A Very Deceiving Night: Soft horizon

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Titanic soft horizon. The very calm sea the night the Titanic sank created what is known as a soft horizon. Under ordinary circumstances, the sea is much darker than the sky at the horizon, and this contrast makes the sea horizon quite visible, even at night. The reason for this contrast lies in the waves: the sea at the horizon is reflecting the sky 30 or 40 degrees above the horizon, because what you see is the wave slopes that are tilted toward you, and that part of the sky is considerably darker than the sky just above the horizon. But in very calm conditions, the wave slopes are much smaller, and the sea reflects the sky just a few degrees above the horizon; so there is much less contrast. In the flat calm conditions of that night, there was no noticeable contrast at all. An example of this can be seen in the following photograph, where the exact position of the sea horizon can only be guessed at:

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Photo © Ruth Hartnup (Ruth and Dave on Flickr)

 This soft horizon is attested to by many survivors:

Lord: “We could not distinguish where the sky ended and where the water commenced. You understand, it was a flat calm.” “…It was a very strange night; it was hard to define where the sky ended and the water commenced. There was what you call a soft horizon. I was sometimes mistaking the stars low down on the horizon for steamer’s lights.”

Groves: “The night was dark, brilliantly clear, with not a breath of wind and the sea showed no sign of movement with the horizon only discernible by the fact that the stars could be seen disappearing below it.”

  1. Could you see the horizon?
    – No, you could not see where the horizon in the sky finished but you could see stars right down as far as the sea.
  2. Now, what did you see, and when?
    – As I said before, the stars were showing right down to the horizon. It was very difficult at first to distinguish between the stars and a light, they were so low down. About 11.10, ship’s time, I made out a steamer coming up a little bit abaft our starboard beam.
  3. What lights did you see?
    – At first I just saw what I took to be one light, one white light, but, of course, when I saw her first I did not pay particular attention to her, because I thought it might have been a star rising.

Beesley:  All night long we had watched the horizon with eager eyes for signs of a steamer’s lights…But what a night to see that first light on the horizon! We saw it many times as the earth revolved, and some stars rose on the clear [invisible] horizon and others sank down to it: there were “lights” on every quarter. Some we watched and followed until we saw the deception and grew wiser…Near what seemed to be the horizon on the port quarter we saw two lights close together…

Despite the soft horizon, the night seemed so clear that Titanic did not see any need to reduce speed:

At 9.30pm that night, when Titanic’s Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller was handing over the watch on Titanic’s bridge to First Officer Murdoch, who was on watch at the time of the collision at 11.40pm, they apparently both noted that the stars seemed to be setting on the horizon and they noticed that the air was unusually clear and they thought that they could see a remarkably long way, which, in the miraging conditions, they could:

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First Officer William McMaster Murdoch, who was on watch when Titanic collided © Mary Evans Picture Library

CHL455. I say, did you talk with Mr. Murdoch about the iceberg situation when you left the watch?
– No, sir.

CHL456. Did he ask you anything about it?

 – No, sir.

CHL457. What was said between you?
– We remarked on the weather, about its being calm, clear. We remarked the distance we could see. We seemed to be able to see a long distance. Everything was very clear. We could see the stars setting down to the horizon.


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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