Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea by Nic Compton

Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea by Nic Compton

Author:Nic Compton
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Adlard Coles
Published: 2017-09-20T23:00:00+00:00



Those sailors whose ship was sunk but who managed to get on a lifeboat stood a fair chance of survival. One study of 448 ships sunk during World War II found that 26 per cent of crews were killed before they had got on the lifeboats. Once on board a lifeboat, however, the majority were rescued fairly quickly – 30 per cent on the first day and 50 per cent within three days (even quicker for those on liferafts). Overall, the study showed that 68 per cent of the 27,000 crews that were sunk survived the ordeal. Most of the rest – those who didn’t die immediately but weren’t rescued in time – died slow and often delirious deaths on board the lifeboats.

Following the sinking of the Titanic, the number of lifeboats carried by commercial and naval ships had increased dramatically, so capacity was not usually an issue. The lifeboats themselves had remained pretty much unchanged, however, and were usually built of wood to a design that had been around for several hundred years. Various improvements had been made, including fitting spray hoods and bilge pumps and ensuring an adequate supply of blankets, but the basic design remained unchanged for most of the war. As more ships were sunk and longer voyages were made in lifeboats, the supply of long-life food carried on the boats was increased. From 1941, each lifeboat was required to carry 400g (14oz) of biscuits, milk tablets, chocolate and pemmican (energy bars) per person. The amount of water carried was also tripled to 3.1 litres (5½ pints) per person.

Despite this, for the unfortunate sailors who had to make long voyages on lifeboats, it was usually the shortage of water that pushed them over the edge. Dying of thirst and surrounded by sea, the temptation to drink salt water proved irresistible to some – just as it had for their predecessors 100 years before (see Chapter 7). And, as before, the result was nearly always fatal. The point was made by ship’s carpenter Kenneth Cooke, who survived 50 days at sea on a lifeboat after the cargo ship Lulworth Hill was sunk in the South Atlantic in March 1943:

‘Our greatest problem was water, all of us suffered from intense thirst, and after a while I noticed some of the survivors drinking salt water. […] As they drank more and more, they rapidly became delirious, imagining they could see rivers of water and snow. One man became very troublesome, and had to be forcibly held down until he became too exhausted to struggle any more. […] Some died from drinking salt water, others from exhaustion, and I think many men gave up hope, and lost the urge to struggle on for their lives.’1

A contemporary study of voyages made on lifeboats during the war suggested that the minimum amount of fresh water needed to survive was 120ml (4fl oz, or 1/5 pint) per day. Survivors who consumed less than that were much less likely to survive, with 28 per cent dying within six days and 90 per cent dying after 32 days.


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