The ‘Titanic’ enquiry whitewash and the birth of SOLAS and the IMO.

Most of us have seen the ‘Titanic’ movie but many of us will not know of the tremendous impact this terrible tragedy had in creating an international system for the regulation of ship, crew and passenger safety. This short article will focus on some of the key features of the ‘Titanic’ incident as the principal driver of huge changes to international shipping regulations and enforcement that are still being felt today.

The ‘Titanic’ sinking occurred in April 1912, at a time when the world was reaping the benefits of the industrial revolution as the shipping industry transformed from wooden ships and sail to steel ships and steam engines. It was the era of the invention of the liner trades for both cargo and passenger ships and the massive increase in international commerce, travel and emigration that shipping supported.

It was also an era in which shipping safety and regulations were matters considered to be the sovereign concern of the major flag states and their maritime authorities. Nationally based Classification Societies operated hand in hand with the maritime authorities of their home country, without any established system to confer or share knowledge with other Societies e.g. Lloyd’s Register conferred with their UK based shipowner clients and the British Board of Trade and no one else. Not surprisingly, this resulted in significant differences in Class rules and associated maritime authority regulations between Class Societies and between one country and another.

After the sinking of ‘Titanic’, public anger ran high in the US, the UK and around the world. How could the world’s largest and fastest passenger liner, upheld as being ‘unsinkable’, have sunk on her maiden voyage? And how was it possible that she was not fitted with enough life boats to safely disembark and rescue all of her passengers?

History records that the ‘Titanic’ was not classed by any Class Society at all. This may sound impossible but it is a fact that, even today, it is not a statutory requirement for a ship to be classed in order to be registered and trade internationally. The owners of the ‘Titanic’, the White Star Line, alleged their ship was unclassed because they could not afford the cost of classification. This reason seems highly unlikely as the cost of classification would have been miniscule compared to the costs of the build.

So did the ‘Titanic’s’ owners intend to avoid Class standards and collude with the shipbuilders to save costs by cutting corners on strength and quality? Unproven but not impossible at a time when the ship building regulations of the British Board of Trade had not kept up with the transition from wooden hulls to steel.

A formal enquiry took place only a few weeks after the ‘Titanic’ incident. It was accomplished by the British Wreck Commissioner on behalf of the Board of Trade. An odd scenario when one considers that the Board of Trade, as the organisation responsible for British maritime regulations and whose inspectors had certified the ‘Titanic’ as seaworthy, were one of the parties who were being investigated for alleged negligence, along with builder of the vessel, Harland and Wolff.

The enquiry’s findings were that the sinking had occurred as a consequence of a collision with an iceberg in circumstances where the ‘Titanic’s’ officers were complacent and the lookout was inadequate. Further, that there had been insufficient lifeboats. However, there was no finding of negligence against the Board of Trade, the White Star Line or the ‘Titanic’s’ Master. Instead, the Master was considered to have committed an error of professional judgement in proceeding at high speed through an area in which ice had been reported, as other Masters in the same circumstances might also have done.

Was this enquiry a whitewash? It would seem that it may have been and it certainly did not respond to the public outcry for safe standards in shipping. This was recognised by the British Government who soon convened a conference to develop international ship safety regulations. In January 1914, based on attendance and representations made by just 13 maritime nations, the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was adopted. As such, and for the very first time in the history of shipping, the safety of human life became a priority ranking above the safety of ships and cargo.

Regrettably, the early life of SOLAS and its development was disrupted by World War I and then by World War II. The result was that maritime regulations continued to be developed by maritime nations independently and without cohesion, often causing conflicts and disruption. The solution lay in the post WW II creation of the United Nations at an international conference in Geneva in 1948. At the same time, it was also decided to establish the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO). Its remit was set out in Art. 1(a) of the IMO Convention which included the goal “…to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety”.

It was hoped that the IMO Convention would enter into force quickly. Unfortunately, many maritime nations at that time were suspicious of the perceived powers of an international organisation. As such, it took 10 years to gather just 21 flag state acceptances for the IMO Convention to come into force. So long in fact that by the time this occurred in 1958, the IMO Convention had to be amended immediately to keep up with on-going amendments to SOLAS and other developing Conventions.

Today there are a total of 171 member states with 60 IMO Conventions and Protocols. As a consequence, the positive impact of the IMO on international ship safety as well as the prevention of pollution and improvement of standards for crew training and competence has been dramatic. Regrettably, the IMO system is not perfect and passenger ship deaths and other tragedies still occur. However, by reference to objective marine insurance data, losses now occur in greatly reduced numbers.

Much of the on-going ship safety problem can be attributed to the fact that the IMO, as a UN agency, has no powers of enforcement, only powers of leadership and persuasion. For some flag states, especially those labelled as ‘Flags of Convenience’, this has not been enough to ensure their IMO compliance. In turn, this has led to the pragmatic creation of Port State Control which has now become the de facto enforcement arm of the IMO. But this intriguing part of the IMO story must wait for the next SeaBlog post.

The important topics of International Maritime Regulation, Ship Registration, Classification and Port State Control will be featured in a presentation by Capt. Robert Gordon, LLB, LLM, Maritime Solicitor, at the upcoming ‘Key Elements of Shipping’ course scheduled for 10-12 October 2017 at the Amara Hotel Singapore.

If you may be interested in the above article and ship safety, then we hope to see you there.

For more information, please head to our course calendar.




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