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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Men, Wind and Sea

Riley Brown

published by
Carlyle House, New York 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Coast Guard Academy.

 p193  Chapter Nine

Guardians of the Sea Lanes

The Coast Guard gambles.

One arm of the Coast Guard, six months of every year, gambles with the sea — with the odds tremendously against it. The International Ice Patrol performs the most hazardous of all feats at sea — its job is to ride herd on ice bergs, the most dangerous and treacherous travellers in the sea lanes. Ships flee from ice bergs; the International Ice Patrol seeks them.

Time and the growing demands of a growing nation have added many duties to the enforcement of revenue laws and coöperation with the Navy in time of war, until today the Coast Guard is the country's chief enforcement agency for all maritime laws. The Coast Guard is charged, under Law Enforcement, with: (a) enforcement of the Custom Laws, prevention of smuggling, prevention of evasion of revenues; (b) navigation, and other laws governing merchant vessels and motor boats; (c) harbor rules and regulations governing anchorage of vessels; (d) laws relative to oil pollution; (e) laws relating to immigration,  p194 quarantine and neutrality; (f) protection of game and the seal and otter hunting grounds in Alaska; (g) regulations for protection of the salmon and other fisheries in Alaska; (h) International Conventions relative to fisheries on the high seas; (i) sponge fishing laws; (j) protection of bird reservations established by Executive order; (l) miscellaneous laws for other branches of the government and (m) suppression of mutinies on merchant vessels at sea.

Life Saving and Assistance became a duty of the Coast Guard in 1831 when the Secretary of the Treasury observed in a written report, ". . . it is thought proper to combine with the ordinary duties of the cutters that of assisting vessels in distress at sea, and of the administering to the wants of their crews." Since that time, this duty has grown to be the most dramatic function of the service, and daily, in the nation's newspapers, may be found accounts of the Coast Guard's efficiency in life saving; daily, literally hundreds of persons are rendered assistance, ranging from the transportation of cattle from flooded lowlands, to the removal of a critically ill seaman from a freighter at sea.

Along the coast lines of the United States are Coast Guard surf stations, manned and ready for any emergency that might occur on the sea. Watches are maintained day and night and alert eyes scour the sea for any sign of distress. A canoe may be overturned,  p195 with the occupants waving frantically from the water. A life boat goes out immediately; the victims are picked up and more lives are added to the growing roster of those saved by the Coast Guard. Or, perhaps, the emergency may come in the form of a winding thread of smoke, a sudden gush of black against the blue of the sky. Flames in the night. People jumping from the deck of a burning liner, without a thought except to escape the consuming tongue of Hell. Explosions . . . screams. Burning oil on the sea. And through it all, Coast Guard life boats plow, picking up and landing survivors, and going back time and time again, searching until there are no more cries for help, only the sodden slap of the waves against the sides of the surfboats.​a

All this comes under the insurance that the Coast Guard gives to the people who travel the sea. Cutter and patrol boats are stationed at strategic points along the coasts, with radio receivers manned by specially trained men, waiting for the call that may be a simple request for weather reports, or a frantic call for help. Cutters are equipped for towing so that in case a ship becomes disabled, it may be towed in to the mainland within reach of commercial tugs.

[image ALT: A very low-slung long thin motor boat, with two squat smokestacks about 5 meters tall, and two slender masts about 10 meters tall, one fore, one aft. The boat flies the American flag; it is a United States Coast Guard patrol boat.]

One of the greatest humanitarian duties assigned to the Coast Guard is the International Ice Patrol, which came under the jurisdiction of the service in 1913, just a year after the Titanic disaster. Since that time, with the exception of the war years — 1917‑ p196 1918 — the Coast Guard has maintained an annual patrol over 40,000 square miles of sea, an expanse equal to the area of the State of Pennsylvania.

On the night of April 14, 1912, the palatial British liner, Titanic — on her maiden voyage from England to the United States, with a passenger list of 2,223 men, women and children — was just south of the Tail of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, speeding toward New York at more than twenty knots. The night was perfect, with visibility through the crisp, clear air practically unlimited.

The great engines were throbbing, singing praises to man's conquest of the sea. For here was a ship that could not sink. With her steel hull and her watertight compartments, the ingenuity of man had at last produced a craft that would withstand the beat of the elements at their worst, insuring safety to the thousands of persons who would take passage for the quick, racing trips across the Atlantic.

But Fate was shadowing that lean greyhound of the seas that night. For even as the gay passengers laughed and talked and danced, a low‑lying ice berg, just visible over the top of the water, came drifting out of the north to lie in wait for the dashing Titanic.

The liner Carpathia, some fifty or sixty miles away, had been in radio communication with the Titanic and the grim words had gone forth: ice bergs in your immediate vicinity. But the speed of the Titanic was not diminished. There was the speed  p197 record to think of, a record which would entice many more passengers to span the Atlantic aboard the great Titanic.

Then, suddenly, as the dance bands played and merriment and good fellow­ship reigned, the ice berg hove up abruptly in the path of the speeding liner.

Immediately, the cry came from the lookouts: "Ice berg dead ahead!"

Orders were snapped on the bridge. Even then no particular anxiety was felt by the officers, as the ice berg had been sighted in plenty of time. The wheel went over, full astern was signalled down to the engine room, and the Titanic gracefully answered these commands.

The officers looked at each other and smiled. How well the great ship answered her helm! As light as a feather to the touch, she was!

Then — disaster!

The hull of the Titanic crashed upon the portion of the ice berg hidden beneath the surface of the water, a portion five times as large as that which was above water. The steel crumpled like paper from the force of the collision, opening great wounds through which the sea poured in torrents. In that moment, the great Titanic's engines stopped throbbing; she became a sluggish, ungraceful thing, broken by her joust with the sea.

Mere words can never describe the horror of that  p198 night. Great deeds were done, deeds of unstinting sacrifice and heroism. Men stood back and watched their wives and children climb into life boats, knowing full well that there would not be enough boats left to carry them away from the doomed liner.

The Carpathia heard the Titanic's distress call and immediately started full speed for the distress position. The word went around on the Titanic: "There's another boat coming. They'll be here in a short while, and we'll all be saved!"

Her life boats, seventeen in number, had cleared the side of the sinking ship, carrying mostly women and children. But hundreds remained aboard, grouped about on the decks, while the bands played on and on to keep cheer and hope alive. And while anxious eyes trained toward the horizon for the first sight of the rescue boat, prayers were offered up.

Within an hour after the collision the Titanic was well down by the bow, and as the water ripped through the watertight compartments with gurgling sounds, explosions rocked the ship. The officers realized now that she would never stay afloat until the Carpathia arrived.

Already, the decks were slanting and water sloshed not far below the rails. A grim resignation settled over the people on the Titanic's decks. Husbands and wives stood holding hands, looking at each other, thinking of the past, wondering as to the future, in the so little time left to them.

 p199  Then, three hours and forty-five minutes after the collision, the Titanic reared up, and with a series of explosions slid beneath the water. Fifteen hundred and seventeen people perished in this disaster, one of the greatest in all maritime history.

The world was horrified. The maritime nations arose as one and demanded protection for their ships and the passengers who travelled in them. Wild schemes for the destruction of the ice bergs were solemnly discussed, schemes which eventually fell through for their lack of feasibility.

The United States Government saw one way of combating the ice monsters, however, and within a month after the sinking of the Titanic two cruisers — the Chester and the Birmingham — were assigned to the ice‑infested area. These vessels remained on patrol duty throughout the ice season, until the bergs were no longer drifting down into the steamship lanes.

The next year, in 1913, the United States Coast Guard took over this duty, and it is a matter of national pride that since that time, not a single life has been lost as the result of a ship colliding with an ice berg.

The International Ice Patrol is the direct outcome of the International Conference for the Safety of Life at Sea, which was held in London in the fall of 1913, and which resulted in a Treaty being drawn up among the thirteen maritime nations vitally interested in trans-Atlantic shipping. This Treaty was signed  p200 in January, 1914, and provided for an International derelict destruction, ice patrol service and observation, with the United States being invited to assume the management and operation of the service. The expenses of the Ice Patrol were to be defrayed by the several governments involved, in a proportion determined solely by their ocean tonnage. The United States at this time contributes about 18 per cent of the expenses of the Ice Patrol.

The Ice Patrol cutters depart for the ice fields just before the berg season starts, which is usually during the month of March, and maintain a continuous patrol until the latter part of June, or early in July, when a final survey of the ice area is made to make sure that no more bergs will reach the steamship lanes. These cutters, of the large, long-range cruising class, alternate in patrolling, each taking a fifteenday tour of duty. Upon being relieved by the other, the cutter proceeds to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Patrol's base, for fuel and supplies.

Since the ice area is manifestly too large for the cutter on duty to cover it within a useful time, it has been arranged with all vessels passing through the area to send in radio reports to the cutter every four hours, giving the location of any ice berg sighted, its size, drift and the temperature of the water at the surface in the vicinity. All this information is used by the ice observer officer in making up current and drift charts, which tell at a glance the location for  p201 every minute of the day and night of any ice berg in the patrol area, together with its direction of movement and drift.

[image ALT: A photograph of a small-to-medium-sized boat, with one funnel and one mast, on the open sea, passing very close to a small iceberg, only slightly taller and slightly longer than it; a very low ice floe, much smaller, is on the other side of the iceberg by another 15 meters or so. It is the United States Coast Guard cutter Tahoe.]

Gathered from the four corners of the ice area, this information is broadcast to shipping four times a day, and is available between broadcasts to any ship requesting it. The same information is transmitted to the Hydrographic Office of the Navy Department, in Washington, D. C., for dissemination in the daily bulletins issued by that office.

The radio room aboard an ice patrol cutter becomes, therefore, a general clearing house through which all information relative to ice conditions passes. Six radio operators, especially selected for ice patrol duty, alternate in fourhour watches during the day and night, handling an average of 90,000 words, transmitted and received during the fifteenday patrol. It is a nerve-wracking job, for one mistake in the transmission or reception of ice reports may send some great passenger liner, carrying thousands of persons, crashing against the side of an ice berg.

In order that all data relating to ice conditions may be properly assembled and prepared for release on the daily broadcasts, an officer having special aptitude for this duty, and who has made an extensive study at one of the nation's landing universities on the subject of Oceanography, the ice bergs, their properties, formation, drift and disintegration, is detailed by the Coast Guard Headquarters as the ice observation officer.  p202 This officer goes out on the first patrol, and thereafter transfers to the relieving cutter, taking with him all data and accumulated reports, so that he has a continuous personal knowledge of all phases of the Ice Patrol, ready and at hand at any time during the entire ice season.

Nearly all the ice bergs which appear near the trans-Atlantic steamship lanes south of the Tail of the Grand Banks come from the west coast of Greenland, between Disco Bay and Melville Bay, breaking away in the summer and autumn to travel 1,800 miles to the latitude of the Banks by the following spring.

With the exception of its southern area, Greenland is covered with an enormous sheet of ice, some five to seven thousand feet thick; its valleys are filled with glaciers which move slowly westward to the sea.

During the summer months some of these glaciers move forward at the rate of sixty to seventy feet a day, and as they slide out into the sea, the weight becomes too great for them to remain intact with the rest of the glacial mass, and they break off with resounding crashes, throwing spray and ice skyward in a series of explosions.

Thus ice bergs are born. Of the thousands of bergs to start on the long journey southward, only a small proportion finally drifts into the Atlantic to become the plague of shipping on the northern steamship lanes.

Some seasons the ice bergs reach the shipping lanes  p203 in greater numbers. In 1922, approximately 1,200 bergs drifted south into the patrolled area, while in 1924, only eleven appeared. This great disparity may be traced directly to weather conditions in Iceland; and yearly, the experts on the Coast Guard cutters are able to predict to an astonishing degree of accuracy the number of bergs which will drift down into the lanes. If the winter and spring in Greenland have been unusually severe, with cold weather lasting far up into the summer, the flow of ice down through the valleys to the sea is slowed up, thus resulting in a decrease in the number of bergs broken off in the water.

During a normal season, however, from 300 to 350 ice bergs come south from their place of birth, but of this number, only 40 or 50 manage to survive the long trek down as far as the Tail of the Grand Banks. In fact, only one berg in every four years gets as far south as the fortieth parallel of latitude. Several instances have been recorded where Arctic ice has been sighted as far south as the Azores and Bermuda, but such cases are very rare indeed.

[image ALT: A photograph of a small iceberg, taken from the deck of the United States Coast Guard cutter Tahoe, of which we see a bit of rail, a life-preserver marked 'Tahoe — US COAST GUARD', a bitt with a hawser running either from it or past it, and a curved pole with a steel cable stretching from it down to the deck.]

After the middle of June there is a steady decrease in the number of bergs in the ice area, and from the middle of July until the following March, the ocean is practically devoid of ice. After a survey around the coast of Greenland to determine if any more bergs are likely to break away in sufficient size to survive the trip down into the lanes, the Ice Patrol  p204 is officially over, and the cutters get underway for their home ports.

Through years of experience in the ice fields, with all relative data carefully compiled and studied, Coast Guard Ice Patrol officers have determined that, while ice bergs are naturally affected by the shifting winds across Baffin Bay, it is the various ocean currents which govern to a marked degree the direction of drift south from Greenland.

The main current which brings these huge masses of glacial ice down upon the Banks is known as the Labrador current, coming south from the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean and flowing through Baffin Bay and Davis Straits to the west of Greenland, whence it follows the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. In the vicinity of the Banks this current branches, the main portion curving to the eastward and following the eastern edge of the Grand Banks. At the southeastern corner another division occurs, with the minor portion curving toward the west and the main body continuing south until it is re‑curved upon coming in conflict with that great ocean current known as the Gulf Stream.

As the general drift and the rate of speed of these ocean currents control the movements of the ice bergs, current charts are constantly being compiled by the ice observer on the patrolling cutter, both from the data recorded on board and from information received from other ships passing through the  p205 ice area and regularly reported by radio every four hours. From this assembled information, it is possible to estimate the daily flow of the ice wall along the eastern branch of the Labrador Current, and in this manner to determine the approximate drift of the bergs.

For the past several years, the Coast Guard has detailed another cutter, in addition to the two assigned to the Ice Patrol, to make a special ice observation cruise along the west coast of Greenland, and many bergs have been sighted, both at and near their place of origin. These bergs were from 250 to 500 feet high, with possibly 2,000 or more feet under the water. The largest ice berg sighted by these expeditions was nearly 1,700 feet long, but only 60 feet high, and was estimated to contain nearly 40,000,000 tons of glacial ice.

In ice bergs, Nature sometimes turns loose a frenzy of architectural ingenuity, and with the force of the wind, the beat of the sea and the heat of the sun, accomplishes some weird and beautiful sights. One Ice Patrol cutter came upon an ice berg moving serenely along on the broad Atlantic that looked for the world like the British Lion. In the bright sunlight, these bergs make an inspiring sight, with their glazed whiteness catching and reflecting the sun's rays like a huge jewel. However, all bergs are not completely white. Some of them are streaked with tints of the most delicate blue, which is caused by the strains of purest  p206 glacial ice. Other bergs appear to be gowned in capes of studded diamonds, as the melt ice falls down through the sunlight to the sea.

A common type of ice berg sighted in patrolled area is the "Drydock," which gains its name from its marked resemblance to a floating drydock and has two sides rising high in the air, each side usually joined with the other beneath the water. Another type of ice berg is known as the "Growler" — a remnant, or a broken fragment of a berg.

From the crow's nest of a ship, on the rare days in the North Atlantic when visibility is good, an ice berg may be seen at a distance of 10 to 15 miles, and in exceptional cases, as far as 22 miles. The watch on the bridge of the ship should, under the same conditions, pick up the berg when it is eight miles off. On moonlight nights, with the weather clear, ice bergs may be seen at a distance of eight to ten miles, and are plainly discernible to the naked eye as glistening, luminous objects, exquisitely beautiful under the soft rays of the moon. But the type that sank the Titanic, a thin shaft of whiteness lying low in the water, is hard to see at distances of more than a mile, and is particularly dangerous to approach because of its knife-like edges which extend out beneath the water over a considerable area.

In foggy weather — prevalent along the Banks most of the time — a berg can be seen for only a short distance;  p207 it appears as a blurred shadow, a counterpart of the swirling, grey mists.

Contrary to popular belief, the Coast Guard does not undertake to destroy the ice bergs in the steamship lanes. During the first few years after the Titanic disaster, the Coast Guard was swamped with suggestions from well-meaning, but ill‑informed people as to how the ice monsters might be destroyed. These suggestions ranged from the ridiculous to the pseudo-scientific. Numerous experiments have been made with dynamite, with little success. Termite has been used with moderate success, but the cost of such blasting, as compared with the results obtained, is prohibitive. The Coast Guard has taken the only logical way of combating these navigational menaces, and that is by riding herd on them, broadcasting their positions continuously from the time they enter the lanes until the warmer water of the south melts them.

Each year, on the 14th of April, the cutter on duty in the ice fields carries out a solemn and inspiring ritual over the spot where the Titanic sank with 1,517 souls in the early morning of April 15, 1912.

Approaching the scene of the disaster, a strange mood sweeps over the men of the Ice Patrol Cutter. They gather up their "Acey-ducey" boards, that time-honoured game of the sea, and put away their books, to collect at the rails, beneath which the water turns up in foaming whiteness.

Quartermasters, coming down from the bridge, are  p208 stopped and asked time and again: "Where are we, mate? Near the spot, now?"

A bell jingles in the engine room. The great engines slow down, and finally stop, and the cutter rolls gracefully in the swells. Recruits, men who have never made the Ice Patrol before, stare at each other. The grim realization that here, at this exact spot, over a quarter of a century ago, a great ship sank, sweeps over them; that here, in the vast stillness of the morning hours, men, women and children died, with nothing but echoes answering their cries for help.

Somewhat subdued, a boatswain's pipe shrills, calling the men to formation. The Coast Guardsmen gather quickly and quietly on the quarterdeck, dress uniforms spotless, shoes glistening. Overhead, the church pennant flutters, while they stand motionless, listening to the calm, firm voice of the cutter's commanding officer, as he reads the awe‑inspiring burial service of the sea.

As he finishes, three rifle volleys roll out over the gray wastes in measured succession. The formation is then dismissed. Another service in memory of the 1,517 persons who died aboard the Titanic has been concluded.

The Coast Guardsman's life aboard an Ice Patrol cutter at sea is not as bad as it may seem. The ship carries a movie machine, and movies are held every night, with ice cream and coffee being served after  p209 the show. Among the crew of every Coast Guard cutter may be found talented musicians; every night on the Ice Patrol, weather permitting, the Coast Guardsman, who are off duty, gather on the berth deck to hold a community sing.

Food is always plenti­ful, and good meals and the movies go a long way toward breaking the monotony of the dreary days. At the end of the Ice Patrol, the two cutters meet at a rendezvous agreed upon, and a boat race is held between picked crews from each ship. There is heavy betting, the men of each cutter backing their respective crews with money and good-natured argument.

Another duty has been assigned to the Ice Patrol during the past year. With the installation of air surveys in connection with the establishment of passenger plane routes over the North Atlantic to Europe, the Ice Patrol cutters have been especially equipped for meteorological observations along these routes. Daily balloon ascensions are made, with tiny radio transmitters, whose signals are recorded below. By the interpretation of these signals, the humidity, temperature and pressure at any height up to that at which the balloon bursts, is determined. Accurate recordings have been made at an altitude of nearly fifteen miles.

A specially trained officer, Lieutenant N. W. Sprow, has been assigned to this work, and he and his assistant, Chief Radioman Holden, have, under the  p210 most trying conditions, compiled various meteorological data which will prove invaluable to the safety of the giant clipper ships on their flights to and from Europe.

The Coast Guard is justly proud of its Ice Patrol record. Over 2,000 ships of all types and sizes ply the waters of the North Atlantic each spring, passing close to the dangerous ice fields, where giant bergs lurk in wait for the unwary ship. It is the Coast Guard's job to keep a tab on those bergs, never letting them escape from under the death watch placed upon them by the Ice Patrol cutters. It is a weighty responsibility on the Coast Guard's shoulders, but the manner in which the service has upheld that responsibility fills one of the brightest pages of the nation's history.

[image ALT: A large boat at sea between two icebergs three times taller than it. It is a photograph of a Coast Guard cutter on the International Ice Patrol.]

Thayer's Note:

a High praise for the lifesaving units, from a naval officer famous for not praising much of anything, and to whom their work came as something of a revelation: Holden Evans, One Man's Fight for a Better Navy, p125.

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Page updated: 11 Jan 15