A Very Deceiving Night: The Californian Incident

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Californian Titanic. One of the most extraordinary elements of the Titanic story is that she sank within sight of a rescue ship, the Californian, which ignored her distress signals.

Second Class passenger Lawrence Beesley described the incident as follows, in his 1912 book “The Loss of the Titanic”:

The…vessel was a small steamer some few miles ahead on the port side…Mr. Boxhall states that he and Captain Smith saw her quite plainly some five miles away, and could distinguish the masthead lights and a red port light. They at once hailed her with rockets and Morse electric signals, to which Boxhall saw no reply, but Captain Smith and stewards affirmed they did. The second and third officers saw the signals sent and her lights, the latter from the lifeboat of which he was in charge. Seaman Hopkin [sic Quartermaster Hitchens] testified that he was told by the captain to row for the light; and we in boat 13 certainly saw it in the same position and rowed towards it for some time. But notwithstanding all the efforts made to attract its attention, it drew slowly away and the lights sank below the horizon.

               The pity of it! So near, and so many people waiting for the shelter its decks could have given so easily. It seems impossible to think that this ship ever replied to the signals; those who said so must have been mistaken. The United States Senate Committee in its report does not hesitate to say that this unknown steamer and the Californian are identical, and that the failure on the part of the latter to come to the help of the Titanic is culpable negligence. There is undoubted evidence that some of the crew on the Californian saw our rockets; but it seems impossible to believe that the captain and officers knew of our distress and deliberately ignored it. Judgment on the matter had better be suspended until further information is forthcoming.

This book provides that further information, and it also reveals – for the first time – the real reason why the Titanic hit an iceberg, 100 years after the catastrophe.

Scores of observers on the Titanic, including several of her surviving Officers and Quartermasters, also testified that the ship within sight was only about five miles away:

Lightoller (Titanic 2nd Officer):  14140. (The Commissioner.) Can you form any estimate of the distance of the light from the “Titanic”?
– Yes, My Lord; certainly not over 5 miles away.

Pitman (Titanic 3rd Officer): 15062. How far away did you judge it to be?
– I thought it was about five miles.

Boxhall (Titanic 4th Officer):  JGB521. From what you saw of that vessel, how far would you think she was from the Titanic?
– I should say approximately the ship would be about 5 miles.

Hichens (Titanic Quartermaster): 1162. What light?
– There was a light about two points on the port bow, about five miles away, I should judge.

Rowe (Titanic Quartermaster): 17657. Before you left the ship did you see anything of the light of another vessel in the neighbourhood?
– Yes.

  1. What light was that?
    – A white light, bright.
  2. What sort of distance did you think it was?
    – Four or five miles.

Both enquiries concluded that this ship was the Californian, under the command of Captain Lord:

Senator Smith, US Inquiry:I am well aware from the testimony of the captain of the Californian that he deluded himself with the idea that there was a ship between the Titanic and the Californian, but there was no ship seen there at daybreak and no intervening rockets were seen by anyone on the Titanic, although they were looking longingly for such a sign and only saw the white light of the Californian… A ship would not have been held there if it had been eastbound, and she could not have gone west without passing the Californian on the north or the Titanic on the south. That ice floe held but two ships – the Titanic and the Californian.”

Lord Mersey, British Inquiry: There are contradictions and inconsistencies in the story as told by the different witnesses. But the truth of the matter is plain. The “Titanic” collided with the berg 11.40. The vessel seen by the “Californian” stopped at this time. The rockets sent up from the “Titanic” were distress signals. The “Californian” saw distress signals. The number sent up by the “Titanic” was about eight. The “Californian” saw eight. The time over which the rockets from the “Titanic” were sent up was from about 12.45 to 1.45 o’clock. It was about this time that the “Californian” saw the rockets. At 2.40 [sic] Mr. Stone called to the Master that the ship from which he’d seen the rockets had disappeared.

At 2.20 a.m. the “Titanic” had foundered. It was suggested that the rockets seen by the “Californian” were from some other ship, not the “Titanic.” But no other ship to fit this theory has ever been heard of.

These circumstances convince me that the ship seen by the “Californian” was the “Titanic,” and if so, according to Captain Lord, the two vessels were about five miles apart at the time of the disaster. The evidence from the “Titanic” corroborates this estimate, but I am advised that the distance was probably greater, though not more than eight to ten miles. The ice by which the “Californian” was surrounded was loose ice extending for a distance of not more than two or three miles in the direction of the “Titanic.” The night was clear and the sea was smooth. When she first saw the rockets the “Californian” could have pushed through the ice to the open water without any serious risk and so have come to the assistance of the “Titanic.” Had she done so she might have saved many if not all of the lives that were lost.

Captain Lord claimed that he was 19 miles away at the time and that the ship he saw appeared to be too near and too small to be the Titanic:

  1. What size steamer did she appear to you – can you give us some idea?
    – She was something like ourselves.

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The SS Californian, 447 feet long, photographed from the rescue ship Carpathia, 15th April 1912

© Science Photo Library

And his second officer said that the rockets they saw did not appear to rise any higher than half the height of the steamer’s masthead light:

  1. …these rockets did not appear to go very high; they were very low lying; they were only about half the height of the steamer’s masthead light and I thought rockets would go higher than that.

Captain Lord also insisted that he had signalled to the nearby ship throughout that night with his powerful Morse lamp and that she had not taken the slightest bit of notice of it:

We signalled her, at half-past 11, with the Morse lamp. She did not take the slightest notice of it. That was between half-past 11 and 20 minutes to 12. We signalled her again at 10 minutes past 12, half-past 12, a quarter to 1 o’clock. We have a very powerful Morse lamp. I suppose you can see that about 10 miles, and she was about 4 miles off, and she did not take the slightest notice of it.

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Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian © TopFoto

Nevertheless, the ship which was seen from the Californian also seemed to be only about five miles away, just as the ship seen from the Titanic had appeared to be:

Lord (Californian Captain):  6761. What distance do you think she was from you when you could see the lights?
– About five miles.

Groves (Californian 2nd Officer):  8385. When she came to a stop what was the distance?
– Well, I should think about five to seven miles.

Stone (Californian 3rd Officer): 7819. How far away did you judge they were?
– Approximately about five miles.  
Affidavit: “I judged her to be a small tramp steamer and about five miles distant.”

Gibson (Californian apprentice): 7440. Did you form any view as to how far away the ship was?
– From four to seven miles.

Those who believed Captain Lord suggested that he had been made the scapegoat for a whitewashed enquiry which must have overlooked a ‘mystery ship’ between the Californian and the Titanic, and those who accepted the findings of the courts judged Lord to be a lying, unfeeling coward, with blood on his hands.

This quickly became known as ‘The Californian Incident’ and debate has now raged over it for 100 years.  Indeed, so passionate were Lord’s supporters that the British Enquiry into the Loss of the Titanic was re-appraised in 1992 by the British Marine Accident Investigation Branch of the Department of Transport, specifically to reassess the 1912 evidence relating to the Californian, following Robert Ballard’s discovery in 1985 of Titanic’s wreck, 13 miles to the eastward of her final distress position.

This new investigation failed to resolve The Californian Incident, and split the government inspectors assigned to the case.  The Inspector concluded that the Californian was 5-7 miles away and the Deputy Chief Inspector concluded that she was 17-20 miles away, though he did accept that she could have seen the Titanic, even from this distance. As part of his explanation for this, the Deputy Chief Inspector sighted the possibility of abnormal refraction, which is common in cold water areas, such as the freezing Labrador Current in which the Titanic sank, and which has the effect of making distant objects appear much nearer than they really are:

“The second explanation, which was first advanced some years ago in an unpublished document, is that CALIFORNIAN did actually see TITANIC but at a very much greater range than her horizon because of abnormal (“super-“) refraction. A note on super-refraction is included in Annex 4 [Below].  In favour of this theory, the phenomenon is variable in its effect and this might explain the apparent movement of each ship as seen by the other when both were in fact stopped.  In addition, the rockets seen by CALIFORNIAN were described as low-lying (quoted as rising to less than mast-head height) and this could be because they actually rose to a height above the refracting layer and were seen directly.”

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tim maltin a very deceiving night ebook 01

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Annex 4: Extract from The Mariner’s Handbook © The Hydrographer of the Navy

I hope by blogging chapters from my book, A Very Deceiving Night, it will contribute to the ongoing discussions regarding the atmospheric conditions on the night of the tragedy and the true causes of the disaster. At the moment, the book is only available as an e-book. If you wish to purchase it then you can do so in Amazon Kindle format here and other formats, including Apple, Kobo and Nook, here. Thank you.

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