Frederick Fleet

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

Iceberg straight 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.

Giving Evidence

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.

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User Comments 18

I think this is really sad if it is all true. We are learning about the Titanic in school and so we have had to find out a lot about it. I think it is quite upsetting, especially since a cruise ship went down not so long ago and people were injured or some even killed from that. I know that we cannot change history and so will have to accept it but i do hope everyone has learnt something from this.
barbara b 16 September 2012
wow strong to read i like :):):):
isabell 21 May 2012
This is why I find the twisting of facts in the movies so wrong. In the film 'Titanic' the lookouts are so busy watching Rose and Jack canoodling that they are distracted and don't see the iceberg in time. Some people might actually believe this, even though the two lovers are only fictional characters in the film.
Ann White 21 December 2011
The question of binoculars is a red-herring that has persisted since 1912. Binoculars do not help you to spot something, they help you to get a closer look and identify or examine an object once it has been spotted. Binoculars actually hinder the job of a lookout, as they narrow one's field of vision. As for the question of whether Fleet was to blame, there is evidence (from extra-inquiry sources) that Fleet reported at least three other bergs to the bridge between 2315 and 2340; if these sources are accurate, then those playing the 'blame game' ought to ask why Fleet's earlier warnings did not result in a course change or speed reduction.
Tom (Ottawa, Canada) 15 December 2011
Those in charge were complacent about everything including a lackadaisical attitude about binoculars for the lookouts. Perhaps with binoculars, Fleet may HAVE seen the iceberg sooner, thus evading the frozen knell of doom.
Jewels 14 December 2011
In spite of the lack of binoculars, Fleet was very sharp and swift in spotting the iceberg and acting upon it. I can imagine the state of his mind for the rest of his life, poor soul. Today we have counselling for survivor guilt.
Delyth Morgan 13 December 2011
Don't be silly. How could anyone blame this man?
Candi 13 December 2011
Since no one alive was there, and even then accounts differ, I think speculation about Fleets' culpability by this group is beyond ridiculous, bordering on libel. Whether the keys were available or not, breaking the case in a non-emergency would be vandalism. Any one of that crew could have attained a set, or had their own. To bring this up for the purpose of entertainment masked as research, is a discredit to the memory of of people who were doing their jobs the best they could with what was at hand at the time. They had no radar, no wind-screens (the wind chill at 20 Knots would have been brutal. I'd like to see YOU do their job perfectly in those conditions. Speculation on this is unconcienable and does him and others a disservice.
Mark 13 December 2011
Frederick Fleet cannot in any way have any blame placed on him, if you read the investigation report, he did everything humanly possible to avert this tragic accident, White Star are responsible for such awful loss of life!
Mr M Richardson 13 December 2011
I think this story contains an error:

'Moody gave the command, “hard to starboard” which turned the rudder right and the ship left.'

If you turn a rudder to the right, starboard, a ship will turn to starboard.

What it should be is:

'Moody gave the command, “hard to starboard” which turned the rudder left and the ship left.'

What I understand is that in those days rudder orders were given as if the ship had a helm stick instead of wheel. As every small sailing boat skipper knows if you push the helm stick to starboard the actual rudder goes to port and so does the ship.

You can't blame Fleet, you can't really blame anybody, it's the famous chain of events, it's not the first domino that causes the chain of dominos to fall over, it's the fact that the domino pieces have been placed so one stone can cause them all to fall that is the root mistake.
P. Spaas 13 December 2011
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