Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Line in the Water

Photographer John  Legge posted this image on the Visit Derby
web site in honor of Samuel Plimsoll's life-saving contribution.
Early this morning, I heard a story on the 99% Invisible design program, in which Roman Mars expressed his admiration for the elegant design of the Plimsoll Line. In looking for the program online, I also found a very nice 2008 BBC story about Samuel Plimsoll's political struggle to get a simple line painted on ships.

The simple line is a triumph of design and -- to be honest -- of the triumph of good over evil.

Honored in Bristol England
Photo by Mike Smith
via Roman Mars 
Now taken for granted on ships throughout the world, the 450mm-long line marks the maximum depth to which a ship can be safely loaded. If the line is not visible at or above the water line, the ship is too low in the water and subject to sinking. The lines to the sides of the basic Plimsoll Line indicate adjustments for the density of water by salinity and season.

The Plimsoll story piqued my interest because of my general pursuit of all things nautical these days. It is also relevant to my teaching about environmental and safety regulations, as it is an unusually clear case of greed (and evil) blocking an obvious need for reform.

I am currently reading Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, which describes many of the ways in which indifferent ship owners put the lives of their crews in danger. I purchased the book at the Bookworks on Nantucket, where most of the wealth generated by whaling accumulated. As cavalier as ship owners were with the lives of their sailors in 1819, they had become even more likely to take risks by the middle of the century, when insurance made ships worth more at the bottom of the sea.

As a member of parliament, Samuel Plimsoll found this unacceptable. It may be that the insurance companies would have eventually ended the practice of overloading ships (known as "coffins" by wary sailors), but by 1873 they had not acted, so Parliament did. The mandate to include Plimsoll's simple mark was a compromise -- he wanted stricter regulations -- but the intervening years it has saved many thousands of sailors from a watery grave.

Related Non-News
Readers of this post are very unlikely to have heard of the wreck of the Stena Primorsk, an oil tanker that ran aground on the Hudson River on December 20, 2012. The reason the wreck is little-known it is a double-hulled ship. Most tankers have been double-hulled since the 1989 Exxon Valdez wreck (a DUI of catastrophic proportions on the part of Captain Hazelwood). It has been against considerable industry resistance that most countries in the world have pledged to ban single-hull tankers by 2015. Although Exxon does continue to use them, they are now rare because regulators imposed restrictions over industry objections.

Roman Mars (in the story above) explains why these shoes are still sometimes called Plimsolls in the UK:

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