If Titanic’s story can be summed up in three words, it would be the phrase which changed everything for 2200 passengers and crew on the night of 14th April, 1912. The words communicated to the bridge by lookout, Frederick Fleet, “Iceberg, right ahead.”
After that, Titanic’s fate was sealed.
As one of six lookouts employed by White Star on board Titanic, Frederick Fleet worked as part of a two man team in shifts which kept watch around the clock. He and Reginald Lee took up their position in the Crow’s Nest at 10pm, replacing George Symons and Archie Jewell. As the two crews swapped over, the message was passed on to keep an eye out for icebergs in the area during their two hour stint. They had no idea what was to happen during their shift.
Frederick Fleet- From Deckboy to Seaman
Fleet was born in Liverpool in 1887. He had a difficult start in life. His father was never known to him and his mother abandoned him to a series of children’s homes including Dr Barnardos . In 1903, he went to sea, first as a deck boy and latterly as an able seaman. Before joining Titanic, he had worked aboard another great White Star liner, the Oceanic.
Iceberg, Right Ahead
Fleet and Lee were nearing the end of their shift when, at 11.40pm a great mass of ice loomed into view. It was a calm night so there were no waves to wash against the massive structure and warn of its presence. When he saw the iceberg, Fleet grabbed the cord of the Crow’s Nest warning bell and gave it three sharp tugs. At the other end of the phone line on the bridge was Officer Moody who asked him, “What do you see?” Those three words were then communicated to Moody…Iceberg right ahead… 30 seconds later Titanic collided with the ice.
Moody gave the command, “hard to starboard” which turned the rudder right and the ship left. But with the ship travelling flat out at 22 knots, there was not enough time to avoid the iceberg. Experts reckon that if Fleet had seen the berg just five seconds earlier, or if Titanic had been travelling two knots slower, Titanic’s encounter would have been nothing more than a near miss. Analysis also suggests that if Titanic had absorbed the impact with the tip of her bow rather than exposing the side of the ship to a long, fast rip, she would have stayed afloat for much longer. As it was, Fleet had only his naked eye with which to spot icebergs from his position. The keys for the binocular case had inadvertently been taken away by Officer David Blair when he was transferred to another ship. One wonders why Fleet or one of the other lookouts did not simply break into the case.
Escape to the Lifeboats- Surviving the Titanic
Frederick Fleet was one of the lucky ones. He got away from the sinking liner on board lifeboat number 6, the first to be launched from the port side. There were between 24 and 28 people in his lifeboat, including Molly Brown. There were 17 first class passengers, two first class servants, one third class male and four crew, two of whom were women. Fleet was on board to row, commanded by Robert Hichens who had been at the wheel when the collision happened.
In fact, all six of the lookouts survived Titanic’s foundering. This is perhaps the only section of crew to have a one hundred per cent survival record. When they arrived in New York aboard the rescue ship, Carpathia, all were immediately corralled at the harbour so that their evidence could be given to the hastily arranged enquiry. Any hopes of a speedy return home to England were dashed by the need to know what had gone so badly wrong.
Much of Fleet’s evidence is given in the form of diagrams. Although crude representations of a large ship hitting an immovable mountain of ice, they do give clear indication as to where the iceberg struck Titanic and how such a huge hole was ripped into her starboard side. The drawings are reproduced in Jack Eaton and Charles Hass’ excellent book, “Titanic, Triumph and Tragedy.”
Eventually, the lookouts were shipped back to Britain aboard another White Star vessel, the Celtic. They arrived into Liverpool on May 6th. Fleet continued to serve at sea and was active in World War One and Two. After White Star’s merger with Cunard, Fleet worked for the Union Castle line. At Christmas, 1964, Fleet’s wife died and it is said that he became depressed. He had been down on his luck for some years. He took his own life in January 1965. Some say that he was plagued by guilt about escaping from Titanic, others imply that he had given up on life after a turn of fortune.
Laid to Rest- Frederick Fleet Memorial
Fleet was buried at Hollybrook Cemetery in Southampton but the grave remained without a headstone until the early 1990’s. The Titanic Historical Society decided that the man who first spotted the iceberg deserved more of a memorial and they paid to have a headstone erected for him in 1993.