Titanic and Californian

Gavin Don asks if the SS Californian, under the command of Stanley Lord, was close enough to have assisted the sinking Titanic.


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A huge amount of ink and hot air has been consumed and produced over the controversy of whether the steamer Californian could have saved Titanic's passengers and crew on the night of 14th April 1912. In short, one side of the case argues that Californian was variously 5 to 10 miles from Titanic and saw her distress rockets clearly, while the other argues that Californian was some 20 miles from Titanic, and saw rockets from another mystery ship located between her and the Titanic (rockets were in standard use as ship recognition signals in those days).

The argument is hugely confused firstly by ambiguous and downright contradictory testimony from dozens of witnesses given at two inquiries (one in the US, and one in the UK) to lawyers and judges who knew in turn nothing of the sea and therefore didn't know what questions to ask, never mind what the answers meant.

A second source of confusion flows from the miscellany of positions recorded by Titanic herself, and by the various deck officers of the seven ships which came to her assistance next morning. The discovery of Titanic's remains removes some of the ambiguity of her own position, but not all, as studies show that she probably planed to her resting place in the two or three mile trip from the surface to the bottom. And of course the wreckage removes none of the ambiguity of the positions of her rescuers at various times.

Carpathia After a brief and fascinating study of the reports and statements surrounding the movements of the Californian, this writer struck on the simple approach of ignoring the question of absolute positions, and simply applying Dead Reckoning in reverse, working back from the time and position at which Carpathia encountered the first of Titanic's lifeboats – namely 0410 (Carpathia Time – each ship ran its own ship time). Carpathia stopped to pick up survivors, and we may assume that she did not move substantially from that position for the next four hours as she recovered each of the sixteen boats in turn.

At 0800 on the 15th, roughly five hours after the sinking, Carpathia reported that Californian was positioned approximately 250 degrees T (True Bearing), 6 miles from her. Californian had arrived at that position via two distinct maneouvres. First, at 0600 Californian flashed up her wireless set, and received a message that Titanic had sunk. Californian, realising she was close (how close we will see in a moment), raised steam, having been stopped and drifting since 2200 the night before, and started to move cautiously west towards what she thought was Titanic's position. Cautiously, because Californian was surrounded by a broken ice field – the reason she had stopped the previous night.

It appears she took approximately 30 minutes to transit the ice field. If we assume she did so at 6 knots – fast enough for good steerageway, but slow enough to give her time to react to ice, and not to suffer damage if she hit a berg, then she would have made good 3 miles of westing.

She then turned to about 185 T towards Titanic's reported position, and we next hear of her being spotted by Carpathia at 0800, as noted above. Between leaving the ice field and being spotted by Carpathian Californian spent some 90 minutes at her top speed – about 12.5 knots. We don't know her exact course – she had been given a position for Titanic which led Captain Lord (her Master) to conclude that the wreck position lay about 14 miles 200T from her starting position. She might have headed slightly more west, then turned to port and headed SE, in a search pattern of sorts, arriving at her 0800 position after 90 minutes, or she might have steamed straight there. Either way simple trigonometry says that her starting position (going back east of the ice field) would have to have been roughly a maximum of 15 miles 345T from Titanic's actual sinking position.

It should be noted that several unambiguous statements made by Californian's deck officers and master suggest that she was closer, but it is notoriously difficult to estimate distance at night, and some of the reports come from a junior rate stoker who would have had no experience estimating distance at any time of day.

If Californian was indeed 15 miles 350 T from Titanic, would she have seen Titanic, and/or the eight or so (maybe six, maybe twelve) rockets Titanic fired? Californian's visual horizon range from the bridge (46 feet HOE) was approximately 8 miles. Titanic's upperworks were slightly higher, giving a visual range of perhaps 10 miles. Titanic's rockets would have been 150 feet higher still.

Now, recall that the night was exceptionally clear, and the sea was flat calm. It seems beyond argument that Californian was indeed in visual contact with Titanic, albeit hull down.

This leaves the intriguing question of what should her deck officers have done, and what could they have done if they had actually done anything? Rockets at sea were commonplace in the time before widespread use of radio, acting as recognition signals between ships of various Lines. Hence seeing rockets alone would not have had the same effect on Californian's officers as it would on us – there would have been a presumption of normality. Further, the waters around Titanic's position were a veritable Piccadilly of traffic – liner traffic, fishing traffic, freight traffic, coastguards, and so on. Much as the transatlantic air routes are today. So Californian's officers ought probably to be forgiven for seeing rockets and assuming that the ship launching them was communicating with another ship out of sight. They ought also to be forgiven for assuming that any prudent master would do as they had done on encountering ice – stop. Indeed, the ship they saw clearly had stopped – they weren't to know she had stopped because she was sinking. A prudent Officer of the Watch (OOW) would then have done precisely what the Master of the Californian ordered them to do – signalled the unknown rocketeer by lamp. Californian's OOW did this. The enquiry doesn't relate the power of Californian's signalling lamp, or how well it was aligned to its sighting tube. There is, though, no evidence that anyone on Titanic saw a signal lamp. At a range of 15 miles it would take only a minor misalignment for a signal lamp to become invisible, and I would speculate that this happened to both the Titanic's signals and to Californian's.

Titanic is reported to have signalled another unknown ship it could see, at a close range of about five miles to the west. A remarkable piece of investigation by Thomas B Williams showed that the Norwegian sealer Samson was approximately five miles west of Titanic, was seen by Titanic's officers, and saw Titanic, but Samson was poaching in US waters, and, not knowing that the ship she could see was in fact sinking, crept away. Titanic's signaller might well have been flashing Samson, not Californian.

In theory, Californian's OOW might have called the radio operator in order to find out if the unknown ship was transmitting, but why would he? He had no evidence that the ship over his horoizon was in any trouble. Indeed, a ship in trouble would have been flashing morse frantically (as TTitanic probably was in the direction of the departing Samson, and might have been doing in the general direction of Californian). Californian's OOW and bridge crew saw no morse. It is probably not conceivable that they lied about this.

So, an interim conclusion here is that Californian was well within visual range of Titanic, perhaps at extreme visual range, and probably around 15 miles (so considerably hull down, and becoming more so by the minute, giving the impression of movement away), but that Californian's OOW and master are probably not to blame for not reacting.

If they had reacted, what would have happened?

Titanic started firing rockets at approximately 0030 Ship's time. If Californian's OOW had then immediately raised steam, called the Master – asleep fully dressed in the chartroom – called the Wireless Officer, and moved slowly towards the Titanic through loose ice while the Master confirmed his actions and the engine room built up steam, what would have been the result? Californian would have started south at perhaps 6 knots. It would have taken perhaps 30 minutes for the wireless operator to flash up his kit, receive and convey the distress message to the Bridge, for the Master to have a few minutes to consider, and for the engine room to report availability of reasonable steam pressure, at which point Californian would have increased speed as fast as raising steam would have allowed.

Then, as Titanic was approached, Californian would have slowed down to avoid accidentally running down Titanic's boats. Taking these maneouvres together it is likely that Californian would have taken at least 1.5 hours to reach Titanic, fifteen miles away. Starting at 0030, Californian would have reached Titanic no earlier than 0200, and allowing for time to build up her top speed of 12.5 knots, and for more time to make the last mile or so at a creep to avoid running down boats in the water, probably no earlier than 0215.

What might she have done then? With the benefit of hindsight and calm reflection we might speculate that a brave and skilled Master (and Lord was both) might have dared to lay his bows alongside a convenient part of Titanic's stern, now tilting into the water at a bow-down angle of 12-15 degrees, in the hope that people could clamber over from one ship to the other. Remember that the night was flat calm and almost windless, and that the ethos to save life would have been untrammelled by modern weasel thoughts of elf and safety. The maneouvre would in fact have been highly dangerous, as Lord had no way of knowing how long Titanic would stay afloat, or how much damage a 40,000 ton ship sinking might do to a 6,000 ton ship lying alongside. The alongside maneouvre would also have taken perhaps ten or fifteen minutes to execute. I suspect that given the ethos of the day Lord would not have stopped to measure the risk, and would immediately have seen that no other means of rescue would work. Rescuing people from the sea was not an option, as even then mariners knew that life expectancy in ice cold water was measurable in minutes.

Had the Californian taken this course of action some would have probably been saved, though probably many more would have fallen into the sea mid-clamber, or been crushed between the two ships, or trampled underfoot. How long would it have taken for 1,500 people to clamber across? Picture the scene – all control and discipline lost, panic spreading like a forest fire, dark, a small crossing area of perhaps ten feet at most, a drop of perhaps six or seven feet onto an iron deck, no second chances, the ethos of women and children first still operating, but now slowing up the flow as some people push forward while others hold back to let the women and children through. How many people would get across? There would only have been about 20 minutes, more likely ten or fifteen. We can each do the math, but the bottom line is that most of the 1500 people left on board would not have made it. Many were already in the water, and the 150 or so stokers were still below keeping the turbine generators going. At best, if Californian had arrived at the scene at 0200, and taken fifteen minutes to lay alongside, that would have left only 25 minutes of clambering time. It looks to this author as if not many people would have crossed over. And of course Captain Lord might have quite rationally decided not to risk his ship and crew on what looks like a pretty desperate maneouvre.

So, in sum, this analysis suggests that Captain Lord and his deck officers were almost certainly the mystery ship seen to the North of Titanic, but were not much to blame for inaction. If they had taken action, they might have saved some, at great hazard to their ship, but no way could they have saved all of the Titanic victims. Lord was pilloried by the enquiry (at which he was not represented), probably unfairly.

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Gavin Don

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  1. dcking said:

    6941. That you were not satisfied it was a company's signal. You did not think it was a company's signal? - I inquired, was it a company's signal.6942. But you had been told that he did not know? - He said he did not know.6943. Very well, that did not satisfy you? - It did not satisfy me.6944. Then if it was not that, it might have been a distress signal? - It might have been.6945. And you remained in the chart room? - I remained in the chart room.Captain Lord testified that "It might have been a distress signal" and yet did nothing. The British Inquiry conclusion that Captain... Read full post

  2. An Unequivocal Lordite said:

    The sheer amount of seemingly contradictory evidence given by the participants in the aftermath of the sinking has been used since by those both on the Lordite and anti-Lordite sides to either defend or condemn the Californian crew and especially her Captain. The trouble is that ploughing through the testimonials doesn't get you any closer to the truth as emotions at the time were undoubtedly heightened due to the sheer enormity of the tragedy, plus human memory is especially unreliable and because one person contradicts himself at a time of stress and pressure does not make that man a liar,... Read full post

  3. Chris Chambers said:

    I cannot agree with '...beyond argument that Californian was indeed in visual contact with Titanic..' You are stating the geographic visual range as in daylight. It was night. The Board of Trade regulations, at that time, have minimum range, in good seeing conditions, of; masthead light 5 miles, side lights 2 miles, stern light 3 miles. Given the perfect seeing conditions of that night you can, about, double the range a light could be seen but no more. Do not get confused with the unfortunate term 'Infinite visibility' of a ships lights luminous range chart of that time. That term... Read full post

  4. avatar

    Jim Currie said:

    If the rockets seen on the horizon at about 3-20am that morning by Stone and Groves came from the Carpathia, and Carpathia was firing standard white rockets, then the Californian was at least 32 miles from the Carpathia and at the extreme range of her rockets. At that time, Carpathia would be about 10 miles from Boxhall in boat 2. This means that Californian was about 21.5 miles away from the site of the disaster...just exactly as her master said she was.

  5. John Randall Merriam said:

    Boxhall thought that the Californian was only about 5 miles away, based on his navigational experience as it existed in 1912. The night was clear, calm, windless, cold and moonless. This created an unusual atmospheric refraction. Refraction is strongly affected by temperature gradients, which can vary considerably from day to day, especially over water. In extreme cases, usually in springtime, when warm air overlies cold water, refraction can allow light to follow the Earth's surface

  6. John Randall Merriam said:

    for much longer distances. Those on the Californian also experienced this unusual phenomenon. Also, if the ship you are on is swinging around in the current and the other is as well, you might think that you are stationary and the other ship is the one moving. Again, the same observation on both ships.)

  7. David. Ridgeway said:

    I should say this article has settled, in my mind, whether the CALIFORNIAN was the closest ship to the TITANIC after its collision. It was the closest. My conclusion is that CALIFORNIAN was guilty only of poor seamanship at some level. A sufficient nightwatch in an ice field may have changed the tragic outcome.

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2013) Titanic and Californian (Titanica!, ref: #19553, published 10 September 2013, generated 24th July 2021 05:31:22 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-and-californian.html