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Titanic and the International Ice Patrol

1912 – Present

From the earliest journeys into the North Atlantic, icebergs have threatened vessels. A review of the history of navigation prior to the turn of the century shows an impressive number of casualties occurred in the vicinity of the Grand Banks. Between 1882 and 1890, 14 vessels, not including whaling and fishing vessels, were lost and 40 seriously damaged due to ice.

At 0930 10 April 1912, passengers began to board the White Star liner RMS Titanic at Southampton, England. Titanic was the largest passenger liner of its time displacing 66,000 tons and capable of sustained speed in excess of 22 knots. The vessel had been built with the latest safety design, featuring compartmentation and such innovations as automatically closing water-tight doors. These features had given it the reputation of being unsinkable. When a tremulous female passenger asked a dockhand if that was true, the dockhand is reported to have said, “God Himself could not sink this ship.” At noon, the ship, commanded by Captain Alfred E. Smith, set sail on its maiden voyage, bound for New York. She carried 2,228 passengers and crew. If fully booked, she would have carried about 3,327. At 2339 14 April, after receiving numerous reports of ice along its intended route, Titanic was steaming at 20.5 knots in the fog off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Suddenly, lookouts reported an iceberg dead ahead about 500 yards away towering some 55-60 feet above the water. Thirty-seven seconds later the ship collided with the iceberg on its starboard side. The impact, although jarring to the crew down in the forward area, was not noticed by many of the passengers. At midnight, Smith was notified by his damage control personnel that the ship would only stay afloat for a couple of hours. Smith ordered all passengers to abandon ship, but there are only enough lifeboats for about 1,700 people. Smith ordered his radio operators to broadcast a distress signal, but, operating under the regulations of the day, many other vessels had secured their wireless operations earlier in the evening. Smith ordered rockets launched to attract attention. Several ships in the vicinity saw the rockets, but mistook them for a fireworks display to entertain the passengers. Lifeboats, designed to carry 65 people, were launched carrying 30 or less because the crew did not believe they could carry their full capacity safely. By 0220 15 April, Titanic had sunk taking 1,523 souls with her. Only 705 survived. The US Navy immediately assigned the Scout Cruisers Chester and Birmingham to patrol the Grand Banks and report iceberg positions for the remainder of 1912. In 1913, the Navy could not spare ships for this purpose, so the Revenue Cutter Service assumed responsibility, assigning the Cutters Seneca and Miami to conduct the patrol.

The sheer dimensions of the Titanic disaster galvanized public reaction on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result, sweeping changes were made in laws regulating sea travel. The first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, held in November 1913 and ratified by the 13 major maritime countries, mandated 24-hour wireless guards, specific colors for emergency rockets, improved crew training, abandon ship drills, and sufficient lifeboat space for every person aboard the ship. It also provided for the inauguration of an international derelict-destruction, ice observation, and ice patrol service, consisting of vessels, which would patrol the ice regions during the season of iceberg danger and attempt to keep the trans-Atlantic lanes clear of derelicts during the remainder of the year. The major maritime nations agreed to fund the organization and, because of the experience gained in 1912 and 1913, the U.S. agreed to organize and staff it. On 7 February 1914, the RCS was officially tasked by President Wilson to staff the International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service. The second International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea was convened in London on 16 April 1929. As a result of this convention, Congress enacted legislation on 25 June 1936, formally requiring the Commandant of the Coast Guard to administer the International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service (Chap. 807, para. 2 49 USC 1922) and describing in general fashion the manner in which this service was to be performed.

From its inception until the beginning of World War II, the Ice Patrol was conducted from two surface patrol cutters alternating surveillance patrols of the southern ice limits. In 1931 and thereafter a third ship was assigned to Ice Patrol to perform oceanographic observations in the vicinity of the Grand Banks.

After World War II, aerial surveillance became the primary ice reconnaissance method with surface patrols phased out except during unusually heavy ice years or extended periods of reduced visibility. The aircraft have distinct advantages for ice reconnaissance providing much greater coverage in a relatively short period of time. From 1946 until 1966, the Ice Patrol offices, operations center and reconnaissance aircraft were based at the Coast Guard Air Detachment Argentia, Newfoundland during the ice season. Due to changing operational commitments and financial constraints the Coast Guard Argentia Air Detachment closed in 1966. Ice Patrol headquarters and operations center moved to Governors Island, New York where they remained until October 1983. Today the International Ice Patrol is located at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in Groton, Connecticut. The ice reconnaissance detachment continued to work out of Argentia until 1971 when it moved to Canadian Forces Base at Summerside, Prince Edward Island. In 1973, this detachment, usually comprised of 11 aircrew and 4 ice observers flying in a HC-130 aircraft, moved to St. John’s Newfoundland to be closer to the patrol area. The detachment relocated to Gander, Newfoundland in 1982, but in 1989, the detachment moved back to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Satellites are playing in increasingly larger role in detection.

Since the start of IIP operations, no ship has been lost or damaged by ice outside of the broadcast limits of all known ice. The IIP broadcast for 15 April always ends with the salute, “RMS Titanic, 15 April 1912, 41º 46′ N, 50º 14′ W, Rest in Peace.”