A Captain Accused

Titanica!

Captain Lord of the Californian

Capt. Stanley Lord

Confusion certainly abounds in the events surrounding the apparent inaction of 34 year old Capt. Stanley Lord of the Californian the night the Titanic went down. At 12:08 AM, 15 April 1912, Californian’s 24 year old Second Officer, Herbert Stone, came on the bridge to relieve Third Officer Charles Victor Groves. A few minutes later, 20 year old Apprentice James Gibson comes up to join him. Together, they were to stand the middle watch until 4 AM. Directly off their starboard beam were the lights of a steamer that had apparently stopped for night about ½ hour before. Both Capt. Lord and 3rd Officer Groves had seen the lights of this steamer come up from the east and then stop for the night. It was no surprise that she should do so, for at 10:21 PM Californian time, Capt. Lord had to order full speed astern to bring his ship to a stop just on the edge of an extensive ice field, a field of ice that ran from north to south as far as the eye could see.

For almost the next two hours, Stone and Gibson would watch this visitor until it disappeared about 2 AM. At that time, 2nd Officer Stone sent James Gibson down to report to Capt. Lord. From his written statement to Capt. Lord on 18 April 1912, while at sea before reaching Boston, Stone writes:

 

At 2:00 a.m. the vessel was steaming away fast and only just her stern light was visible and bearing S.W . ½ W. I sent Gibson down to you and told him to wake you and tell you we had seen altogether eight white rockets and that the steamer had gone out of sight to the S.W.

Herbert Stone
2/O Herbert Stone

 

This is consistent with the statement that Gibson wrote in his report to Lord also dated 18 April 1912:

 

Just after two o'clock she was then about two points on the Port bow, she disappeared from sight and nothing was seen of her again. The Second Officer then said, “Call the Captain and tell him that the ship
has disappeared in the S.W., that we are heading W.S.W. and that altogether she has fired eight rockets."

James Gibson
James Gibson

 

In Gibson's testimony before the British Inquiry he nails down the time he reported to Capt. Lord as "Five minutes past two by the wheelhouse clock.” Notice that in both written accounts, the observed steamer had gone out of sight by that time.[1] It was not just disappearing as Stone would later claim.[2]

Now Gibson's observations are interesting. When he first came on the bridge of the Californian at 12:15 he said the steamer that Stone pointed out to him was directly on their starboard beam. We also know from both Stone and 3rd Officer Groves that the Californian was pointing ENE magnetic at that time and was swinging to the southward. The bearing to the other ship was "SSE dead abeam" as reported by Stone. According to what Stone wrote in his statement, Lord whistled up the speaking tube at about 12:35 asking if this ship, which had apparently stopped for the night almost an hour before, had moved. Stone told Lord that the ship was still on the same bearing and had not moved at all. Also that he tried to call up the steamer by Morse lamp, just like 3rd Officer Groves did before him, and the steamer did not reply. During this time Gibson was off the bridge looking for some gear for a new log line. It is clear to me that Capt. Lord was satisfied that this steamer was indeed stopped for the night for the same reason that the Californian stopped for the night, and more importantly, that there was no indication whatsoever that this observed stranger was in any trouble.

Now just a few minutes after Capt. Lord called up on the speaking tube Stone sees a flash of light in the sky over the steamer. This 1st flash was taken by Stone to be a shooting star. But then he sees another flash soon afterward which he recognizes as a white rocket that appeared to him to be coming from some distance beyond the steamer's lights. Now in his testimony before the British Inquiry, and in his written statement to Lord, Stone says he saw 5 of these rockets and whistled down to Capt. Lord and reported seeing these lights in the sky in the direction of the other steamer, and they appeared to be white rockets. However, in Gibson's written statement to Capt. Lord, Gibson says:

The Second Officer [Stone] told me that the other ship, which was then about 3 ½ points on the Starboard bow, had fired five rockets and he also remarked that after seeing the second one, to make sure that he was not mistaken, he had told the Captain, through the speaking tube, and that the Captain had told him to watch her and keep calling her up on the Morse light.

Now Capt. Lord had testified that he was told about one rocket being seen. If Gibson's account is accurate, namely that Stone called Lord after the 2nd rocket was seen, then it is entirely possible that what Stone told Capt. Lord is that he had seen "lights in the sky in the direction of the other steamer” and one of them appeared to be a white rocket. If this is the way it really happened, then we have Capt. Lord being told by Stone that he saw what looked like a white rocket coming from the direction of that steamer that had stopped for the night over an hour before. The first of those two lights Stone was not even sure about. Lord's reaction to Stone’s report was to ask if they were private signals, which Stone did not know. He also asked Stone to continue to call up the steamer by Morse lamp and to send Gibson down if he got a reply. If this is the way it happened, then  the thought of anything seriously wrong with that steamer probably never even crossed his mind.

And why should it? A steamer appears to stop for the night for the same reason they did. For about an hour there is nothing at all to suggest that anything is wrong. The only strange thing is that this steamer, which everyone estimated to be about 5 miles off by the look of her lights, did not respond to their attempts to make contact by Morse lamp. All of a sudden, over an hour later, what looks like a rocket is seen. Was it a rocket or wasn't it? Was it a company signal or a distress signal? Why would a ship in distress first send off a distress signal over an hour after it had stopped for the night? After all, ice doesn’t run into stopped ships, moving ships run into ice.

Now with hindsight we can say that Lord should have assumed the worst immediately and taken a more active role, including going topside to see for himself what was really going on, or ordering Cyril Evans, the Marconi operator, be woken up to try and contact the steamer by wireless. But if Gibson’s account was accurate, and if Lord was told about lights in the sky of which only one looked like a white rocket, then it is easy to understand why Lord reacted the way he did. There was no apparent need to get alarmed because what was reported to him by Stone at that time was not alarming. If, however, he was told by Stone that 5 rockets were fired at intervals of 4 to 5 minutes apart, then that would be a very different story, indeed.

The next time we find that Capt. Lord was contacted was at 2:05 AM when Gibson came down and woke him up from an apparent deep sleep to report that the other ship had disappeared to the SW. That is well over an hour after the time he was first informed about seeing what looked like a white rocket from Stone. Although Gibson also told Lord at that time that the ship had fired a total of 8 white rockets, he also reported (from what Stone told him) that the ship had steamed away to the SW before it disappeared. So how could it, or why would it, steam away if it were a ship in distress? This would make no sense to Capt. Lord, nor would it to any one else. So it is very understandable why Capt. Lord would ask about there being any color in the signals. If it wasn’t distress signals, could it have been company signals? When 2nd Officer Stone called down about 40 minutes later he again reported to Lord that he “had seen no more lights and that the steamer had steamed away to the S.W. and was now out of sight, also that the rockets were all white and had no colours whatever.”

What is so strange about all of this is the observations of 2nd Officer Stone. It was Stone who was reporting compass bearings while Gibson was only reporting relative bearings. It was Stone who said the ship they were watching was steaming off from SSE toward the southwest, and disappeared bearing SWx1/2W, a compass change of 6 ½ points. We also know, and I believe that today there are few who would say otherwise, that the rockets that were seen by Stone and Gibson on the Californian had come from the Titanic. Stone told the British Inquiry that he “could not understand why if the rockets came from a steamer beyond this one, when the steamer altered her bearing the rockets should also alter their bearings.” He admitted that the Californian was swinging around throughout the night, something that Gibson and 3rd Officer Groves had also noted, and Capt. Lord acknowledged. I believe that when Stone said “I observed the steamer to be steaming away to the S.W. and altering her bearing fast,”  what he saw was the relative bearing change as Californian’s head was swinging back the other way. At the time he assumed that his ship was still pointing to the WSW when it may have been swinging back toward the South. This may also explain some of Gibson’s confusion regarding the direction that his ship was swinging when he was asked about that at the British Inquiry:

7770. When the officer told you she was going away to the S. W. were you still seeing her red light? - No, it had disappeared then.

7771. Did you ever see her green? - No.

7772. To show you her red light she must have been heading to the northward of N. N. W., on your story? - Yes.

7773. And your head was falling away; which way? - To northward.

7774. To northward and westward? - Northward and eastward.

That night there was mostly a flat calm. But whatever wind there was, it was very light and variable. The helm of the Californian had been left hard aport after she stopped. Overall, the Californian was swinging around to starboard most of the night. But if she swung the other way for a short time, things could appear to change in an unexpected way very fast. And if Stone did not bother to check the compass all the time but took the relative bearing to the observed ship and adjusted it to the compass heading he looked at before, it is entirely possible to get the wrong result and form an erroneous conclusion. Charles Groves had characterized Stone as “a stolid, unimaginative type who possessed little self confidence.” That may or may not be true. But, apparently, he must not have been a very careful observer.

After Gibson returned to the bridge about 5 minutes to 1 AM, and Stone told him about seeing 5 rockets and speaking to Capt. Lord about it, Gibson decided to look for himself. In his written statement to Capt. Lord Gibson describes what happened next:

I then watched her for some time and then went over to the keyboard and called her up continuously for about three minutes. I then got the binoculars and had just got them focused on the vessel when I observed a white flash apparently on her deck, followed by a faint streak towards the sky which then burst into white stars. Nothing then happened until the other ship was about two points on the Starboard bow when she fired another rocket. Shortly after that, I observed that her sidelight had disappeared, but her masthead light was just visible, and the Second Officer remarked after taking another bearing of her, that she was slowly steering away towards the S.W. Between one point on the Starboard bow and one point on the Port bow I called her up on the Morse lamp but received no answer. When about one point on the Port bow she fired another rocket which like the others burst into white stars. Just after two o'clock she was then about two points on the Port bow, she disappeared from sight and nothing was seen of her again.

There was no doubt on Gibson’s part that the rockets were coming from this strange visitor. And there was more. According to Gibson’s account before the British Inquiry, between 1 AM and 2:05 AM during the middle watch:

The Second Officer remarked to me, “Look at her now; she looks very queer out of the water; her lights look queer.” I looked at her through the glasses after that, and her lights did not seem to be natural. When a vessel rolls at sea her lights do not look the same. She seemed as if she had a heavy list to starboard. Her lights did not seem to look like as they did do before when I first saw them. He [the Second Officer] remarked to me that a ship was not going to fire rockets at sea for nothing.

Figure 1 :  Lights of a steamer seen through glasses

The lights of the stopped steamer and an exploding rocket signal as seen through glasses
Superimposed on the left is a picture of what a full moon would look like for reference.

Yet Stone, the officer of the watch, took no further action. Why? According to Stone’s testimony,

“It did not occur to me because if there had been any grounds for supposing the ship would have been in distress the Captain would have expressed it to me.” But one must ask how could one expect Capt. Lord to express such a concern if he, Stone, had not provided him with any solid grounds for such concern? Lord wasn’t on deck watching the other vessel. Stone was. Lord did not see nor was he apparently informed yet that the observed vessel was firing multiple rockets off at short intervals. Stone did. Lord did not see nor was he informed that the other vessel’s lights started to look “queer.” Stone did. According to Gibson, both he and 2nd Officer Stone had been talking about that observed ship for some time, and they express concern to each other “that everything was not all right with her.” Yet Stone thought nothing of sending Gibson down at that time to wake Lord and get him to come up on deck, or to wake the wireless operator to see if he could find out anything. But why?

According to Gibson’s account, “About twenty minutes past one the Second Officer remarked to me that she was slowly steaming away towards the south-west.” What Stone and Gibson first saw was the disappearance of the steamer’s port sidelight before Stone made that remark to Gibson. Stone was to claim that the steamer turned away, but Gibson said he never saw the steamer turn away. Stone was to claim that he could see the steamer’s stern light, but Gibson said he never saw a stern light, only the glow of the vessel’s masthead light after its red sidelight disappeared. To Stone it appeared that the steamer was changing her compass bearings as it was steaming away to SW. To Gibson the steamer was firing rockets while its relative bearings were changing from “3 ½ points on the Starboard bow” to “about one point on the Port bow.” Stone was the seasoned officer with 8 years experience at sea; Gibson the young apprentice with only 3 years at sea.

What Stone and Gibson were looking at in that crisp, clear, and relatively calm air that pervaded that dark, moonless night were the lights of another ship, not a tramp steamer 5 miles off as they thought, but a much larger passenger ship more like 10 to 12 miles away, hull down over the invisible horizon.[3] What looked like a ship that shut out her red sidelight to Stone and Gibson was a sidelight that went below the horizon as the ship sank deeper by the head as it lay motionless on the flat Atlantic, mortally wounded after striking an iceberg just hours before. What they saw as a change in the appearance of her lights was caused by the increased down angle as water continued to flood her compromised forward compartments. What they saw rising into the air for all to see were regulation distress socket signals in a desperate cry for help from whoever was in sight. Yet, there was confusion and inaction because the Californian’s head was swinging that night. There seems to have been an apparent failure to get accurate compass bearings on the lights of the vessel or the rockets that it sent aloft. There seems to have been no notice taken of the relative position of the observed lights against the background of stars. As 2nd Officer Stone had said, “I knew that rockets shown at short intervals, one at a time, meant distress signals, yes…[but] a steamer that is in distress does not steam away from you.” And so they watched and waited until the vessel disappeared. They were only human.

Now what happened after daybreak and how Capt. Lord handled things upon hearing that the Titanic went down is another story altogether. Upon hearing that the Titanic had struck an iceberg, Capt. Lord set off at 6 AM for the reported location to search for survivors. In fact he steamed across the pack ice toward the reported SOS position only to find the Mount Temple and some other small ship there. There was no sign of any wreckage. After stopping about 7:30 for some short time, he steamed a little further southward and bravely cut across the pack ice once again, this time heading ENE true, to where the Carpathia was stopped, pulling along side of her about 8:30 AM.[4] Despite all this, at some point Capt. Lord must have realized that what his 2nd Officer and Gibson may have seen that night could have been the distress signals sent up from the Titanic. The mistake he made was to try to cover up the events that took place during the middle watch. There was nothing written about the events of that night in the logbook of the Californian, and there is some question about the latitude value that was entered for their 10:21 PM stopped position for the 14th of April. However, once the story came out that rockets were seen during the middle watch, he found himself having to defend not only his actions and inactions, but those under his command as well. At that point the world found someone who was alive that they could point to for the great loss of life that resulted from someone else’s failure. They unjustly blamed Capt. Lord for being asleep while the Titanic was calling for aid from whoever was able to see her signals and hear her wireless. They unjustly blamed him for not coming to the aid of a vessel in distress. They could not understand why he failed to act when rockets were seen, or why his officers watched and did nothing. Lord lost his job for failure to act. Yet, if I am right, his reaction when Stone first informed him about seeing that white rocket was not inappropriate to the limited information he was given. And when he did receive more information later that night, it was both confusing and too late.

Yet nobody blamed Capt. Smith for not being on the bridge all the time that the Titanic raced at her highest speed ever toward a region of known ice, or for not insisting that additional lookouts be posted on the forecastle and out on the bridge wings. In fact, it was just the opposite. In the world of popular opinion and never ending comparisons, Capt. E. J. Smith of the Titanic comes out of this almost looking like a hero. He had gone down with his ship. He was depicted as trying to save the women and children on board. Yet the reality is that nothing seemed to have been done proactively to insure that all of the women and children of 3rd class, all of whom could have and should have been saved, ever made it to the boat deck and into in the few lifeboats that were available. But Capt. Smith was dead and Capt. Lord was alive. The world found a lamb to sacrifice for the sins of others.

I hope that this paper may allow you to see things a little differently. I hope you can understand that what may seem obvious to us today with hindsight may not have been so obvious to Capt. Lord, or anyone else for that matter, on that night to remember.


Notes

[1] 2:05 AM Californian time would have corresponded to 2:16 AM Titanic time base on the each ship’s local apparent noon longitude of April 14th 1912. About that time the lights on the Titanic had gone out. It is only the disappearance of her lights that would be seen from another ship some distance off.

[2] Stone would later claim at the British Inquiry that the ship did not disappear until 2:20 AM, and that he called down to Lord on the speaking tube at 2:40 AM to tell him that nothing was seen of her again.

[3] Even Capt. Lord had remarked, “We could not distinguish where the sky ended and where the water commenced.”

[4] Capt. Rostron of the Carpathia said: “The first time that I saw the Californian was at about eight o’clock on the morning of 15th April. She was then about five to six miles distant, bearing W.S.W. true, and steaming towards the Carpathia

 

Related Biographies:

James Gibson
Stanley Lord
Herbert Stone

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