by Jim Currie
Students of the Titanic affair will be well aware of the name Mesaba and the part played by that ship leading up to the disaster. However, for those of you who are not, here is a brief resumé.
The steam ship Mesaba was originally built for the Wilson & Furness-Leyland Line. She was one of five sister ships purchased by the Atlantic Transport Line to replace ships which had been bought by the U.S. government for use in the Spanish-American War. She was what was known as a cargo-passenger ship.
As built, Mesaba was a 13 knot vessel. Like the Leyland liner Californian, her principal earnings came from carrying cargo but she was also fitted-out to accommodate a limited number of what were termed Saloon Passengers. These were located in 37 cabins: 16 on the promenade deck and 21 on the saloon deck.
Most of the evidence used in these pages comes from the transcripts of the evidence given at official inquiries into the disaster held in the United States and at London. It is fortified work done subsequently by Titanic historians over the years since that time. I am indebted in particular to the work of Dr. Paul Lee and the outstanding efforts of those dedicated Titanic researchers who produced complete transcripts of evidence given on both sides of the Atlantic. These are freely available to all at titanicinquiry.org.
One disturbing fact is that most of relevant information contained in this little paper was available to the 'experts' on both sides of the Atlantic in 1912. It has been available to 'experts' from then and right up until this moment. Yet we still argue!
Strange as it seems; although there was, (and still is) a veritable mine of information to be obtained from studying the Mesaba; only part of the ice report filed with the US Navy Hydrographic Office on April 19, 1912 and the ice warning message sent to Titanic shortly before she hit the iceberg were, and still are, considered relevant. This, I believe to have been gross neglect by the members and expert advisers of both the UK and US Official Inquiries.. This neglect was compounded by the members of Captain Knapp's team in Washington. Had the 19th April, 1912 Mesaba Ice Report been properly analysed by the Captain's staff, the Final Reports from the United Kingdom Wreck Commissioner and from the US Senate Committee headed by Senator Smith would have been drastically different. Not only that, but the mountain of books, films and documentaries about Titanic so far produced. would need to be partially, or in some cases, complete, re-working. In the following pages, with the help of a few sketches and maps, I will present the evidence in detail and where appropriate draw attention to salient points.
The following narrative has been built from an assessment of all the available and relative evidence relating to the Mesaba. In it, I have attempted to build a picture of the movements of the SS Mesaba from 11 am on the morning April 14, 1912 until she docked at New York on April 15. Following it's conclusion, I will open the Mesaba file and explain in detail how I arrived at the conclusion with which I will complete this work
On April 14, 1912, the Mesaba was heading for New York. On that voyage she was commanded by Captain O. P. Clarke. As with the SS Californian, Mesaba was not carrying passengers but was acting purely as a cargo ship. And, like Titanic, was following the prescribed route from Europe to new York followed by all regular liners.
At around 3-15 am that morning, Mesaba's Chief officer assessed that the ship had arrived at the prescribed turning point known to North Atlantic men as The Corner. Consequently, he caused her head to be brought round onto a course of 265 True. When steadied on this course, Mesaba was heading in a direct line for a point about 1 mile south of the Nantucket Shoals light vessel. But was she?
Later that morning of April 14, at about 9 am, Mesaba's navigating officers assembled on the port wing of the bridge and performed the ritual of morning sights. From these, and by the chronometer, they determined the Longitude for the ship's position at that time. As was the normal practice, they would carry this information up until Noon and then, at the moment when the sun was at it's highest and bearing due south, apply it to the sextant altitude of the sun and thereby determine the exact position for the ship. They would also be able to adjust ship's clocks to the exact, local time of 12 o'clock Noon, Not until then would they be able to determine for sure if she was where they wanted her to be.
At 11 am ship time, the officer of the watch sighted ice bergs and a raft of pack ice. Believing that Mesaba was right on the prescribed track, he estimated the ship's position by Dead Reckoning to be Latitude 41º-50'North, Longitude 49º-15'West. Consequently, he took note of that position and the nature of the ice. The recorded information would eventually be transmitted by wireless as a warning to other ships and also be included in a formal report to the Hydrographic Office of the United States Navy when the ship docked at New York. An hour after that, just before 12 o'clock ship time, Mesaba's captain and navigators assembled on the bridge for Noon sun sights.
The resulting Noon sights calculations were verified and an exact position for 12 o' clock Noon was obtained. At the same time, the ship's clocks were synchronised to the exact local time. The results of these Noon position calculations were a surprise to all. Instead of confirming that Mesaba was where they expected her to be, they showed her to be 15 miles to the north, northeastward and about 4 miles astern of the desired location. Consequently, Captain Clarke adjusted his course to 264º True and once again headed for a point 1 mile south of Nantucket Shoals light vessel.
Some time after 1 pm that afternoon, whiteness on the horizon ahead indicated the presence of ice. As the ship progressed, the whiteness began to fill the horizon. At 2 pm, after travelling a distance of 26 miles from Noon, as indicated on the patent log, they estimated that Mesaba had arrived near to the Latitude of 42º-00'North and Longitude of 50º-00'West. By that time, the ice barrier stretched from (4 points) 45 degrees to the right and out of sight on her starboard bow to almost 90 degrees to the left; almost abeam, due south and out of sight on her port side. Once again, the sighting together with time and ship's position were noted for subsequent reports to interested parties. At that moment, the ice was about 3.5 miles ahead of Mesaba and seemed totally impenetrable as far as the eye could see, There seemed no way through. Consequently, Captain Clarke ordered a 90 degree turn to the left and headed south to try and find a way round this troublesome ice which was barring his westward progress. He might have considered turning to the right and going to the north and west but he knew that the possibility of meeting with more ice was much greater in that direction.
At 2.22pm, Mesaba was heading southward, along the seemingly impenetrable barrier of pack ice. Captain Clarke knew that the Leyland liner Parisian was about 30 miles astern of Mesaba so he instructed his Marconi wireless operator to sent a warning message to her Captain.
Eventually, at a minute or two after 4 pm and after steaming for a distance of 52 miles from Noon, Mesaba came to the southern end of the heavy pack ice. The ship time was 4 pm and at that time, Captain Clarke was then able to alter course to the right and head west once again. For the next 20 odd miles, they continued to pass ice until about 5.43pm, they finally left it behind and the sea ahead was clear of danger. Just before 8 pm, Captain Hains of the Parisian contacted Captain Clarke and requested more information about the ice danger. Clarke was able to advise him of the limits of the heaviest pack ice.
At 9.30pm. Mesaba's wireless operator Stan Adams sent the following service message to Titanic:
''In latitude 42-45 (or 42-W) to 41-25. Long 49 w to Long 50-30 w., saw much heavy pack ice and great number large ice bergs. Also field ice. Weather good and clear.''
Titanic's wireless operator Jack Phillips acknowledged receipt of the message.
The next day, April 15, Mesaba was contacted by the Captain Haddock of the White Star liner RMS Olympic. The latter wished news of the stricken Titanic, Mesaba's operator said that he had no information about Titanic but sent Olympic a service message advising of the location of ice sighted the previous day.
Mesaba eventually docked at New York on April 18, 1912. The following day, a formal ice report was lodged with the US Navy Hydrographic office.
On Saturday, May,18, 1912, on Day 17 and 5 weeks after the event, Captain John T. Knapp of the US navy Hydrographic Office gave evidence in front of the assembled members of the US Senate Sub Committee which had been convened to investigate the circumstances surrounding the disaster. Besides verbal evidence, the captain provided written reports and a series of 3 Charts. At the outset, it should be noted that the charts in question were completely inaccurate. Principally because they were constructed in squares. i.e. Latitude was equal to Longitude. For those who are interested, the ratio between Latitude and Longitude at 42º North, 60 minutes of Latitude equals 44.6 minutes of Longitude. Charts 1 and 2 are reproduced as follows:
Hereafter, I have taken the liberty of updating all Captain Knapp's charts by removing notations regarding ship routes and position. The purpose of this will be come apparent.
Captain Knapp also produced a series of written reports, one of which was entitled:
''Reports of Wrecks, Derelicts, Ice and Other Obstructions to Navigation''.
Among other things this document listed ice reports completed by the masters of vessels who were in the area of the Titanic disaster during April 14, 1912. The name Mesaba was listed. I quote:
Copy. H. O. File 62728-2995. From S. S.Mesaba. Master, O. P. Clarke. Received in Hydrographic Office Apr. 19, 1912. From Branch Hydrographic Office, New York, N. Y.
April 14, 11 A.M., latitude 41° 50' north, longitude 49° 15' west, passed a quantity of bergs, some very large; also, a field of pack ice about 5 miles long.
April 14, 2 P.M., 42' north, longitude 50°, passed another field of pack ice with numerous bergs intermixed, and extended from 4 points on the starboard bow to abeam on the port side. Had to steer about 20 miles south to clear it. Ice seemed to be one solid wall of ice, at least 16 feet high, as far as could be seen. In latitude 41° 35' north, longitude 50° 30 west, we came to the end of it, and at 4 P.M. we were able to again steer to the westward. Saw no more ice after this. Weather clear and bright.‘‘
Obviously this report had been handed-in by Captain Clarke when his ship docked at New York on April 18, 1912. It is in two parts and as can be seen, the times are all in terms of local time at ship. However the times quoted do not correspond with the directions taken and distances steamed. Captain Knapp partially used the information given in this report to plot the path of Mesaba during April 14. This is shown in red in the following update chart.
In this next up-date, I have plotted all of the information recorded in the Mesaba Ice Report sent to the US Navy Hydrographic Office on April 19, 1912.
Comparison between original Charts 1 and 2 and update 2 shows a vast, oblique-angled area free of ice. This area is common to all of Captain Knapp's charts. The main reason for this is that that part of the Mesaba report which stated ''April 14, 2 P.M., 42' north, longitude 50°, passed another field of pack ice with numerous bergs intermixed, and extended from 4 points on the starboard bow to abeam on the port side. Had to steer about 20 miles south to clear it. Ice seemed to be one solid wall of ice, at least 16 feet high, as far as could be seen.'' was completely ignored.
It will also be noted that there is a notation at the bottom RH corner of Chart 1 which advises ''Nothing from Mount Temple'' . Yet in Chart 2 that vessel's movements are also plotted. Now that's curious. Why should there have been anything from Mount Temple? After all she was not bound for a United States port so was not obliged to inform the US Navy of her movements. However, Mount Temple was not completely ignored. Captain Knapp obviously had a transcript of the evidence given by her master, Captain James Moore. Otherwise how would Knapp have been able to plot her course in Chart 2 and make the following report:
An inspection of this chart will show that the Mount Temple ran into the southwestern end of this ice field at 12:55 A.M. (New York time), April 15. Thereafter to have reached the Titanic it would have been necessary for the Mount Temple to have steamed around the southern end of this ice barrier, and around it to the northward and eastward over 30 miles. As her highest speed does not exceed 13 knots (Lloyds Register) she could not have reached the scene of the Titanic disaster earlier than 3:15 A.M. (New York time) of that morning, or about 2 hours and 18 minutes after the Titanic sank (12:57 A.M., New York time).
To quote from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ….'' curiouser and curiouser''.
If Knapp had a transcript of Captain Moore's evidence he would also know that:
"My observation was this: My fourth officer took two observations, and of course, he is a navigator, and also, an extra master's certificate is held by him, which is a better certificate than mine, and he took those observations both times, and both of them tallied. One came 50º 9 1/2' west and the other came 50º 9 3/4'. Of course, it proved afterwards when, after coming southward and trying to find some place I could get through, on the way back again - I suppose about 6 o'clock in the morning - that I sighted the Carpathia.''
This means that Mount Temple was somewhere on a north-south line immediately to the west of the ice barrier.
So what shape was the ice barrier?
In fact, if Captain Knapp or one of his minions had paid close attention to that part of the Mesaba ice report which stated: ''April 14, 2 P.M., 42' north, longitude 50°, passed another field of pack ice with numerous bergs intermixed, and extended from 4 points on the starboard bow to abeam on the port side.'', the Titanic story so far would have to have been re-written.
The next illustration is of ''extended from 4 points on the starboard bow to abeam on the port side"
In drawing it, I have assumed that Mesaba was heading in an approximately west direction. I also assumed a height of eye of 55 feet for an observer on her bridge. The positions of Californian and Troutenfels have been added to show that the trend remained the same for almost 16 hours during April 14.
The line of the horizon from an observer 55 feet above the sea level is 8.5 miles away in all directions. This means that if an observer on the bridge of Mesaba saw a continuous line of ice, crossing the horizon in front of the ship from 45 degrees on the starboard bow to 90 to the left of the bow then the extremities of the ice, as far as the eye could see in all directions, was no more than 8.5 miles away.
From the evidence of Captain Rostron of the Carpathia, it has been suggested that the eastern edge of the ice barrier was orientated NW – SE. This could only have been possible if Mesaba or Carpathia were right up against the eastern edge. Then, the southern limit would vanish 4 points abaft the port beam, not on the port beam as described by Captain Clarke.
The final clues as to the exact movements of the Mesaba and hence the shape of the ice barrier come form information which Captain Knapp did not have.
From work done by Titanic researcher Paul Lee, we learn that during April 14, 1912, Clarke was at least twice in wireless contact with Captain Hains of the Leland Line vessel SS Parisian. Perhaps this additional information will shed light on the foregoing 4 pm erroneous time?
’Mesaba to Captain Hains, SS Parisian.
Noon Lat. 42.02N, Long. 49.25W....... now 5.40pm GMT. Lat 41,59N, Long 50-02W Passing many large icebergs and field ice. Complements, Clarke.'...''
And then :
''Yes, had to steer SW to clear end of ice which was in about Lat 41-35 N 50.30 West. Now 11-30 pm GMT Long 51-30W. Weather nice and clear. No ice in sight.....regards....Clarke''.
In this next chart, I have plotted the movements of Mesaba as indicated by the exchange with SS Parisian. The calculated Noon position helps to build a more accurate picture. I have also incorporated elements of the Hydrographic Office Report, namely the 2 pm DR and the passage on a course of due South. I have also included the Longitude given in evidence by Captain Moore of the Mount Temple.
The above chart begins to illustrate the gap between fact and fiction regarding the the shape of the ice barrier on that fateful day of April 14, 1912.
With the exception of the exchange of wireless messages between Mesaba and Parisian, Captain Knapp had exactly the same amount of information as we have today. Yet he omitted two crucial bits of information in compiling his charts and reports to the US Senate Inquiry members. Although he showed, as I have done, that the northern end of the ice barrier was trending to the NNE from about 42º-00'North, 50º-00'West, he omitted the following.
The information that Mesaba had to steam due South for a considerable distance to clear the ice. Thus showing that the major part of the eastern edge of the barrier was orientated North – South, not North East – South West.
The calculated longitude of the Mount Temple which showed the the ice western side of the ice barrier was to the east of Longitude 50-09.5'West . Thus illustrating the fact that Mount Temple was between the western edge of the ice barrier and Titanic' distress position. He may even have done as I have done and illustrated the information: ''
It is difficult to understand why someone of Knapp's experience would make these two glaring errors. Unless, of course, he did not make such errors but was told to go back to the 'drawing board' and come up with answers which would not call into question other evidence and which would allow blame to be allocated? For instance, what does ascertaining the true shape of the pack ice do for the evidence given by 4th Officer Boxhall of Titanic, Captain Rostron of Carpathia and Captain Lord of Californian?
Captain Knapp is more than likely to have done as I have done in this next sketch... plot the positions of ships which must have stopped at or circumnavigated that same ice barrier between the hour of 5am April 14 and Midnight April 14. He may have done just that, but we will never know if he did. We are saddled with the official version which we now know to be a complete concoction. Incidentally, the sketch below is constructed as a Mercator Projection as was the original chart used on Titanic.
I'm confident that experienced navy men of the calibre of Captain John J. Knapp USN and his subordinates would not have made the fundamental errors as shown herein when assessing the ice reports and witness evidence given during the US Inquiry.
I'm just as sure that they would have made their reports in full...'warts and all'. I believe that the man was ordered to re-write his final report and re-draw his charts to reflect the conclusions that....
A: That the distress position given out by Titanic was accurate.
B: That the evidence of the gallant Captain Rostron of the rescue vessel Carpathia could not be called into question.
C: That the real villain was, as shown in the US press, Captain Stanley Lord of the Leyland vessel Californian.
The felony suggested above was compounded by those 'experts' who advised Lord Mersey, the British Commissioner of Wrecks appointed to conduct the UK Inquiry into the disaster, Although they too had exactly the same information as did Captain Knapp USN and his men, there is no evidence to suggest that they conducted a separate assessment of that information. However I have no doubt whatsoever that they would have done so as a matter of form. Such an assessment by the learned men involved would have shown exactly what I now show in this little paper.
It does not take genius to imagine the reaction of British and American politicians who had 'dined' on the Titanic story to discover late-in-the day that what they had been supporting in the press was less than gospel truth.