Californian's Approximate Position Determined


John Hemmert

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Oct 16, 2002
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Hi all,

Been "down" for a while, but still working on "Republic". In my free time, I was going over the transcripts of the US "Titanic" Inquiry, and reading other pertinent works.

Kind of weird. You read a book twice, and until you see something that puts a paragraph in context, you don't think about it. I read it a third time with the testimony of Capt. Lord fresh in my mind, and things got interesting...

Commodore Sir James Bisset's book "Tramps and Ladies" (1959, Angus & Robertson Ltd., London, UK) holds the key to this poser.

In 1912, James Bisset was the 2nd Officer of the "Carpathia". He was on "lookout" duty, (Port bridge wing) keeping an eye out for bergs, as "Carpathia" ran hell bent for leather towards "Titanic's" sinking position. They arrived at the position of "Titanic's" lifeboats just as dawn was breaking.

Visibility was clear, the sea was only slightly choppy, as a breeze was kicking up.

As Captain Lord would testify, "Californian" would not get under way until 6:30. (About 6:00AM "Carpathia" time. - A discrepancy of 20-30 minutes between ship's times is fairly regular, depending on the various ship's positions at the start of an "event", and whether or not someone remembered to adjust them for partial time zone movement during an emergency.)

Here's the pertinent quote, (I've capitalized the important bits) from an eye-witness never called to the stand in either inquiry:

("Tramps and ladies", Chapter 24, Page 291)

"While we had been picking up the survivors, in the slowly increasing daylight after 4:30 a.m., we had sighted the smoke of a steamer on the fringe of the pack ice, TEN MILES AWAY from us to the Northwards. She was making no signals, and we paid little attention to her, for we were preoccupied with more urgent matters; BUT AT 6 a.m. WE HAD NOTICED THAT SHE WAS UNDER WAY and slowly coming towards us.
When I took over the watch on the bridge of the 'Carpathia' at 8:00 a.m., the stranger was little more than a mile from us, and flying her signals of identification. She was the Leyland Line cargo-steamer 'Californian', which had been stopped overnight, blocked by ice."

The implications of the above statement are enormous. "Californian" was sighted 10 mile from "Carpathia's" Southerly approach to the lifeboats BEFORE "Californian" had gotten underway from being stopped by ice all night.

"Californian" would have drifted at the same rate as the lifeboats for the time before she was sighted, and her relative position to the "patch of water" that "Titanic's" lifeboats were deposited into would not have changed. The only variables would be that a few boats "pulled" North towards her, and that "Carpathia" came in from the South. The approximate distance from "Titanic's" sinking and the "Californian" could be "guessed" as being about 10 miles.

Keep in mind, that the "Titanic", seen at 10 miles, and mistaken for a "tramp", would seem to be much closer to "Californian".

James Bisset, 2nd Officer to the "Carpathia", in 1912, held both an "Ordinary" and an "Extra" "Master's certificate" as issued by the British Board of Trade. He was deemed able enough to follow in Captain Rostron's footsteps, and ascend to the position of "Line Commodore" for Cunard Line.

Has anyone else brought this bit up before?

Best regards,
John.
 

Dennis Smith

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Aug 24, 2002
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Hi John,

That'll let the cat out amongst the pigeons if it is correct, and why shouldn't it be correct. My personal opinion is that the "Mystery Ship" was the Californian, but what the hell, I'm no expert, so I've kept my opinions to myself.

What does surprise me is, if this Info was available at the time of the enquiries, why wasn't the man called to give evidence. I can appreciate that there was an awful lot going on on the Carpathia at the time, but surely something like this would have been so relevant it would have been logged, or at least mentioned to Capt. Rostron, who would have surely testified to this at the enquiry.

Best Wishes and Rgds
Dennis
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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John, the story is old news to anybody who has studied the Californian affair in any depth.

Personally, I wouldn't trust Bisset's account very far. It was written long after the event and ghost-written as well. There are passages that suggest he invented details after reading books and papers, notably his account of radio ice warnings received by Carpathia. As so often in the Titanic story, his credibility must be weighed carefully.

I've long ago demonstrated that Californian was not less than 10 miles from Titanic during the sinking, using purely nautical methods. The problem was that she was close enough to see Titanic but not close enough for Stone and Gibson to understand what they we seeing.

My investigation is at Californian's Position

There are perhaps a few minor details I would now change, but overall I stand by it.
 

John Hemmert

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Oct 16, 2002
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Hi Dennis,

The absence of that testimony, and Captain Rostron's failure to "bring it up" opens a whole new "can O worms". I haven't gone over the British inquiry transcripts yet. (I only just acquired them.)

In the American Inquiry, though, Rostron was not asked about it, and the selection of witnesses was pretty slipshod. I think a lot of people should have been called up that weren't.

I think one of the problems with anything that was left unsaid by ship's officers might have been the actual circumstances that Capt. Lord found himself in that night. He had been forced to execute a "crash stop" to avoid the ice, and then had his wireless operator send out a message "We are surrounded by ice". (If danger is real enough for a crash stop to be ordered, then it must be pretty nasty, I've heard that full reversing the engines while going full ahead on those old steamers could cause serious damage to the propellers and/or shaft on occasion.) The "Californian" was in a very real, life-threatening situation. To get under way, in any direction, would have been insanely risky. Capt. Lord wanted to wait until daylight, (Throwing away 7 hours of precious travel time) to get back under way. If backing out and making way to skirt the ice field were an easy thing, he'd have simply done it that night instead of stopping. As it was, after day came, it still took 2 1/2 hours to go that 10 miles.

What I'm guessing (Pure conjecture) is that Capt. Rostron understood Capt. Lord's position, and simply refrained from "throwing stones" at a fellow mariner who had merely wished to save his own ship. If the "Californian" HAD, in fact, tried to wend her way out of the ice to assist, she quite possibly might have ended up on the bottom as well. Perhaps it was more that "Californian" couldn't do anything that night, rather than "wouldn't" do anything?

Best regards,
John.
 

John Hemmert

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Oct 16, 2002
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Hi Dave,

Many thanks! Now THAT is an excellent website! Looks like you answered my question as to whether anyone had ever considered that paragraph. You definitely did.

Quite correct on the distance being "estimated". If it were 12 miles, and Bisset guessed 10, he wouldn't have been far wrong. And I doubt he had a "rangefinder" to use to confirm his estimate.

On Bisset's account, yes, definitely written long after the event. (And ghost written, at that.) But he does seem a man with an eye for retaining details. His description of the night's weather and visibility ("watersky") conditions, tallies quite well with Lord's own accounts.

On the radio ice warnings received by "Carpathia", there are some that are suspect? If they're not inaccurate, he might have gotten them from "Carpathia's" "Process Verbal (Wireless) Log". - All incoming messages of a general nature would have been recorded there, or on standard message forms.

On your site, you mention that "Californian's" log was destroyed in WW-2. I'm now curious as to whether "Carpathia's" log has survived. The sighting of "Californian" in the morning would possibly have been recorded there.

Heh! the "old" methods of navigation would have given my Dad fits. He was incredibly fussy about accuracy. But then, he was chief navigator for a aerial bombardment group in WW-2, and not merely trying to chug a freighter across an open expanse of ocean in peacetime.

Navigational inaccuracy was pretty rife back then. But then, that's how a lot of collisions occurred.

Best regards!
John.
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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John, Bisset listed the ice warnings sent to Titanic as being received by Carpathia. Rostron denied receiving ice warnings. (Sorry I've not time to look up the reference.) Rostron said he based his course on ice information from Cunard's New York office.

To my mind, there is far too much in Bisset that is also in the two inquiries and in Walter Lord. We must ask whether he had a good memory or whether he was repeating common knowledge.

Since Captain Rostron at the time stated that he did not see Californian until she was close to Carpathia, I'd assume his log showed the same thing. I prefer his 1912 evidence to the third hand account of him retracting it cited by Leslie Reade. As I said, it's a matter of evaluating the witness.

Part of Carpathia's PV is on the Marconi web site. It is very short on detail. I'm pretty sure the ship's log has been destroyed.

I won't go into Captain Lord and his motivations. The more I've gone into it, the more I've been convinced that all can be explained by the modern adage "s**t happens".
 

Paul Slish

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Jan 18, 2006
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I have a question perhaps Dave Gittins can answer since he is an experienced yachtsman. In Bisset's long after the fact account, he mentions neither number of masts or funnel color of the vessel he claims to have seen 10 miles to the north. With 1912 level of quality binoculars (and he doesn't even say he was using binoculars), could Bisset have positively identified a ship that was ten miles away? It seems to me at 10 miles it would have been pretty close to the horizon. How could you possibly positively ID it at ten miles? The Californian steamed through the ice field away from the Carpathia not directly toward it. As an experienced sailor Dave, what do you think of the possibility of identifying a ship 10 miles away in the still early morning light?

Thanks, Paul Slish
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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Flattery will get you anywhere!

At ten miles off Californian was partly below Bisset's horizon. He says himself that at first he saw only smoke. The only way he could be sure the smoke came from Californian would have been to watch the approaching ship until she came close. Until she did so, she'd appear to be any old freighter. Bisset says he saw her identification flags at one mile. To actually read her name, she'd have to be within a mile or so. Even today, names on ships are usually in quite small letters.
 

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