The Captain of the Ocean Liner - 1908

An Ocean Liner In A Storm

"A few days later we may see him clad in rough allskins from the crown of this head to his feet, streaming with spray and pelting rain, his beard glistening with salt, and his eyes bloodshot from the smart of the hissing wind, but as calm and as self-possessed then and always as he was in the smooth waters of the bay."

THERE the ship is—a leviathan; and on the bridge stands the captain—a pigmy by comparison. He may be, and probably is, a man 0f robust physique, with burly shoulders and a face stained by exposure to sun, wind, and salty spray; thick-set, alert, but calm in manner, and with eyes that are comprehensive yet pinched by constant searching and the effort to see farther and sooner than other eyes.

The ship measures perhaps forty-five thousand tons, and, like the new Cunarders, has cost about a million and a quarter to build. Her cargo is worth many thousands, and in her strong-room are several millions in specie passing between the banks in settlement of international balances.

These are ascertainable values; but how can we compute the value of the lives of the three thousand passengers of all degrees who are dependent for their existence on that one man on the bridge while the voyage lasts ?

There are few positions in the world where the responsibility is so heavy as that of the captain of such a ship. He must be prepared for every emergency—for the thing that often happens and the thing that never happened before—and he must take on his shoulders not only the consequences of any blunder of his own, but also the blunders of his subordinates.

Theoretically, he is supposed to be always on the bridge, and, if an accident befalls while he is below, the fact that he could no longer do without sleep, and had given the officers of the watch the proper orders before going down, does not exculPâté him in the eyes of the law, or of the passengers.

Although he is held accountable for all mishaps, his authority is not less comprehensive than his responsibility. He is an autocrat, and his orders must be obeyed without question in al/ the many departments of the immense ship—in the galley and in the engine-room, as well as in the forecastle and in the saloon.

His powers are absolute over the crew, and over the passengers too, though of course they are not made aware of it, except in cases of misconduct or in disaster. In the smaller ships of earlier days there was a chance of his knowing all his passengers and being sociable with them, but that is impossible with such numbers as travel now. Nevertheless, he has a way of hearing of every thing that is going on, and especially of any infringement of discipline, whether it is in the cabin, in the steerage, or among the crew.

A lady's gown is smirched with wet paint, a man is profane in the smoking-room, somebody has seen a rat, somebody else does not like the tunes the band plays, or one flea has been caught in a state-room, the occupant of which declares that the ship is alive with them —what is petty and what is serious comes to the captain's ears through a kind of secret service on the part of his subordinates, especially in the German lines, where nothing is thought to he unworthy of his interest and attention.

In the German lines some details are referred to him which in the American line and the English lines are left to the purser or the chief steward. The German captains are encouraged to " nurse " their passengers, and are allowed a bonus for every passenger carried. They are paid according to the popularity of their respective ships—a usage which does not accord with British tradition and prejudices.

German or English, as the leviathan slowly, and with the utmost caution, clears the wharf in New York a whole fleet of powerful tug-boats– as many as sixteen sometimes—puff and haul and press around her bow and stern to supplement her own engines in getting her headed down stream, and when that is done she proceeds at reduced speed in picking her way through the various craft which harass her until she is well out into the open sea.

A ferry-boat crosses her bows, or a schooner tacks unexpectedly in a sudden gust of wind, another steamer coming in changes its course contrary to the "rules of the road," and a collision seems unavoidable. Whistles are blown, and the helm is thrown over, when possibly the narrowness of the channel will not allow that change without incurring the risk of grounding. A quartermaster heaves the lead for soundings from a platform in the bow, and sings out what he finds-"

By the deep " this, and "By the deep " that. If she grounds she may never come off, or if she comes off it is only after delay and enormous expense. Though the fault may be entirely that of the other steamer, our captain is not likely to escape scot-free of blame. The mishap is bad for the reputation of the line, and for his reputation too. He is held answerable for it.

Passengers Waving Goodbye

"The merry passengers ... are saying 'Good Bye !' to the pilot as he drops from the swinging rope-ladder into the cockle-shell which is waiting for him."

As we stand under the bridge, watching and listening, all these incidents are exciting to us; but on the bridge itself all is quiet, and the voice of the. captain as he gives his orders is not raised above the pitch of the politest conversation. In his kid gloves and gold lace he looks rather dandified, and not the man of resource, of swift decision, of long experience, of sound judgment, and of indisputable courage that he really is.

A few days later we may see him clad in rough oilskins from the crown of his head to his feet, streaming with spray and pelting rain, his beard glistening with salt, and his eyes bloodshot from the smart of the hissing wind, but as calm and as self-possessed then and always as he was in the smooth waters of the bay. Excitable he must not be under any circumstances.

As far as the bar he has a pilot with him, and to that point the pilot, with his local knowledge of tides, shoals, shifting sand-banks, and temporary obstructions, like submerged wrecks, is nominally in charge of the ship; hut, if the pilot makes any mistake, the captain has to share the censure which inevitably follows.

Though compelled by law to employ a pilot when entering or leaving port, the captain may at any time he disapproves of that guide's course take the ship out of his hands and do what he himself thinks is wiser and safer. Should the result vindicate his judgment, all is well with him; but if, instead, the result is a mishap, it goes very hard with him when he reports to his owners at the end of the voyage.

Let us suppose, however, that we reach and cross the bar without a hitch, from the moment we drew into the stream front the wharf. The sun is shining and fairy feet are twinkling all over the placid sea. The merry passengers, full of hope and good spirits, are saying "Good-bye to the pilot as he drops from the swinging rope-ladder into the cockle-shell which is waiting for him.

Then the three. thousand-mile voyage begins. We hear the captain give the order, "Ahead, full speed ! " and the engines respond with the murmur and the throb of power that till now has been in abeyance. There he is—the monarch of this splendid ship, the custodian of vaster treasure than the galleons of old ever bore from the Indies, and the guardian of as many or more human beings than the combined crews of an entire fleet of former days.

He descends from the bridge into the superb suite of rooms just below it which are provided for his exclusive use; and when the land has vanished we may see him, if the weather is fine, join the ladies in games of shovel-board or sea quoits.

If there is an ambitious boy on board who before this has been uncertain as to the vocation he will choose, he resolves at once that the command of an ocean liner is the very thing for him, and that this is what he will he—a captain, whose berth, as he sees it, is an enviable combination of handsomely uniformed ease, boundless authority,. and spectacular prominence.

Should he have a talk with one of the junior officers later in the voyage it would disillusion him and turn his ambition into other directions.

The captain is on the top rung of the ladder of his profession, and has got there by climbing, nut by vaulting; not in a day, but by years of service; not easily, but with difficulty and delay; not as soon as qualified, but by slow promotion from one grade to another during the greater part of a lifetime.

Promotion in 1he transatlantic lines is slow, and there are more deserving candidates than positions for them.

Probably the captain has been in the same line since he began as a fourth officer when he was a very young man. Before that he must have had some experience in sailing-ships, and acquired at least a mate's certificate.

On many of the great transatlantic liners all the officers are holders of masters' certificates, and thus some of them, although at the bottom so far as actual position goes, are certified by competent examiners in seamanship and navigation to be qualified for the top.

There are seven or eight navigating officers under the captain, and each aspires to he a captain himself in time. Progress is labyrinthine in this profession, however. The ships themselves are graded as well as the men.

Suppose that you have risen to be chief officer in one of the inferior vessels of the fleet; the captain dies or retires : his place is not given to you, but to the chief officer of the commodore ship of the line, and you are merely transferred, without change of rank, to a better ship; from that ship you pass to a better and to a better until the slow and wearying progress leads you after scores of voyages and anxious experiences of the fitful Atlantic, in the fogs of summer and the hurricanes of winter, to a commodore ship.

The command of her becomes vacant, but it is not yet for you. You are promoted to a captaincy—to the captaincy of the least important ship of the line. But, though you are sent down from the top of one ladder, it is to climb another, and you are little inclined to complain.

Then, if there is nothing against you, if you avoid accidents, and if the owners approve of you in all ways, you will in another ten years or so have command of all the intermediate ships in succession, and at last have risen to the newest, finest, and fastest. By this time you are likely to be verging on middle age, or beyond it, and the next step will be towards the limit at which you must retire, leaving the climbing to others, some of whom may never reach the top, near though it seems.

Favor plays no part in advancement at sea. All the lines keep to those of their own officers whose ability and fidelity are proved, and promote them, with few exceptions, in the rotation I have described. The captains are all men who have risen from the bottom, or from junior posts of the line in which they serve, and happily no usurpation by outsiders is ever heard of.

It is not a well-paid profession. The junior officers seldom receive more than from eight to twenty pounds a month, and there are very few ships in which the captain's salary is more than a thousand pounds a year.

At the same time, it is the most exacting of all professions, and the only profession in which mistakes are irretrievable. A doctor or a lawyer may lose a case through error, and any businessman may come to bankruptcy through lack of judgment, without more than passing disparagement.

Their reputations may suffer for a time, but unless they are incompetent or of bad habits they can recover their position.

Not so with the captain of a great ship. His own line will have nothing more to do with him if he has a collision or an accident of any kind—even a comparatively trifling one—if it is clearly due to his carelessness or his want of skill. Nor will the other lines give him a chance to redeem himself; they have their own people to look after, people who have not had accidents.

He may have had a clean record and worked his way up, coming scathless and blameless through years of trial. One blunder—and he is done for. He is at once deposed from his high command, and must retire altogether from the sea, or accept some humble job in a " tramp," without any further opportunity for advancement.

I recall a man who slowly rose in the usual way from the position of fourth officer to that of chief officer, and then to a captaincy in one of the Liverpool lines. He had, of course, established a reputation for carefulness and sobriety before his promotion, but, as it proved, he was one of those who need control, and are born to follow and not to command.

His responsibilities as captain were too much for him, and "got on his nerves" before he finished his first voyage. He was up at all hours, and constantly on the bridge; he was as diligent as he had ever been, but he entirely lost his self-possession, and brought his ship to grief before he returned to Liverpool.

I asked a Liverpool friend about him recently.

" How strange you should ask !" was the reply. " I was in Southampton not long ago, and the queerest, dingiest little man you ever saw came and spoke to me." It was M—, the man who had been captain for so brief a time, and now was serving at four pounds a month as lamplighter on a small, rusty, battered, and ignominious ocean tramp—an effulgence of majesty in gold lace reduced to a crumpled barnacle. But the managers of the great lines seldom err in choosing commanders.

There is custom, but no hard-and-fast rules applying to promotion. Some who stem entitled to it are occasionally left behind, and, though their fidelity is not doubted, it is 1hought prudent to keep them where their capacities cannot encounter any perilous strain.

The strain on the captain, beginning when 1he hawsers are slipped at the wharf, continues with few intermissions while the ship is at sea.

No hurricane or cyclone that ever blew has power in itself alone to sink the modern ships of the great lines, so large are they, and so conscientiously equipped and maintained, without regard to cost, and with a prevision not alone for visible defects, but also for flaws that are merely suspected.

The dangers arise from ice and fog, the careless and incompetent navigation of other ships, and those dreaded derelicts, the abandoned wrecks which do not sink, but, half-submerged, drift blindly with the ocean currents, a constant menace to all moving things that cross their path.

The wind may spin on its pivot and heap the sea into dark ridges that appear the unfamiliar eye as they burst over the bow and sweep with a roar under the counter; the propellers plunge into them and throw up domed and writhing columns of spray higher than a steeple. As long as the weather is clear and the sun and stars can be read in his observations, and he is in deep water, the captain has little to fear. But few voyages are made without fog, and when fog comes all his faculties are taxed at once.

Every 1hirty or forty seconds the hoarse, penetrating, ear-splitting whistle sends its warning through the enveloping gray; 1he order "Stand by !" is telegraphed to the engine-room; the watch in the bow and in the crow's nest is doubled.

His officers and men come and go as usual—four hours on and four hours off—but he has no relief till the veil lifts, which may be soon and may not be for days. Always there is the possibility of collision with other ships; little in the case of steamers as well-manned and well-found as his own; much from sailing-vessels that do not make their proximity known, and are negligent and without sufficient and disciplined crews.

At some seasons icebergs drifting southward in the polar current add to the perils of the fog; they and the derelicts are, of all perils, the greatest, for they never give warning.

Those Dreaded Derelicts

The dreaded derelicts that float on the surface, long abandoned and always an obstacle to avoid.

A captain in the Liverpool and Boston service told me that once when he was crossing the Banks of Newfoundland he slowed down for fog, and presently suspected that he was not far from ice. He was blowing his whistle at regular intervals, and the nearest land was hundreds of miles away. He could not see as far as the bow of his own ship.

He stared and listened as the paced he bridge, as all captains do under such circumstances. Hearing what he supposed to be the whistle of another ship close aboard on the port side, he reversed his engines and put the helm ever to avoid her.

Hardly had he done this than still another whistle sounded over the starboard bow. He thought then that he was between two other steamers. His own was at a standstill, but as often as he blew his whistle theirs responded without going ahead or astern. Were they also hove-to ?

It was unaccountable till the fog lifted, when, instead of ships on both sides of him, he found two towering icebergs, blue and white and glistening, the flanks of which had but echoed 1he sound of his own whistle.

Sometimes the fog holds from one end of the voyage to the other, and the ship is navigated by "dead reckoning." The sun and stars, which in clear weather are infallible guides to her position, cannot be seen.

The captain has to depend on courses and the log—on his compasses and the ascertained speed. The difficulty and the suspense increase as he approaches land under these adverse conditions; an error of a very few miles out of three thousand may be fatal.

We never look up to the bridge that we do not find him there. We hear his voice in the darkness and solitude of the masked sea. Every object is distorted and obscured, visible for a while, and then enmeshed in the obliterating folds of drifting gray vapor. If he sleeps at all it is by cat-naps, with his clothes on; he has a speaking tube to the bridge over his head, and a telephone at arm's-length.

The contingencies are appalling, but the results entirely reassuring. A disaster is rare indeed, and in all the voyages I have made, at all seasons of the year, in ships of thirteen hundred tons, like those of the late sixties, and ships of forty-five thousand tons, like those of the present, 1 have never seen a life lost, and only once a bone broken.

And when we see the captain going ashore in plain civilian clothes, after he has moored his ship, we recognize modesty among his other admirable qualities, and acknowledge that he has earned a few days of rest before his next departure. He averages about eleven voyages or twenty-two trips a year—sixty-six thousand miles in all. So he comes and goes through sunshine, tempest, and fog, until the age limit is reached, and he is retired with honor, and—let us hope—a moderate competence.

Rideing, William H., "The Captain of the Liner", Illustrated by Norman Wilkinson and S. H. Vedder, The Pall Mall Magazine, Volume XLL, Number 181, May 1908

Return to Top of Page

Ocean Travel Steamship Captains
GG Archives

Steamship Captains

The Work of a Sea Captain

Ocean Travel Topics A-Z