Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas McKenzie for Coast Guard Northeast.
The Coast Guard enters its 99th year of patrolling the North Atlantic region, marking positions of icebergs much like the one that sank the Titanic nearly 100 years ago. The sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, was the key reason for the establishment of the International Ice Patrol.
The Titanic collided with an iceberg just south of the Grand Banks and sank within two and a half hours on the vessel’s maiden voyage from Southhampton, England, bound for New York. One thousand five hundred and fourteen people perished.
The scope of the disaster created considerable public reaction on both sides of the Atlantic, forcing governments into action and producing the first Safety of Life at Sea convention in 1914. The level of international cooperation required to produce this unprecedented document probably could not have been achieved during this era without the catalyst provided by the incident.
The U.S. Navy assigned the Scout cruisers Chester and Birmingham to patrol the Grand Banks for the remainder of 1912 after the disaster. The Navy could not spare ships for this purpose in 1913, so the Revenue Cutter Service — forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard — assumed the responsibility, assigning cutters Seneca and Miami to conduct patrols.
During the first International Conference on the Safety of Life at Sea, which convened in London on Nov. 12, 1913, the subject of patrolling the ice regions was thoroughly discussed. The convention, signed Jan. 30, 1914, by the representatives of the world’s various maritime powers, provided for the inauguration of an international derelict-destruction, ice observation and ice patrol service, consisting of vessels that would patrol the North Atlantic during the season of iceberg danger and attempt to keep the trans-Atlantic lanes clear of derelicts during the remainder of the year. Due primarily to the experience gained in 1912 and 1913, the U. S. government was invited to undertake the management of the service.
President Woodrow Wilson directed the then-Revenue Cutter Service to create the International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service on Feb. 7, 1914. The U.S. Coast Guard has maintained a patrol each year since, with the exception of wartime.
Congress enacted legislation on June 25, 1936, formally requiring the commandant of the Coast Guard to administer the International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service, and describe the manner in which the service was to be performed. This remains in effect today as the basic Coast Guard authority to operate the International Ice Patrol with only minor changes. There have been three SOLAS conventions since 1929: 1948, 1960 and 1974. None of these have recommended any basic change affecting the International Ice Patrol.
That the International Ice Patrol has maintained broad-based international support for more than seven decades is a tribute to the soundness of the basic concept of operations, despite changing operational and technological factors. Aerial surveillance became the primary ice reconnaissance method after World War II as surface patrols were phased out, except during unusually heavy ice years or extended periods of reduced visibility.
The International Ice Patrol offices, operations center and reconnaissance aircraft were based out of Coast Guard Air Detachment Argentia, Newfoundland, during the ice season From 1946 until 1966. The detachment closed in 1966 due to changing operational commitments and financial constraints. Its headquarters and operations center moved to Governors Island, N.Y., where they remained until October 1983.
Today the International Ice Patrol is located at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in Groton, Conn.