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The Titanic Disaster, Steamship Lanes, and the Establishment of the Ice Patrol: The 1912 Report of the Hydrographer, U.S. Navy

Source: Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1912. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913): 193-197.[Only the portions of the hydrographic report relating to Titanic are provided below.]


Washington, D.C., September 11, 1912

From: Hydrographer.
To: Bureau of Navigation.
Subject: Annual Report.

1. I respectfully submit the following report of the Hydrographer for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1912. Toward the end of the report statistics showing a summary of the work of the divisions are given.

2. The work of the Hydrographic Office has increased enormously during the past 10 years, and even during the past year. In fact, it is increasing all the time, and the present force of employees is working at a very high pressure all the time.

3. During the year the office has collected a great deal of valuable information from various sources. Much of this has been published in Notices to Mariners, Bulletins, Daily Memoranda, and Pilot Charts. These publications are furnished to volunteer observers throughout the world in return for the information which they furnish to the office. Much of the information received is, of course, not published; and the editing of this received information constitutes one of the most important duties in the office. It is essential that the voluntary collection of information should be continued and that the number of observers should be increased.

4. Much of the information contained in the Notices to Mariners, Bulletins, and Daily Memoranda has been so important to the Navy and the maritime interests of the country that it has been sent broadcast by radio, so that all vessels within reach by radio should get it at once. This is particularly true of ice reports, and in connection with this most important duty of the office it is appropriate to refer to the


5. On Sunday, the 14th of April, about 10 p.m., the White Star steamer Titanic struck an iceberg in latitude 41 46' north, longitude 50 14' west, and sank in about three hours. The loss of life resulting from this accident was frightful, 1,517 people having perished as a direct result. The accident startled the world and set people, particularly seamen, to thinking very deeply. It had been supposed by very many, perhaps the majority of people, that the Titanic and other great steamships were not sinkable. The fact that she did sink from collision with an iceberg, and in a comparatively short time, aroused the world to the realization of the fact that the unsinkable ship has not yet arrived, and the best safeguard against accidents at sea is now, as it always has been and always will be, constant and unremitting vigilance and heeding warnings of dangers. It is a lamentable fact and a remarkable coincidence that the sinking of the Titanic was caused by an iceberg the report of which she had transmitted by radio.

6. Naturally, when news of the sinking was received at the Hydrographic Office, those in charge looked over the records to make doubly sure that all news that the office had received of ice had been given to the steamship lines. Such was found to be the fact. On the Pilot Chart of April, 1912, Hydrographic Bulletin of April 10, and the Daily Memoranda of April 10, 11, 12, and 13, were given numerous warnings that ice had been seen in the vicinity of the steamship lanes and naturally might be expected to cross those lanes. The information in these Daily Memoranda is furnished by the branch hydrographic offices in the different cities to the maritime interests, and those in New York had the information.

7. On April 12 the Daily Memorandum contained information that numerous icebergs and extensive field ice was sighted in latitude 41 58' north and longitude 50 20' west, on April 11. Certainly some of those bergs might be expected to be in that vicinity three days later. But on April 14 the Hydrographic Office received a telegram transmitted by radio from the Amerika, of the Hamburg-American Line, through the Titanic, stating that two large bergs were in latitude 41 27' north and longitude 50 08' west. In spite of these warnings the Titanic sped on at 22 knots at night and met her doom in latitude 41 46' north and longitude 50 14' west. Had she but heeded the one warning that she transmitted she would probably have saved herself.

8. It is most difficult to see ice at night, but most people do not realize this, and the officers of the Titanic probably considered that they would be able to see a berg far enough away to avoid it. The Hydrographic Office has published a pamphlet giving some means of determining the proximity of ice. It has also published on the back of its Pilot Charts from time to time information concerning the ice and ice movements. This information is always available to mariners and others interested at the main office and at the branch offices.

9. It is earnestly hoped that the steamship companies can be persuaded to adopt a system of forwarding by radio to their vessels on the ocean important information concerning ice and other dangers to navigation. On January 16, 1912, the office sent a circular letter to shipmasters requesting them to make use of the United States naval radio stations or the purpose of reporting to the Hydrographic Office ice or other dangers to navigation. Much of the information the office receives comes by reason of this circular, and it is hoped to extend greatly the service.

10. The office has made some correspondence concerning the advisability of cabling Europe important information concerning dangers to navigation, making the Hydrographic Office a sort of clearing house for sending these cables. If such an agreement can be made, it would be of great benefit to steamers sailing from Europe. Some negotiations looking to this have been conducted by Lieut. John Grady, United States Navy, in charge of the branch office at New York. The Deutshe Seewarte and the British hydrographer think it an excellent idea and believe that it should be established by proper international authority. That is not necessary at all if the owners of the steamship lines and the underwriters are willing to agree to the scheme.


11. Trans-Atlantic steamships, by mutual consent given in a written agreement, follow a definite set of tracks in passing to and fro from northern Europe to the United States. The agreement came about through long experience and the occurrence of many disasters that might have been avoided. The suggestion of these lanes came originally from Lieut. M.F. Maury, United States Navy, the officer who has contributed so much to the world's knowledge and to the safety of navigation. Up to 1891 there was no formal agreement to follow the lanes. In that year five companies--the Cunard, Guion, Inman, National, and White Star companies--agreed to follow definite lanes such as had been advocated by Lieut. Maury and published subsequently on the monthly Pilot Chart.

12. With slight modifications those lanes were accepted formally by all the steamship companies concerned in November, 1898, the chief modification being that the change from a northerly to a more southerly set of tracks is made in January, and that the change from the southerly back to the northerly track is made in August. This shifting of the lanes is for the purpose of avoiding the region of greatest danger from ice and fog during the spring and early summer.

13. The chief incentive in devising the steamer lanes was not speed, but safety to life and property, and these lanes are by no means the shortest possible tracks. These latter would lie far to the north, in sight of the Newfoundland coast, but would pass through the entire region of icebergs and fog. In order to prevent collision with each other, the east and west bound steamers keep about 50 miles apart on that part of the lanes where danger from ice and fog is greatest. The adoption of the steamer lanes has the advantage that fishermen, tramp steamers, and any other craft likely to frequent these regions know definitely along what tracks the regular liners are passing.

14. The lanes adopted by the steamship companies in November, 1898, are shown in the accompanying table [not located].

15. Ordinarily the southern track from January 15 to August 23, both inclusive, is comparatively free from ice trouble; but once in every few years the ice comes down from the north in much greater quantities and is a serious danger to navigation. The year 1912 was one of the abnormal years, the ice coming south in great quantities and in very large bergs. The collision of the Titanic occurred at a point directly on the southerly westbound track.

16. As there was much ice near this point, it was imperative that steamers adopt as quickly as possible more southerly tracks. As soon as the accident occurred the Hydrographic Office took up with the bureau the question of recommending to the steamer lines a shift to the southward. Before the department reached a decision in the matter the lines acted and shifted the tracks to the southward as follows: Eastbound, to cross longitude 47 in latitude 40 10', beginning April 16; and westbound, to cross longitude 47 in latitude 41 N., beginning April 25.

17. On April 18 the Hydrographic Office recommended a further shift southward because of the practical certainty from past experience that the ice would come below 40. On April 19 the lines adopted this recommendation, with some modification: Eastbound, Ambrose lightship to latitude 40 N., longitude 70 W.; then to latitude 38 20' N., longitude 50 W.; then to latitude 38 20' N., longitude 45 W.; then Great Circle to Bishops Rock or Fastnet. Westbound, Great Circle to latitude 39 N., longitude 45 W.; then to latitude 39 N., longitude 50 W.; then to Nantucket Shoals lightship; then to Ambrose lightship.

18. On May 9 the steamship Amerika passed a berg in latitude 39 N., longitude 47 W. This came to the Hydrographic Office by radio and was sent broadcast. In consequence, on May 11 the steamship lines shifted the tracks as follows: Eastbound, Ambrose lightship to latitude 37 40' N., longitude 50 W.; then to longitude 45 W. on parallel 3740' N.; thence Great Circle to Bishops Rock. Westbound, Great Circle to latitude 38 N., longitude 45 W.; thence to longitude 50 W. on parallel 38 N., and thence to Nantucket and Ambrose lightships. These tracks were used throughout the months of May and June; but the companies were anxious to shift back to the normal tracks as quickly as possible, and some of them requested the opinion of the Hydrographic Office as to the advisability of doing so. This office did not consider it safe to return to the normal tracks because of ice reports just to the northward of the tracks and the great probability that some of it would reach the vicinity of those tracks. On June 24, however, the office notified the companies that it was safe to return to the normal tracks adopted on April 19, viz: Latitude 38 20' eastbound, and latitude 39 westbound between the meridians of 45 and 50, provided all companies would require their captains to double the lookouts while near the ice region and slow down or stop during thick or foggy weather, and slow to half speed at night.

19. On June 28, after consideration of the latest reports and conditions, this office notified the companies that it was safe to return to the tracks adopted on the 16th of April, viz: Cross longitude 47 W. in latitude 40 10' N. eastbound, and latitude 41 westbound; with the same provisos as those of June 24. This was as far as the office considered it safe to go.

20. The companies did not see fit to adopt these recommendations, because they were anxious to resume the normal tracks; and, on July 8, they did return to those tracks, viz: Cross longitude 47 W. in latitude 41 N., eastbound, and in latitude 42 N., westbound. The office felt at the time that this was dangerous, because, while no ice had been reported on these tracks for many days, a great deal had been reported from one to two hundred miles to the northward, and we felt sure some of it would come south before disintegrating.

21. This attitude of the office has been amply justified by recent developments previous to the date of this report, which required the lines to return to more southerly tracks, viz, eastbound, to cross longitude 47 W. in latitude 40 N.; and westbound, to cross longitude 47 W. in latitude 40 30' N. These tracks, adopted July 20, are being used at the date of this report, and there is apparently no present intention of returning to the normal tracks for this season of the year.


22. On May 15, the Hydrographic Office recommended to the department that, in order to assist in safeguarding life and property, one or more suitable vessels be detailed to establish an ice patrol in the vicinity of the steamer lanes, and keep in touch with the ice as much as possible. Later the [Scout Cruiser No. 2, USS] Birmingham and [Scout Cruiser No.1, USS] Chester were detailed to make the patrol, one vessel being on her station while the other was in port. The Birmingham sailed from Philadelphia on May 19, reaching her station five days later. She was relieved by the Chester on June 7, and she in turn by the Birmingham on June 19. The Birmingham finished the patrol and left her station on July 6 for Philadelphia, by orders of the department.

23. The ships on the ice patrol kept steamers constantly informed by radio of the ice conditions near the lanes, and thereby rendered most valuable services to shipping. The ships also obtained valuable information with regard to the visibility, drift, and behavior of ice. Temperatures of the air and water were taken when in the vicinity of ice, and other observations made, all of which are valuable. The results of these observations will be published as soon as possible.

24. During the cruises of the Birmingham and Chester, representatives of the Bureau of Standards were on board and cooperated with our officers in obtaining valuable data.

25. The observations taken by the ice-patrol ships were not as complete as we hoped to be able to get, principally because of the fog. The ships were in fog the greater part of the time, and more than once after they had got in touch with the ice, they lost it because of the fog, and were thus prevented from obtaining absolute data as to its drift and behavior. Nevertheless, the data obtained are very good and will form a valuable addition to the publications of the Hydrographic Office.

26. One of the interesting conclusions reached by the commanding officer of the Birmingham was that shellfire has but little effect on icebergs. In one case he fired a 5-inch shell at a berg, and saw the hole made in the berg; but the destructive effect of the shell was negligible. Another conclusion was that the temperature of the water and air was of little value in determining the proximity of ice.

27. The ice patrol of 1912 was a most valuable aid by the Navy Department to the safety of navigation, and the appreciation of the maritime world has been suitably expressed in a letter from the maritime exchange of New York. I recommend a continuance of the patrol each year during the ice season, and respectfully suggest that it will afford good opportunities for the employment of cruisers in reserve, one at a time.

[The rest of this report does not mention any information related to the loss of Titanic.]

Note: The unpublished records of the U.S. Navy's Hydrographic Office from the era of the Titanic sinking are located in Record Group (RG) 37 at:
Textual Reference Branch
National Archives and Records Administration
Washington DC 20408
tel. (202) 501-5385
5 January 2000