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Charles Haas on: The "Times Square of the North Atlantic"
Charles Haas Q: Q: Tell me about that intersection off Nantucket line and why that is considered such a dangerous place?

CH: Contrary to popular belief, ocean liners did not travel any which way they wanted to across the Atlantic Ocean. They actually traveled in tracks or routes which were established by international convention and by agreement between the various steamship companies. Now the ships that were bound to and from Scandinavia crossed in a certain route. And those that were coming from the northern European ports, such as Germany, Ireland and England also had a set of tracks. And finally there was another set of tracks that took them across the ocean into the Mediterranean. And interestingly enough, all of these routes tend to converge right near the Massachusetts, New England Coast. So one writer actually called it the "Times Square of the North Atlantic" because you literally have ships coming and going from multiple directions and because of the nature of the geographyof the American East Coast, this area basically was the place where all these routes converged. And there was only about a thirty-mile gap between the eastbound and the west bound routes, which then fan out to these other destinations once clear of the American Coast. So there's a real crunch spot, if you will, right off Nantucket and that's one of the reasons why the Nantucket light vessel was actually stationed there. That was to ensure that everybody had an accurate position as they headed in towards the American mainland.

Q: Tell me about fog generally and how captains viewed it in particular and what they had to do when they encountered it?

CH: Long before the advent of radar, I think fog was perhaps the single thing that mariners dreaded the most. Within a matter of moments, particularly in the area off of New England and out into the Atlantic, you could go from a beautiful cloudless day into something that prevented you from even seeing the bow of your own ship. When you go through the insurance records, you discover case after case after case of ships running one another down in fog, running into one another, running over small fishing vessels that happen to be in the way. Fog is a very difficult thing from several standpoints. In the absence of radar many mariners actually developed a sort of a sixth sense and it's difficult to explain exactly what it was but it was borne out of many years of North Atlantic experience. And this sixth sense literally rescued, in some cases, ships from getting into collisions. You have captains just feeling that something was wrong and making a course correction and lo and behold there's, the ship that they almost hit.

There was, of course, a series of regulations that dealt with speed and also with sounding your whistle, your foghorn during heavy fog. And even that was a real problem because fog changes the direction of the sound. It could actually serve as a blanket or a smothering agent or a dispersing agent so that although two ships might be approaching one another and they both sound their whistles, the fog can actually cause the perception of the sound to change in this direction. So literally you had to hope that, by posting extra lookouts in the crow's nest and sometimes posting additional lookouts down on the main deck of the ship, that mechanism would hopefully detect the bulk of the ship in front of you before you actually hit it. And this was again supplemented by the lookout sense of hearing as well as their sense of sight. But it was almost playing blindman's bluff off the coast. It was very very dangerous and theoretically you would think that they would slow down to a crawl. But there was always a commercial pressure to make the best possible passage and although there was some speed reduction with heavy fog, the pressure was there to try to maintain as much of a speed as you could. Because, quite frankly, people were paying you good money to keep to a schedule and if you routinely stopped or slowed down every time fog enveloped your ship then your schedule would be shot to ribbons and people wouldn't patronize you anymore. So although there were company regulations and regulations through international agreement that said that you had to reduce speed in fog, in practice very few captains ever did.

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