The nearly 100-year-old history of the was the subject of the annual Founders Day luncheon put on by the New London Maritime Society on Sunday.
Dr. Donald Murphy, chief scientist for the service for the past 28 years, spoke at the Officers Club. Murphy said foundation of the International Ice Patrol was spurred by the Titanic disaster of 1912. The luxury liner collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic on April 14 and sank early the next morning with a loss of over 1,500 lives.
The shipping nations of the world gathered for the International Conference on the Safety of Life at Sea in response to the tragedy. The changes implemented included a requirement for manned radio watches, a standard SOS distress signal, and having vessels carry lifeboats based on the number of people on board rather than the size of the vessel. The International Ice Patrol was also created.
Murphy says that every spring and summer, icebergs that break away from Greenland are carried by currents on a journey lasting one to three years into the waters—and shipping lanes—off Nova Scotia. Immediately after the Titanic sank, the task of warning ships of icebergs fell to patrolling U.S. Navy ships. Soon after, it was transferred to the Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of the Coast Guard; this service retains control of the task today, with the International Ice Patrol based out of Fort Trumbull.
“It’s a very small organization,” said Murphy. “There are only 16 of us.”
However, Murphy said the number is somewhat misleading given that the service also has the resources of the Coast Guard available. Perhaps the most notable is a C-130 aircraft used to fly over the area and chart the location of icebergs.
Some icebergs reach more impressive sizes. The tallest one on record was 550 feet tall, the equivalent of the Washington Monument. In 2010, an iceberg measuring 97 square miles—the size of “16 New Londons—broke away from Greenland.
The most troublesome icebergs, however, are the smallest ones. Murphy said these are harder to spot in poor weather conditions, and since only an eighth of an iceberg is visible above the water the smaller ones can still cause damage to ships.
Despite these hazards, and some damage to ships disregarding ice warnings, Murphy said the International Ice Patrol has been successful.
“No ship that has heeded our instructions has struck an iceberg since we were created,” he said.
The New London Maritime Society is dedicated to promoting New London’s maritime history as well as preserving the and New London Harbor Light. The event also recognized the society’s late founder, Lucille Showalter, with a portrait by local artist Michael Peery. Showalter, a teacher, formed the New London Maritime Society from members of her local history class and was instrumental in preserving the Custom House as a museum.
“I believe it is because of Lucille Showalter’s doggedness that the Custom House Maritime Museum eventually became a reality,” said founding member and honorary trustee Vincentia Belbruno.