Why didn't the Titanic's lookouts see the Californian


Paul Lee

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Hi all,
From the recollections of Lee and Fleet, they didn't see anything from their perch before the collision. I know they have been criticised for their seeming late reaction tot he iceberg, even though their eyesight was sound (though windchill may explain this to some extent).

I work it out that the Californian, if she was 10 miles north, then her sidelights would have been seen at about 11.10pm, on a baring of 22.9 on the starboard bow (Fleet and Lee claimed that there was a slight haze two points either side of the bow at 11.30, which, by that time, the masthead lights and green light of the Californian would be about 36 degrees on the starboard bow).

How could they fail to miss this? Admittedly, the lights would have been small, but by 11.30, they would have been large enough to be noticeable. The two masthead lights would apparently be so close together as to fuse into one glow

Poor quality sketch coming up: (11.10pm approx 14/4/12, as seen from the crowsnest)

90249.jpg


Cheers

Paul

 
Dec 2, 2000
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Three poosibilities occur to me;

1)They weren't really looking.
2)They were never asked.
3)They were looking, but failed to notice the ship anyway for reasons we can only guess at.

After two hours up there with a ship induced 'wind' of 21 to 22 knots giving them a windchill factor of ~15° to deal with, their ability to notice anything might well have been seriously degraded.
 

Paul Lee

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Hi Michael,
Well, (1) would be a pretty poor excuse for a lookout, especially as Lee has responsiblity to cover the port sector.
Well, they were asked at the enquiries whether they saw anything before the collision and both said no.
3) seems a good reason (!), but as we both note, wind chill may be a good explanation!

Cheers

Paul

 

John Flood

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Hi Paul,

You say that Lee and Fleet didn't see anything from their perch before the collision. To the best of my knowledge, they didn't see any ship at all right up until they were relieved after 12.20am, which is quite strange as the Californian was stationary all night. So the wind chill factor must have been a very big er...factor in them not seeing the other ship.

All the Best,
John.
 

Paul Lee

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Aug 11, 2003
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I agree. And Fleet says that the other lookouts saw the ship, which puts time of sighting at about 12.20, as you say (although people turning out the lifeboats saw it first I think).

Cheers

Paul

 
Dec 4, 2000
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It is necessary to undertand that lookouts were not there to see and report everything. Their purpose was to report those things of navigtional significance to Titanic. Each captain has a different policy regarding what should and should not be reported. Lookouts soon got a sense of what the bridge expected and conducted themselves accordingly.

In 1912 the number of vessels on the steamer tracks was much larger than today. Note the number of ships known to be in the proximity of the sinking. Another ship may or may not have been of significance under normal conditions depending upon the density of traffic, the other vessel's heading relative to Titanic, and the range between vessels.

If you study the totality of the event, you will also see that the special instructions sent not once, but twice to the lookouts by Lightoller help explain the lookouts performance. These instructions were to pay particular attention to small ice and growlers. In effect, the men in the crow's nest were being told to direct the majority of their attention to otherwise easily-overlooked dangers in the ship's direct path.

In the modern world it is not uncommon to do the same thing with one radar unit on vessels with multi-radar sets. It is possible to adjust one display to show only the area directly ahead of the ship, eliminating information about objects to either side or behind your own vessel.

The so-called "seeing conditions" that night must be factored in--not only the clearness of the air but also the refractive effect of changes in air density caused by water vapor from evaporating and sublimating ice. It may have been possible for Californian to see Titanic, but not the reverse.

Next, look at the conditions of the North Atlantic on the miles of water surrounding the 1912 accident scene. The area was littered with ice, including "small ice and growlers." It is highly likely that the lookouts had, in a manner of speaking, their eyes full of things in close proximity to see. A ship on the horizon might not have been of significant importance at the time to be observed.

In conjuction with the above paragraph you must also know the heading of Titanic not only during the hours leading up to the accident, but from then until the ship foundered. It would not have been until after midnight that the ship's bow was free to swing into the northerly orientation it now retains. Perhaps Californian was not perceived earlier simply because it was not in front of the ship.

Distant lights off to one side of the ship would have been of little import to the lookouts while the ship was moving in ice. Although dim, the deck lights and light from cabin port holes would have served to mask from a deck-leve observer (through night blindness) any distant lights to port or starboard.

Only when Titanic rotated in the current to face Californian did lights on the horizon attract attention. At that point the built-in darkness of the bridge and foredeck (remember Murdoch ordering the hatch closed to protct his night vision) allow those lights to be perceived. And, by that time it was becoming obvious the ship needed outside assistance. People would have been seriously looking for another ship.

Looking for something urgently desired has a strange effect on the human brain. Our eyes only process the light. Perception occurs inside the brain and is a subjective process. During WWII in the Pacific a condition called "island eyes" was sometimes experienced. Lookouts expecting a landfall would report seeing islands complete with palm trees and maybe buildings despite the fact that nothing was there in reality.

The various eyewitness reports of "lights" to the north of Titanic are disparate enough to raise the possibility that many people were perceiving what they hoped to see and not what was on the horizon.

--David G. Brown
 
Mar 22, 2003
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An interesting trait of lookouts even on warships is that there is a tendency to look toward the direction in which the ship is moving. A very successful tactic used by submarine commanders during WW-II during night surface attacks was to come in from behind the escorts to penetrate a convoy. Granted, a surfaced sub with a low and narrow profile was always difficult to spot at night, but the lookouts in the convoy were trained to look for fast penetrating boats on the attack. Even if your sector was abaft the beam, it was determined that there was this tendency to look forward. (Good examples of taking advantage of this tendency is explained in the book by Richard O'Kane: Clear the Bridge! - The War Patrols of the U.S.S. Tang).

It does not surprise me that Fleet and Lee did not spot the Californian while they were up in the nest before the collision. After the collision, there was a tendency to look at what was struck. At the time that the Titanic started to swing up to the NNW following the collision, about 11:45-ish, the mast lights and sidelight from the Californian may have been just on the edge of being visible. At that time, according to Groves, Californian's heading was NE by compass. With 24W variation, that puts her facing about NNE true. The arc of the masthead lights and the starboard sidelight extended 2 points abaft the beam, or SSE true, which was about the bearing line to the Titanic as she was heading up. A little later, after midnight, the Titanic stopped on a line about SE true from the Californian, and the Californian's head had swung to an ENE compass heading, or NE true, about the time that Stone came on deck. Why by this time Fleet and Lee did not see Californian's lights can only be speculated. I believe they were more interested in seeing all the activity on the deck of their own ship by now since the Titanic had come to a stop, was blowing off steam making conversation difficult, and all hands had been called to uncover the boats. I guess they may have felt there was nothing to lookout for.
 
May 12, 2002
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Hi Dave,

I realise the dangers on this board of being an armchair theorist, but what the heck! You mentioned that refractive effects could have made it possible for Califonian to see Titanic but not vice versa. Could you explain how this works? In geometrical and wave optics, light is reversible. That is, if light can follow a path in one direction, it can equally well go back along the same path in the other direction. Refraction doesn't alter this. If you meant that, from Californian, Titanic's rockets, but not Titanic, may have been above the horizon then that's a different situation.

Cheers

Paul
 

Paul Lee

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I agree. I have had a long discussion with optical scientists on the newsgroups and they nearly all cite the principle of reciprocity - "what one sees, the other should see".

Cheers

Paul

 
Dec 4, 2000
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Paul & Paul -- I do not have a degree in optics or refraction, just personal experience that vision over the water is not always the same both ways. This is particularly true in haze or fog. The possibility of one-way reduced vision is addressed in the International Rules of the Road which are clear that vessels are "in sight" only when both can see each other. If one can see the other, but not the reverse, the two are not "in sight" under the rules and must act accordingly.

For an explanation of some of the mirage conditions possible, I advise reading Artcle 3516 in the current edition of Pub. 9, The American Practical Navigator (Bowditch) printed by the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency. In part, that book says:

"...objects appear distorted, displaced (raised or lowered), magnified, multiplied or inverted due to varying atmospheric refraction which occurs when a layer of air near the earth's surface differs greatly in density from the surrounding air...Objects which are below the horizon become visible. This is called looming...."

My experience tells me this a one-way phenomenon much like a telescope. Light going one way is sort of magnified, but the other way it is diminished in apparent size. This is only a guess, not a fact.

Atmospherics were only one of a number of things which are often overlooked in discussions of how the lookouts performed. And, they may not have played a role. Since I was not there with scientific equipment that night, I cannot say what the actual atmospheric conditions were. However, it is wise to consider all possibilities. Sometimes something as simple as a mirage may explain what is otherwise unexplainable. But, even if that did not happen, the possibility exists until ruled out by proof otherwise.

I would say that Lightoller's instructions had more to do with how the lookouts performed than the atmosphere. Another seldom-discussed factor may be fear. Would you admit in public that you saw a potential rescue ship, but did not report it? Or, would White Star want its employees to admit that Captain Smith had knowledge of another ship while Titanic was still capable of moving and did nothing? We can't rule out some "coaching" of the lookouts by White Star or its attorneys. The whole truth may not have been obtained in testimony.

However, I think Sam's assessment of Titanic's direction of travel is most probably the key to the whole affair. Titanic never pointed its bow toward Californian until about the time Boxhall took note of the other ship's lights. The men on Californian, however, had nothing else to occupy their time than to look at the lights of other ships. It doesn't seem at all mysterious to me that Californian's officers saw Titanic prior to when the reverse took place.

-- David G. Brown
 
Feb 24, 2004
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Oh, come on, guys!...

We all know the *real* reason the lookouts missed the iceberg and the Californian was that they were busy watching Rose and Jack making out!

'-)

Roy
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Would you admit in public that you saw a potential rescue ship, but did not report it?<<

Not if I wanted to have a chance at a job with the next ship I signed on with. In this case, I doubt that the lookouts needed any coaching at all. They weren't interested in career suicide.
 

Noel F. Jones

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Loth as I am t re-enter the lists on this contentious matter:

But really - all this ritual dancing around the subject! Witness 'coaching', optical illusions, one way fog, wind chill factor etc. etc.

The appropriate legal maxim has to be:

Causa proxima non remota spectatur.

I freely translate this as: look for the nearest, not the more remote explanations.

Lookouts are precisely that - lookouts. In a court of law the only equitable conclusion would be that at the material time neither vessel was in sight of the other.

All subsequent contention must necessarily proceed from there.

Noel
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>In a court of law the only equitable conclusion would be that at the material time neither vessel was in sight of the other.<<

Or that the parties involved decided for some reason to hide the fact that at the time, they could see each other just fine. Either way, I'm not going to make any assumptions.
 
May 12, 2002
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Hi Dave,

Thanks for your reply and the benefit of your experience. Your point about haze or fog makes a lot of sense - I guess it's a matter of contrast between the lights of the ship and the background. I suspect there could have been soom looming that night, as the still conditions would have produced fairly stable layers of air with different humidity and temperature. This is similar to the classic mirage effect in the desert. It would have affected the viewing from both ships in the same way though.

Cheers

Paul
 

Noel F. Jones

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"Or that the parties involved decided for some reason to hide the fact that at the time, they could see each other just fine. Either way, I'm not going to make any assumptions."

Precisely Michael. You just made one.

Noel
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Precisely Michael. You just made one.<<

Nope...I didn't. What I did was offer another possibility. Speculative, but a possibility nonetheless. It may be accurate, or it may not be, but I can't just dismiss it because I might find it unappealing on some level.
 
Dec 4, 2000
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In my opinion Noel has distorted the evidence to say that, "the only equitable conclusion would be that at the material time neither vessel was in sight of the other." The evidence supports that by the definition of the Rules of the Road both vessels were "in sight," but one did not choose to perceive the other. The true situation taken from sworn testimony is exactly the opposite situation to Noel's conclusion.

There is sworn testimony from Californian that another ship performing the evolutions of a sinking Titanic was visible that night.

The evidence from Titanic is that another ship was finally observed only when the sinking liner's bow turned toward that other vessel. This fits nicely into the normal operation of a ship as well as the "seeing conditions" (influenced by a deck lights) from a passenger liner where the bow is kept dark just for lookout ahead.

From the testimonies, we have a situation where ship A saw another vessel performing the actions of ship B. However, ship B did not see anything until sometime later when ship B was oriented so as to provide best view of ship A from the bridge of ship B.

"Causa proxima non remota spectatur."

The simplest explanation of the testimonies taken at face value is that the two ships were "in sight," but that ship B initially chose not to perceive ship A. Not seeing ship A was a seamanship decision by the crew of ship B for which they might have been held accountable under the Rules. However, failure to perceive another vessel does not mean the vesses were "not in sight" under the Rules of the Road.

There are many human errors and omissions in the memories entered into official testimony. This is compounded by deliberate distortions introduced both by the witness and the subjective questioning of the interrogators. The purpose of a legal proceding is seldom to discover the absolute truth, but rather to prove one point of view is superior to another. Facts are seldom important in courts or governmental hearings, the matter at hand is opinion--convincing either a jury in a legal proceding or the public at large in a governmental inquiry of a predetermined and politically expedient point of view.

In reading the testimonies it is critical to understand that many of the witnesses had much to fear. Lord knew he was being made a scapegoat. Californian's officers knew they could be held accountable for failing to properly notify their captain of a ship in distress. Fleet and Lee had to explain why the ship failed to dodge a lone iceberg which they apparently reported too late. White Star had to minimize any appearance of negligence on the part of Titanic and Captain Smith. Ismay had to dodge the issue of "privity and knowledge" of the management of the voyage. Senator Smith was a populist whose political aspirations could best be served by tweeking the nose of J.P. Morgan. Lord Mersey carefully turned his investigation away from every serious issue except the lack of lifeboats.

Most of the questions of fact we have surrounding the whole Titanic affair would have been answered if historians, not Senators and lawyers, had been asking the questions. And, of course, if the witnesses had been free to talk without fear of financial or political ruin. Unfortunately, we don't have such a "pure" record of events. What we have is highly distorted by legal, political, and economic pressures. And, the testimonies must be read with this in mind.

But, to discard the testimonies out of hand because they are not always mutually supportive is to destroy any possibility of gaining insight into what did take place. Californian apparently saw Titanic. The reverse is questionable. Titanic may or may not have seen Californian. That much is supported in the testimonies. To gain a better picture of what happened it is necessary to examine the "other ship" descriptions from both Titanic and Californian against events on the two ships and even on surrounding ships. Corroborations will appear for some of the testimony, while other testimony will be revealed as faulty.

This winnowing process will not reveal "The Truth." Rather, it produces nothing more than an ordering of probablities. Some events have a high probability of having taken place. Others will have such low probablility as to be ruled out as a working hypothesis. However even the testimony in this latter case cannot be discarded. It still must be explained within the context of the larger, more probable picture.

Unlike a court, we are not here to judge history but to reveal it.

-- David G. Brown
 

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