A Very Deceiving Night: We were swinging, but very, very slowly

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Titanic was not the only ship in the area which had turned to Starboard after she saw ice. About an hour earlier, the Californian had come to an emergency stop nearby, when she arrived at the ice barrier blocking the westbound steamer tracks. The stationary Californian was equally confusing to Titanic, because Californian was gradually swinging clockwise, through south, throughout that night, after she came to a stop at 10.21pm:

10.21pm Captain Lord of the Californian: STL268. – Well, on our ordinary course, our ordinary course was about west, true; but on seeing the ice, we were so close we had to reverse the engine and put her full speed astern, and the action of reversing turned the ship to starboard, and we were heading about northeast true [sic NNE by compass]. When this man was coming along he was showing his green light on our starboard side, before midnight. After we slowly blew around and showed him our red light.  

Californian’s constant and marked swinging to starboard (clockwise) throughout that night also gave rise to confusion about the true bearings of Titanic from Californian, according to Californian’s witnesses.  However, they were much more accurate when simply recalling how Titanic’s lights bore relative to Californian’s hull, at specific times throughout that night:

11.10pm Groves:  8135: About 11.10, ship’s time, I made out a steamer coming up a little bit abaft our starboard beam.


8150. How were you heading?  – At that time we would be heading N.E. when I saw that steamer first, but we were swinging all the time because when we stopped the order was given for the helm to be put hard-a-port, and we were swinging, but very, very slowly. 


8157: We were heading N.E. and she was three [sic two] points abaft the beam.

12.08am Stone: “I went on the bridge about 8 minutes past 12, and took over the Watch from the Third Officer, Mr. Groves, who also pointed out ice and steamer and said our head was E.N.E. and we were swinging. On looking at the compass I saw this was correct and observed the other steamer S.S.E dead abeam and showing one masthead light, her red side-light and one or two small indistinct lights around the deck which looked like portholes or open doors.


7820. And how were they bearing from you at this time? – S.S.E. by the standard compass.

8083. (The Commissioner.) She went across your bows?
– It was merely our swinging that brought her across our bows.

…and Gibson: It being my watch on deck from 12 o’clock, I went on the bridge at about 15 minutes after twelve and saw that the ship was stopped and that she was surrounded with light field ice and thick field-ice to the Southward. While the Second Officer and I were having coffee, a few minutes later, I asked him if there were any more ships around us. He said that there was one on the Starboard beam, and looking over the weather cloth, I saw a white light flickering, which I took to be a Morse light calling us up. I then went over to the keyboard and gave one long flash in answer, and still seeing this light flickering. I gave her the calling up sign. The light on the other ship, however, was still the same, so I looked at her through the binoculars and found it was her masthead light flickering. I also observed her port sidelight and a faint glare of lights on her afterdeck…This ship was then right abeam.

12.25am Gibson: At about 25 minutes after twelve I went down off the bridge to get a new log out and not being able to find it, I went on the bridge again to see if the Second Officer knew anything about it. I then noticed that this other ship was about one and a half points before the beam. 

12.55am Gibson: I then went down again and was down until about five minutes to one. Arriving on the bridge again at that time, the Second Officer told me that the other ship, which was then about 3 ½ points on the Starboard bow, had fired five rockets and he also remarked that after seeing the second one to make sure that he was not mistaken, he had told the Captain, through the speaking tube, and that the Captain had told him to watch her and keep calling her up on the Morse light. I then watched her for some time and then went over to the keyboard and called her up continuously for about three minutes. I then got the binoculars and had just got them focused on the vessel when I observed a white flash apparently on her deck, followed by a faint streak towards the sky which then burst into white stars.

1.15am Gibson: Nothing then happened until the other ship was about two points on the Starboard bow when she fired another rocket.
1.25am – 1.40am Gibson: Between one point on the Starboard bow and one point on the Port bow I called her up on the Morse lamp but received no answer. When about one point on the Port bow she fired another rocket which like the others burst into white stars. (Stone BI 7935 – I saw the last of the rockets as near as I can say about 1.40 – and this agrees with Boxhall on Titanic: – I was sending the rockets up right to the very last minute when I was sent away in the boat.  15422. How long before the vessel sank were you sent away in the boat?
– I cannot give the time, but I have approximated it nearly half-an-hour, as near as I could tell.

2.05am Gibson: [This was 2.17am on Titanic, exactly when her lights went out, three minutes before she sank at 2.20am. We know this because Titanic set her clocks to noon when she was at longitude 44.31W, 126 miles from the corner at 42N, 47W on the Great Circle route from Fastnet Light; and we know from Captain Lord that Californian set her clocks at noon when she was at longitude 47.25W: Lord  STL023:” At the ship’s time for 47⁰ 25′ longitude.” But Sam Halpern has pointed out that this longitude was incorrect and should in fact have read 47.34W, because the departure distance of 25 miles from the Corner was erroneously entered into Californian’s log, instead of the 34 minutes of arc that would have been obtained from the traverse table, for that latitude and departure. Given that there are 60 minutes of arc in each degree of arc, Californian’s noon longitude was therefore 183 minutes of arc west of Titanic’s noon longitude.  As the sun takes 4 seconds to cover each minute of arc as it appears to circle the globe from east to west, Californian time was therefore 12 minutes and 12 seconds behind Titanic time.]: Just after two o’clock she was then about two points on the Port bow, she disappeared from sight and nothing was seen of her again. Gibson: 7552. What were the orders which the Second Officer gave you when she disappeared?- “Call the Captain and tell him that that ship has disappeared in the South-West [sic]; that we are heading West-South-West [sic], and that she has fired altogether eight rockets.” 7565. What was the time? – Five minutes past two by the wheelhouse clock.)

3.20am Gibson: At about 3:20 looking over the weather cloth, I observed a rocket [flare from Boxhall’s lifeboat] about two points before the beam (Port), which I reported to the Second Officer…

4am Stone: 8017. – …Just after 4 o’clock – a few minutes possibly. The Chief Officer relieved me. I gave him a full report of everything I had seen and everything I had reported to the Master, his instructions, when the steamer disappeared, and the way she was bearing – the whole information regarding the watch. He looked over on the port beam, and he remarked to me, “There she is; there is that steamer; she is all right.” I looked at the steamer through the glasses, and I remarked to him “That is not the same steamer; she has two masthead lights.” I saw a steamer [Carpathia, at Titanic’s wreck site] then just abaft the port beam showing two masthead lights apparently heading much in the same direction as ourselves.

We know from Captain Lord that Californian’s Compass North was 22 degrees west of True North: 6782. (The Attorney-General.) What variation? – “The variation that day at noon was 24 3/4. She was about 24 when we were stopped; the deviation would be about 2E, making an error of 22W”. Given that Titanic and Californian were both drifting south together in the Labrador Current, Titanic’s true bearing from Californian would remain about the same; and so it is possible from these observations of Titanic’s relative bearing from Californian to build a complete picture of the Californian’s headings, or swing pattern, that night. In the following summary, True bearings are shown around the outside, with Californian’s compass bearings shown in the centre:

tim maltin a very deceiving night ebook 01

Diagram of Californian’s (blue) and Titanic’s (red) headings and bearings (bold), and showing magnetic north and south (yellow).

The graph below uses the above data to plot Californian’s swing rates.  It reveals that Californian was swinging slightly more rapidly between 12.08am (107 minutes after 10.21pm) and 1.40am (199 minutes after 10.21pm), as we would expect, with the most rapid swinging occurring when she was heading between 39⁰  True and 140⁰ True, broadside on to the south going Labrador Current:

screenshot 2019-01-05 at 18.41.29

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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