International Ice Patrol: Tragedy and the Beginning of the IIP

International Ice Patrol badge
International Ice Patrol badge. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

How did the organization International Ice Patrol begin, and why was it started?

The International Ice Patrol can trace its beginning to a very famous incident in particular, one that most everyone has heard of, even if you don’t know all the details.

On a clear, yet freezing night in April 1912, a luxury passenger ship on her maiden voyage was making her way to New York, her port of call. Having left Southampton, England on April 10, the RMS Titanic was carrying more than 2,000 passengers and crew.

Titanic leaving port for the last time. Courtesy of

Accounting for time, first-class tickets cost $5,000; second-class tickets were $700; and third-class tickets were $170.

The first-class passenger list read like a Who’s Who of American notables, many of them returning from holiday abroad. People like the Astors, the Wideners, Isidor and Ida Straus, and Benjamin Guggenheim stayed aboard in expensive suites. Approximately 60% of these passengers would survive the upcoming tragedy.

Second-class passengers were considered middle-class, yet they would have traveled in first-class on other ships of the time. They were professors, artists, and authors. About 50% would live through the Titanic tragedy.

Most of the passengers on Titanic held third-class, or steerage, tickets. They hoped to cross the Atlantic Ocean and find a new life waiting for them in America. Most were families joining their husbands, or brothers, or other bread-winners who had been sent ahead to search for work or other opportunities in the New World. Just 25% of them would complete the journey.

Due to a recent coal strike, ships were divvying up their short supply of coal. In order to keep her launch date, the Titanic received a majority of the coal available. As a result, many passengers who had berths on other ships, were shuffled to the Titanic. They were excited, but their date with destiny surely turned those feelings to dread.

At 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, 1912, many third-class passengers were abruptly awakened to water coming into their staterooms.

With a calm sea, a flat horizon, and no access to binoculars, the two men in Titanic’s crow’s nest failed to spot an iceberg directly in the ship’s path. Turning the ship at the last moment avoided a head-on collision, but below the water, the iceberg popped the steel rivets and opened the ship to the rushing sea. Titanic was doomed.

Throughout the previous day, Titanic’s wireless operators received a total of six warnings of ice in and around their location. Captain Edward J. Smith did not receive all the warnings. Unless they were addressed to “RMS Titanic,” it wasn’t a requirement to give them to the captain.

Most egregious of all was the failure to report a comment from the radio operator of the nearby Californian. The wireless on the Titanic had been down part of Sunday and private passenger messages were backed up. Jack Phillips, the senior operator on the Titanic, had finally fixed the radio and was frantically sending messages when Cyril Evans, operator on the Californian broke in.

“MGY this is MWL. We are stopped and surrounded by ice.”

The Californian was so close that he practically burst Phillips’ ears, and Phillips rudely shouted back, “Shut up! I am working Cape Race.” (Cape Race is on the island of Newfoundland and had a radio transmitter in use until its decommissioning in 2010. The Cape Race Lighthouse received Titanic’s distress call.)

Evans, having done his duty of reporting ice, then proceeded to turn off his wireless set, as was the custom, and went to bed for the night, missing Titanic’s distress call just a few short minutes later. The next morning would bring a firestorm of controversy that is still hotly debated today.

At 2:20 a.m., Monday, April 15, the majestic Titanic slid beneath the waters, taking more than 1,500 souls with her. The ship was not seen again until 1985, 73 years later.

Possible iceberg that sank the Titanic, seen in the vicinity the morning after the sinking. Red paint, the same color found on the hull of the Titanic, was smeared on the berg. Courtesy of

The spring season of 1912 was an exceptionally warm one. More icebergs than usual were breaking off the Greenland ice sheet, and they were drifting into shipping lanes.

When the Carpathia, rescue ship for the Titanic’s passengers, arrived at Titanic’s last reported coordinates and morning had dawned, Captain Arthur Rostron was amazed to see he was surrounded by icebergs and pack ice.

Somehow, he gathered the remainder of Titanic’s passengers and set course for New York, tending to the shell-shocked survivors along the way. He refused to answer queries from loved ones anxiously awaiting news ashore. One of those was from U.S. President William Howard Taft, who was inquiring about his military aide, Major Archibald Butt, who did not survive. Captain Rostron also declined Taft’s pleas.

International Ice Patrol

The trans-Atlantic public demanded a way to warn ships of ice dangers and prevent tragedies like the Titanic. Many earlier ships had been lost and/or damaged, but it took a large-scale disaster, the foundering of the Titanic, to finally wake up the public.

For the rest of 1912, the U.S. Navy patrolled the Atlantic, in order to warn ships of ice. In 1913, the Revenue Cutter Service, soon to be the United States Coast Guard, assumed the responsibility.

The 1913 inaugural International Conference on the Safety of Life at Sea discussed a permanent solution of patrolling the sea for ice dangers. On January 30, 1914, maritime representatives signed an agreement installing an early version of the International Ice Patrol.

A PB-1G on International Ice Patrol in 1948, seen from USCGC Mendota. Courtesy of the United States National Naval Museum.
PB-1G on patrol in 1948, seen from USCGC Mendota. Courtesy of the United States National Naval Museum.

In 1936, Congress enacted legislation formally requiring the Commandant of the Coast Guard to administer the International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service. Led by the United States Coast Guard, expenses for the patrol are split between 13 maritime nations.

The IIP works out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, in Maryland. Information regarding current ice sightings is issued from the U.S. Coast Guard Communications Command in Chesapeake, Virginia.

Ships transiting the northern Atlantic are required to use IIP’s services during the ice season. Ice patrol is primarily done by aircraft. Surface patrol is only used in heavy ice years.

Every year, since 1914, on the anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, the IIP lays a wreath at the site of the disaster. The ceremony includes a dedication read to the RMS Titanic and her fatalities.

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