The collision between the S/S Umbria and the S/S Iberia in 1888
Transcribed by BÝrge Solem - December 2004

This is a transcript from the Harpers Weekly of November 24, 1888. It gives a report about the collisions between the S/S Umbria of the Cunard Line, and the S/S Iberia of the Fabre Line. The disaster renewed an ongoing discussion, as to the safety of steamers, in relation to their speed. The matter in question was: "Are fast or slow steamers the safest?"

The remarkable good fortune of the Cunard Line in its exemption from the loss of life by accidents was again illustrated in the collision between the Umbria and the French freight steamer Iberia, on Saturday, the 10th inst. The facts of the case were briefly these: The Umbria started from her dock at 10.45 A.M., and made the passage down the passage down the bay safely through the gathering fog, though just after passing the Narrows she had barely escaped running into the French liner Normandie, which was in advance, and also outward bound. The fog thickened rapidly after the light-ship had been passed, and Captain McMickan rang the bell to reduce speed. The engines had been slowed only a few minutes when suddenly the Umbria's lookout descried another steamer dead ahead, almost square across the Umbria's bows. The captain instantly ordered the engines reversed at full speed, but it was too late to prevent a collision. The Umbria's momentum was carrying her forward at the rate of nearly fifteen knots an hour, and she struck the stranger on the port quarter, cutting almost square across the quarter-deck, cleaving the stern of the ship entirely off from the rest of the hull. This portion floated away to starboard, in full view of the Umbria's passengers, and sank, while to port the injured steamer, saved by her bulkheads, continued afloat, and was lost to sight in the fog for a time. She proved to be the Iberia of the Fabre Line, and she had at the time of the collision been slowly making her way into the port after a long voyage from the orient. Had her bulkhead given way, the vessel would undoubtedly have foundered like a shot, carrying down all on board. The Umbria's fog-horn was blowing as the two ships came together, and so was the Iberia's, but the shock was so slight that not a soul on the ship moved until the iron prow of the Umbria was ploughing its way through the other ship. The result of the official inquiry into the causes of the collision is not yet made known, but it is pretty certain that the Cunard Company will be sued for the loss of the vessel, which was built at Leith in 1881, registered about 1400 tons, and valued at $125,000. The Umbria suffered but slight injuries, which on her return to port, were speedily repaired, and the she put off to sea again, with almost all her passengers. It seams to be well established that the outmost care, consistent with speed, was shown in the navigation of the Umbria, and absolute discipline maintained in the presence of dangers which, with the slightest panic, might have been attended with fatal consequences. It is appalling to think that had the Umbria, crowded as she was with passengers, met the Iberia a few seconds sooner, she would have just got far enough across the Iberia's bows to get cut open herself.

The disaster has renewed the discussion among seafaring men as to the advantages of fast steamers. The partial knowledge of the subject possessed by landsmen disposes them to look upon slow steamers as the safest, and the tortoise and the hare again start out to adorn the debate. Ingenuity has thus far been unable to devise methods for lessening the dangers of ocean navigation, and although there has been much talk about an international code of signalling adequate to all emergencies, fog included, nothing has yet been done in the desired direction. The difficulty to be mastered is no ordinary one, for in a heavy fog signals by sound are found unreliable, as the ear is incapable, in many instances, of deciding the direction of the sound. The commanders of the principal steamers on the Atlantic are almost unanimously in favor of fast ships, and in fact the whole question, "Are fast or slow steamers the safest?" resolves itself into a question of fogs, for, due vigilance being always exercised by the captain and his officers, that is where the real danger lies. We hear of vessels such as the City of Brussels being run down when stopped or at anchor, and we hear of other cases where serious calamity has been avoided simply and solely by reason of the high speed of the vessels meeting. A fog is the most treacherous, unaccountable, and dreaded of all the sailor's enemies.

It was Captain McMickan who, in an interview with several steam-ship captains, reported in the June number of the "North American Review", spoke as follows, when questioned on the subject of fast ships: "I am of opinion that the fast steamer is the safest. Wherever there is danger, the sooner you are out of it the better. By exercising care in foggy weather, and slowing down to a moderate speed, you have the same degree of safety as a slow ship, and a great advantage over her when it clears. On the other hand, we are more exposed, making two passages for a slow ship's one. But taking the two making the same voyage, the fast ship has decidedly the advantage". It was on the same occasion that Captain FRANGEUL, of the French Line steamer La Bourgogne, gave it as his opinion that "while extremely fast ships lessen the duration of dangers, they augment the number of dangers."

Captains of fast steamships, when they wish to show that it is better to go full speed in an ordinary fog, generally argue somewhat as follows: "If", say they, "you slow down the moment fog comes on, the steam roars out of the escape pipes with such a noise that for some time you are in absolute danger, not being able to see or hear anything; if you reduce the steam gradually, you take power off your ship and pressure off your whistle, and if you suddenly hear some sound ahead, you can only turn to the right or left slowly, or stop altogether, letting the other ship take her chances of clearing you. Again, you cannot reverse full speed, as your steam is too low to move the engines quickly. Now, going full speed, all is as still and as quiet as the grave. Ears and good lookouts are ready for the least sound, The moment you hear a sound, up helm and bring the horn, or whistle abaft your beam which is comparatively a place of safety, and blow once or twice to the other steamer, indicating to him whether you are directed your own ship to port or starboard".

It is perfectly evident that on such an understanding the ship of great power would have the advantage in a collision. It may be a selfish, not to say an inhuman consideration, but it is undeniably comforting to the passenger by a fast and powerful steamer to be assured that in the event of a collision his vessel is less likely to be damaged than a slow one. Of course, when we are discussing the subject of speed, we ought to settle what we are most afraid of meeting in a collision. In a collision between a slow steamer and a fast one it is plainly better to be on the fast one; but in the event of striking ice, rocks, or a sand-bank, it is equally manifest that the slow ship is preferable, and the slower the ship the better. Some risk must be accepted, whichever way we choose, for there is absolutely no certain protection against the dangers incident to fog.

As to the captains themselves, they appear to have no choice left them, even if they did not believe that, on the whole, the fast ship is the safer ship. They are instructed by the English Board of Trade regulations to go slow in a fog, but the mails are given to the steamers which make the shortest passages, be the weather fair or foul, and the risks what they may. Many passengers who cross the ocean naturally look with misgiving on the velocity of those so-called "ocean greyhounds", but they should rest assured that they are as safe as, under the inevitable conditions of the case, they can be, in a first-class, well-regulated steamship, should she be going fast or slow, for every precaution which skill and experience can suggest is constantly being taken on their behalf. The safety of steamers going at a great rate of speed in all weathers can't be better demonstrated, perhaps, than by a reference to the Holyhead and Dublin mail steamers. These are among the fastest vessels in the world, making a speed of nearly twenty knots, or twenty-two and a half miles, per hour; but though they have to cross the track of all vessels bound up the Irish Sea, accidents to them are almost unheard-of.