Cocks, Condensed Milk and Cecil – Survival at Sea in 1923

 

“All cocks shall be in positions which are accessible at all times under ordinary circumstances. They shall be so arranged that in the event of emergency…”

– SOLAS 1929

Wouldn’t you love to know what sort of shipping disaster made the 1929 International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea thrust THAT requirement on international shipping and cruise liners? And no, it wasn’t some sort of erotic cruise ship, nor was it a reference to sailors getting a bit lonely while at sea. It was because of the steamship Trevessa, which sank because of the impotence of its cocks.

Come again?

I’m talking about seacocks and I think so was SOLAS. It took me a minute to work it out, though. Seacocks are the general term for valves that let water in and out of a ship. They can allow in coolant or ballast water, void wastewater or drain water that has accumulated in the hull and bilge that are making the vessel sit too low in the water.

Opening up all the cocks below the waterline can flood a ship with water and effectively scuttle it so that it sinks. It’s how the German sailors aboard the Buresk scuttled their coal vessel when it was captured in the Battle of Cocos in World War I.

But to understand where safety at sea first became an international priority…it all went down with the Titanic.

Not the movie – the big cruise liner that sank in 1912. The one that didn’t have enough life jackets and life boats for everyone on board so more than 1500 people died.

The loss of life in that particular disaster was so colossal that it caused international outcry – and the International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea. The result was the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in 1914.

SOLAS 1914

SOLAS 1914 was signed at London, 20 January 1914 and included some of the following requirements:

All vessels must have lifeboats sufficient to carry everyone on board the vessel, and the vessel must carry as many lifejackets as people.

A life-jacket shall satisfy the following conditions:–

  • It shall be of approved material and construction;
  • It shall be capable of supporting in fresh water for 24 hours 6.8 kilogrammes of iron (equivalent to 15 pounds avoirdupois)

Life-jackets the buoyancy of which depends on air compartments are prohibited. (So much for modern life jackets – these were made of solid cork)

Musters of the crew at their boat and fire stations, followed by boat and fire drills respectively, shall be held at least once a fortnight, either in port or at sea.

SOLAS 1914 included a list of equipment that was required on a lifeboat:

  • A single banked complement of oars and two spare oars; one set and a half of thole pins or crutches; a boat hook.
  • Two plugs for each plug-hole; a bailer and a galvanised iron bucket.
  • A tiller or yoke and yoke lines.
  • Two hatchets.
  • A lamp filled with oil and trimmed.
  • A mast or masts with one good sail at least, and proper gear for each.
  • A suitable compass.
  • A life-line becketted round the outside.
  • A sea-anchor.
  • A painter.
  • A vessel containing five litres (equivalent to one gallon) of vegetable or animal oil. The vessel shall be so constructed that the oil can be easily distributed on the water, and so arranged that it can be attached to the sea-anchor.
  • A watertight receptacle containing one kilogramme (equivalent to two pounds avoirdupois) of provisions for each person.
  • A watertight receptacle containing one litre (equivalent to one quart) for each person.
  • A number of self-igniting “red lights” and a watertight box of matches.

This Convention never passed into international law because of the advent of World War I. A revised convention was written in 1929 which did pass into law in 1933. The one that required that all cocks be accessible.

SOLAS 1929

“All cocks shall be in positions which are accessible at all times under ordinary circumstances. They shall be so arranged that in the event of emergency…”

That wasn’t the only change, either – there were significant additions to the equipment required on lifeboats.

1914 1929
A single banked complement of oars and two spare oars; one set and a half of thole pins or crutches; a boat hook. A single banked complement of oars and two spare oars; one set and a half of thole pins or crutches; a boat hook.
Two plugs for each plug-hole; a bailer and a galvanised iron bucket. Two plugs for each plug-hole; a bailer and a galvanised iron bucket.
A tiller or yoke and yoke lines. A tiller or yoke and yoke lines.
Two hatchets. Two hatchets.
A lamp filled with oil and trimmed. A lamp filled with oil and trimmed.
A mast or masts with one good sail at least, and proper gear for each. A mast or masts with one good sail at least, and proper gear for each.
A suitable compass. An efficient compass.
A life-line becketted round the outside. A life-line becketed round the outside.
A sea-anchor. A sea-anchor.
A painter. A painter.
A vessel containing five litres (equivalent to one gallon) of vegetable or animal oil. The vessel shall be so constructed that the oil can be easily distributed on the water, and so arranged that it can be attached to the sea-anchor. A vessel containing four and a half litres (equivalent to one gallon) of vegetable or animal oil. The vessel shall be so constructed that the oil can be easily distributed on the water, and so arranged that it can be attached to the sea-anchor.
A watertight receptacle containing one kilogramme (equivalent to two pounds avoirdupois) of provisions for each person. An airtight receptacle containing one kilogramme (equivalent to two pounds) of provisions for each person.
A watertight receptacle containing one litre (equivalent to one quart) for each person. A watertight receptacle provided with a dipper with lanyard containing one litre (equivalent to one quart) of fresh water for each person.
A number of self-igniting “red lights” and a watertight box of matches. At least one dozen self-igniting “red lights” and a box of matches in watertight containers.
  Half a kilogramme (equivalent to one pound) of condensed milk for each person.
  A suitable locker for the stowage of the small items of the equipment.

 

So what happened in those fifteen years to make them carry milk….and make cocks accessible?

World War I and the Trevessa. Or a man named Captain Cecil Foster, who had the misfortune to be shipwrecked twice in one day…and a third time, some years later.

Condensed Milk

During World War I, Cecil Foster was the first officer aboard a supply ship. A German U-boat torpedoed his ship and the crew boarded lifeboats. Several hours later, they were picked up by a Royal Navy patrol vessel, which was sunk by the same U-boat. 31 men made it into the lifeboats from the Royal Navy patrol vessel, but only 16 of them survived to see land, when the boats washed up at Ferrol on Spain’s north-west Atlantic coast, ten days later.

Why did so many men die?

Foster said they gave up. Their kilogramme of provisions was tinned, salted meat – dehydrating them when they barely had enough water as it was. They had nothing left to live for and so they didn’t.

So after World War I, he insisted that the Hain Shipping Company, who he worked for, replace the lifeboat rations with dry ship’s biscuits instead and add a ration of tobacco for each man. Not only would he have something to live for, but he’d have food and drink he could digest, which wouldn’t dehydrate him further.

When Captain Foster’s ship, the Trevessa, sank in June 1923, he had his stewards collect all the condensed milk from the galley and load it into the lifeboats. Four weeks later, when both lifeboats had travelled over 1700 miles to Mauritius, ten of the 44 crew had died…but 34 survived their ordeal, with supplies to spare.

So condensed milk became an essential survival ration aboard lifeboats. And Captain Cecil Foster was received at Buckingham Palace, so his king and queen could thank him for his courage in saving so many lives at sea.

Cocks

Captain Foster’s Trevessa sank because his vessel took on water in Cargo Hold #1 – and his cocks weren’t accessible. Even if they were, they couldn’t pump water from the hold back into the ocean, because his hold was made watertight to hold a wet cargo of zinc concentrates – so the extra water couldn’t drain to the bilge. Instead, it floated on top of the zinc and filled the hold – until it sank the ship on the 4th June 1923.

So what do cocks, Cecil and condensed milk have to do with anything?

Ah, well…the Trevessa was the setting for my book, Ocean’s Justice.