Lightoller's Take on Californian


Scott Holiday

Hi all! I've been a lurker here for some time and finally decided to join the site. I've learned a lot here, and enjoy the lively debates and wealth of knowledge and research.

I didn't see any threads here on Lightoller's 1936 BBC Radio interview, which is available for listening here:

Fast fwd. the sound clip to about the 10 minute mark, and "Lights" starts discussing the Californian on the night of the sinking. He describes the Californian as being "a few" miles away, says that "everyone could clearly see her lights," and speaks of how she ignored Titanic's rockets which were being launched "every minute."

Don't get me wrong- I like old Lights and am well aware of his fascinating career and his heroism at Dunkirk during WWII, etc. But this BBC interview is so outrageous it really does make me question what kind of guy he really was. Lights goes on:

"What a chance her (the Californian's) captain missed! He could have laid his ship alongside the Titanic and saved everyone on board."

This statement is laughably absurd, and as a lifelong seaman Lights surely knew how patently false (to the point of absurdity) this statement was. Even if Cyril Evans had been wide awake and heard the very first CQD calls, and Lord got underway toward the rockets/CQD position IMMEDIATLEY, there is no way he was going to "lay the Californian alongside Titanic" and have everyone simply walk across a gang-plank and board the Californian. Lights knew damn well that this would've been impossible, and for him to make this sort of indictment against Lord while he was still living is pretty unprofessional and downright petty. Even if they'd left at the first CQD, about the best the Californian could've done is lower their own boats and throw some nets etc off the side for folks in the water to climb aboard (unlikely in that freezing water since dexterity leaves one's arms/fingers in as little as 5 minutes).

I just wonder why Lights would lower himself to making statements he knew beyond any doubt were mere pipedreams, and impossible in the view of any experienced mariner? After all, the guy was far from senile or washed-up at this point (1936), as just 4 years later he was sailing a little boat into Dunkirk and evacuating fellow Brits in wartime. What was the purpose in recording what he knew was an obvious impossibility 25 years after it happened? By this time his White Star days were long over and there seems to have been nothing to gain by making this outlandish and (for a seaman & holder of an Extra Master's Certificate) downright comical claim a quarter-century after the fact?

Was it mere bitterness towards Lord's negligence at not waking the wireless operator after sighting the rockets? An attempt to shift blame from Smith (and himself and other officers) for not slowing down amid the numerous ice warnings they'd received prior to the collision?
Michael H. Standart

Michael H. Standart

I doubt it was so much an attempt to shift blame as it was wishful thinking about what might have been had Californian acted more decisively.

Personally, I don't think they could have managed any sort of spectacular last minute "Cavalry-charging-to-the-rescue" sort of save, but the arguement that they should have tried is not that far off the mark. If nothing else, it would have spared Captain Lord a lot of grief in the future, and they might have saved a few more lives. Not many, but some.
Doug Criner

Doug Criner

Lightoller: "What a chance her (the Californian's) captain missed! He could have laid his ship alongside the Titanic and saved everyone on board."

I can't imagine that Lightoller was suggesting that Californian could have tied up to the sinking Titanic, and transferred survivors directly. Ships' boats would have been required to make the transfer - either that or transferring people one by one in bos'n chairs.

The verb "lay" sometimes has special meaning in nautical contexts. For example, in the U.S. Navy, consider this P.A. announcement: "Seaman J.P. Jones, lay to the bridge." That means "come" or "go" to the bridge. (I can't explain the derivation of this terminology, but I assume it is British, like much U.S. Navy terminology.)

Likewise, when a boat "lays" off or alongside an anchored ship, it means the boat will stay at some distance off the ship.