate the power of the sea? Was it bravado or were they just naive?

We have moved on so much in the last 100 years. Of course, international travel is mostly by plane these days, so the need of the ocean liner is reduced to pleasure cruises. Trade still moves by sea, and ships are still lost. The lives lost at sea are very much lower than a century ago despite the increase of miles travelled. Ships still come to grief though. We are still cleaning up after the Rena hit a reef near Tauranga. That caused the recent cancellation of the Auckland Tauranga yacht race, even though the ship was wrecked over 6 months ago. The tragic and baffling loss of the costa concordia reminds us that a ship is still vunerable not matter what navigation tools, training and ship design we have.

These recent tragedies seem so dramatic as they happen so rarely now. I cannot remember another large ship wreck in New Zealand since I arrived here 11 years ago. We hear all too often of a ship in trouble in the densely populated parts of Asia, where either the larger proportion of travellers on the water or the lack of safety standards result in more incidents. However, in the “developed” world ship wrecks are few and far between. Hopefully they continue to become rarer still and tragedies like the Titanic will be consigned to history.

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From → The Sea

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