A Very Deceiving Night: “I should keep my course and maintain my speed”

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Shackleton Titanic. Even with a soft horizon, one can expect to spot an iceberg at sea on a clear night within plenty of time to avoid it, as per the following testimonies.  The first is from polar explorer Sir Earnest Shackleton, who had a great deal of experience of navigating in ice:

  1. I want you to help the Court with your views, as a result of your experience, first of all with regard to the visibility of ice in clear weather. Take icebergs first?
    – That entirely depends on the height of the iceberg. Take an iceberg of about 80 feet high, and the ordinary type of iceberg that has not turned over, you could see that in clear weather about ten to twelve miles.
  2. At night?
    – Not at night, no. I would say, providing it was an ordinary berg, about five miles on a clear night.

Because icebergs can normally always be seen in time to avoid them, all transatlantic liner captains kept to course and full speed in ice, in clear weather, even on flat-calm, moonless nights, even when field ice had been reported on their track:

Captain John Pritchard: 25170. I believe your last command was the “Mauretania,” was it not?
– Yes.

  1. I believe for 18 years you have commanded Cunard steamships sailing between Liverpool and New York?
    – Yes.
  2. Have you heard the evidence in this case with regard to the weather conditions which existed when the “Titanic” struck?
    – Yes.
  3. You know them?
    – Yes.
  4. Now what practice did you follow with regard to maintaining your full speed or reducing your speed, assuming similar conditions, and assuming you had information that there was a probability of your meeting ice on your course?
    – As long as the weather is clear I always go full speed.
  5. You always have done so?
    – Yes.
  6. What was the speed of the “Mauretania”?
    – 26 knots.
  7. If it was a flat calm and you expected ice – you were warned of ice and knew you would meet ice in the course of the night – would you double the look-out?
    – No, as long as the weather is clear.
  8. (The Commissioner.) Have you never seen an iceberg?
    – I have seen them, my Lord, yes.
  9. How far off?
    – Sometimes two or three miles, sometimes 10 miles.
  10. Have you never passed close to an iceberg?
    – No, not nearer than two miles.
  11. And you have been at sea altogether 30 years?
    – More, 51 years at sea.
  12. (Sir Robert Finlay.) And you have had, I think, a Master’s certificate for 37 years?
    – Yes.
  13. You told us your practice as to speed when ice was reported or you were in an ice region; did you also hold your course?
    – Always, if it is clear weather.
  14. You have kept your course in clear weather, and maintained full speed?
    – Yes.
  15. And was that the universal practice in your experience?
    – Yes.


Captain Hugh Young: 25222. For 37 years did you command steamers in the Anchor Line?
– Thirty-seven years.

  1. In such position were you travelling backwards and forwards between Glasgow and New York?
    – For 35 years I was travelling across, all that time.
  2. Are you familiar with ice-fields and icebergs?
    – Quite.
  3. Do you know the weather conditions which existed when the “Titanic” struck the iceberg?
    – I understand it was a dead calm.
  4. It was a dead calm; it was a clear night?
    – Yes.
  5. No sea?
    – No sea.
  6. And no moon. Now assuming those to be the conditions, and assuming that you had had information that there was a probability that you might be travelling through a region of the sea at night where you might meet icebergs, would you or would you not reduce the speed of your vessel?
    – No, sir.
  7. Captain Young, if ice were reported, would you keep your course, as well as maintain your speed, in clear weather?
    – I should keep my course and maintain my speed.
  8. How many years were you in the New York trade, crossing the Atlantic?
    – About 37 years.
  9. (Sir Robert Finlay.) If your Lordship pleases. (To the witness.) Suppose you were told there was field ice, would your practice be the same, or different?
    – Just the same.
  10. Has that been the universal practice in the trade as long as you have known it?
    – As far as I know, yes.
  11. All ships have done so?
    – I think so.


Captain William Stewart: 25244. Have you been in the North Atlantic trade for 38 years?
– Yes.

  1. I think you held command for some years in the beaver Line?
    – All the time that it ran, 35 years.
  2. Sailing between Liverpool and Canada?
    – Yes.
  3. Do you know the weather conditions which existed when the “Titanic” struck?
    – I have read about them in the newspapers.
  4. See you have them accurate. It was a clear night, no moon, no swell, no sea, and stars?
    – Yes.
  5. Given those conditions, and that you had command of a ship, and were given information that you might meet ice and that your course would take you through the place where you might meet ice, and meet it at night, would you reduce your speed?
    – No, not as long as it was clear.
  6. Not as long as it was clear?
    – No.
  7. I am going upon the assumption that you might meet icebergs – you would not reduce your speed?
    – No.
  8. If you had information that you might meet field ice, would you still maintain your speed?
    – Until I saw it, and then I should do what I thought proper.
  9. With regard to the look-out, if you have information that you may meet ice, either field ice or icebergs at night, do you take any special precautions with regard to the look-out?
    – In clear weather we have the ordinary look-out.
  10. Where is that ordinary look-out kept?
    – In the crow’s-nest.
  11. Would you maintain your course as well as your speed if ice were reported?
    – Yes.
  12. And has that been the invariable practice in the North Atlantic?
    – It was with me.
  13. And, as far as you know, with others?
    – As far as I know with others.


Captain Andrew Braes: 25285. Have you commanded steamers of the Allan Line for the last 17 years?
– Yes.

  1. Have you heard the evidence of the last four Witnesses?
    – Yes.
  2. Is your practice when you may be meeting ice at night similar to their practice?
    – Just the same. I never slowed down so long as the weather was clear.
  3. And did you hold your course?
    – Yes, I kept my course.
  4. You kept your course and your speed?
    – Yes.
  5. In your experience is that the universal practice in the Atlantic?
    – I never knew any other practice.

Captain Jones came across field ice at 11pm on the 9th April 1912, on a clear, dark night, about sixty miles north of where the Titanic sank and he could not understand how Titanic’s lookouts could possibly miss it:

Captain Richard O. Jones: 23590. Are you Master of the steamship “Canada“?
– Yes.

  1. Of course, you hold a Master’s certificate. How long have you held it?
    – Twenty-eight years.
  2. Let us take April, 1912, the month in which this calamity happened, did you sail as Master of the “Canada” from Portland (Maine.) in that month?
    – Yes.
  3. I think on the 7th of April?
    – On the 7th of April I left Portland.
  4. Bound for Liverpool?
    – Yes.
  5. Did you get any messages on your voyage about ice?
    – Yes, several.
  6. Which was the day?
    – On the 9th I had a message from the “
  7. Never mind; you got more messages than one about ice?
    – Yes.
  8. Did you come up to the ice; did you see it?
    – Yes.
  9. Tell us what you did when you found yourself in the neighbourhood of the ice. That is what we want to know?
    – It was some hours later when we came to the ice.
  10. Whenever it was, what did you do?
    – When I saw the ice I stopped.
  11. (The Solicitor-General.) What sort of ice?
    – Pack ice.
  12. You stopped altogether, did you?
    – Yes, I stopped altogether. I let my ship run her way off, and then I gave her a touch ahead, so as to get close to the ice, so as to inspect it.
  13. Was this in daylight or at night?
    – At night, 11 o’clock at night.
  14. After you got the messages about the ice did you continue going on full speed ahead until the ice was reported by the look-out?
    – Yes, certainly.

The Commissioner:
Now I see the object.

  1. (The Solicitor-General.) That is the point. (To the witness.) Is that in your opinion the usual practice?
    – Certainly, always.
  2. (The Commissioner.) What speed were you going at?
    – 15 knots.
  3. (The Solicitor-General.) Is that your full speed?
    – Yes.
  4. What was the weather?
    – Dark and clear.
  5. (The Commissioner.) Suppose you had had a 22-knot boat would you have gone 22 knots?
    – I should think it would be just as safe to go full speed with 22 knots.
  6. (The Solicitor-General.) What was the distance at which the ice was picked up. You are going your 15 knots, and it is reported, and then you say you stopped and ran on to reach it. Do you know how far ahead of you it was seen and reported?
    – Well, I saw the glare of it; I should say about three miles off.
  7. You did yourself?
    – Yes, and I saw the ice itself fully a mile and a half.
  8. You have been crossing the Atlantic year after year constantly. What do you say in this period of the year in the month of April, as to the probability of meeting ice?
    – How far east do you mean?
  9. Do you expect to meet it?
    – Oh, certainly.

Sir Robert Finlay:
He is on the Northerly track; he is in the Canadian trade.

The Commissioner:
He was very much North of the spot where the “
Titanic” came to grief.

  1. (The Solicitor-General.) Yes, My Lord; he is 60 miles North. (To the witness.) I think you said your longitude was 49° 20′ W.?
    – Yes, when we got out of the ice.
  2. With your experience on a clear night, have you always been able to detect ice by this ice blink?
    – No, not by the ice-blink; the ice-blink does not always occur.

shackleton titanic

Light reflecting off sea ice onto clouds is known as ‘ice blink’. Dark sky reflecting open water is known as ‘water sky’, Ross Sea, Antarctica © Rob Suisted, Nature’s Pic Images

  1. Then if it is not the ice-blink which enables you to see it, what do you see it by?
    – You see the ice itself.
  2. Can you suggest to us at all why it should be, if a good look-out is kept, that a ship would not see ice until she is close upon it?
    – No.
  3. You cannot imagine?
    – No; I have always seen ice in plenty of time on a clear night.
  4. (Mr. Scanlan.) There is one point I wish to ask this Witness. (To the witness.) In clear weather what distance ahead can you see an iceberg at night?
    – It depends upon the light. If it is a moonlight night you might be able to see it six to twelve miles.
  5. Supposing it is not moonlight, but the stars are clear?
    – I should say at the very least a mile and a half to two miles.
  6. Did you receive another message later on from the “Bulgaria”?
    – Yes.
  7. What was that?
    – “Nine p.m. hazy, pack ice in 42-24 N. and 50-6 W.”
  8. Were you still going East at full speed?
    – Yes.
  9. What was the state of the sea?
    – Calm and clear.
  10. Was there any swell?
    – There might be a light swell, yes; but the sea was smooth.
  11. If there was any swell it was moderate?
    – Yes; I mean to say there was no wind, the surface of the sea was calm; there might be a little swell.
  12. Now, will you just explain to me about this ice-blink. That is not always seen?
    – No, not always.
  13. What is it; how is it produced?
    – By a reflection of the light. I suppose it is the reflection of the light on the ice.
  14. The reflection of what light?
    – It might be a star.
  15. Is it a sort of shimmer?
    – Yes, a kind of a flicker.
  16. Where you have ice about, in your experience, are you liable to have fogs?
    – Very liable [Author’s note: Because of the temperature inversion].
  17. Does that, in your judgment, afford any reason for the practice you have always pursued as to speed?
    – Yes, we always make what speed we can.
  18. Just tell us, in your own way, what effect that fact has on your practice as to speed?
    – Well, we always try to get through the ice track as quickly as possible in clear weather.

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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