A Very Deceiving Night: Looming Californian

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Californian’s masthead lights. Californian did not move her engines all night:

Lord  6713: “…5.15 we moved the engines for a few minutes and then we stopped on account of the news we received, and waited till 6 o’clock.

STL066. I will read this from the log book:

6.00, proceeded slow, pushing through the thick ice.

But witnesses on the Titanic said the Californian seemed to gradually approach and approach, and then recede again, before vanishing completely at dawn. Part of this was due to Californian’s slow swing to starboard, throughout the night, as this would have had the effect of first opening out and then shutting in again her high masthead lights, as can be seen in the below diagram of the arcs of visibility of ships lights:

tim maltin a very deceiving night ebook 01

Diagram of arcs of visibility of ships lights. © Peter Padfield

This turning action would tend to make the stationary Californian appear to be approaching, and then turning away from, the Titanic; but Californian’s slow swing to starboard was made an even more confusing spectacle from Titanic because of the variable nature of mirage effects.  As the night wore on and the air at Titanic’s wreck site became colder and more dense, the looming increased, making Californian appear to approach from hull-down, as the light rays bent further down, around the curved surface of the earth, effectively raising up the Californian. Similarly, as the air at Titanic’s wreck site began to warm slightly with the approach of dawn, this warmer air would bend the light less, causing Californian to appear to retreat again, creeping back below the horizon.  And this is exactly what happened that night, where Californian was seen to approach until about 1.30am, as the strength of the thermal inversion increased and as Californian was swinging towards Titanic, and then gradually recede again, as Californian turned away from Titanic, until her lights disappeared completely when the thermal inversion was broken by the breeze which sprang up with the Dawn.

Initially, the stationary Californian, heading northeast, as we have seen, could not be seen at all from the Titanic:

Colonel Archibald Gracie, Titanic 1st Class Passenger, from “The Truth about the Titanic”, published in 1912:

From the first cabin quarter, forward on the port side, we strained our eyes to discover what struck us.  From vantage points where the view was not obstructed by the lifeboats on this deck I sought the object, but in vain, though I searched the horizon near and far and discovered nothing.  If another ship had struck us there was no trace of it, and it did not yet occur to me that it was an iceberg with which we had collided.  Not satisfied with a partial investigation, I made a complete tour of the deck, searching every point of the compass with my eyes. Having gained no satisfaction whatever, I descended to the glass enclosed deck A…

Frederick Fleet, in the lookout until midnight, did not see any ship anywhere on the horizon either:

FRF278. Were there lights of any other vessels in sight when you came down from the crow’s nest?
– There was no lights at all when we was up in the crow’s nest. This is after we was down and on the boats; then I seen the light.

FRF279. Where did you see it?
– On the port bow. The other lookout reported it.

FRF280. How far ahead?
– It was not ahead; it was on the bow, about four points.

FRF281. I am not speaking of that. I wanted to know whether you saw ahead, while you were on the watch, on the lookout, Sunday night, after the collision occurred or before, any lights of any other ship.
– No, sir.

FRF282. You saw no lights at all?
– No, sir.

FRF316. You saw some light on the horizon that night?
– Not on the lookout, sir.

FRF317. Not on the lookout?
– The only thing we saw was the iceberg. We had no light on that watch.

FRF326. You saw it before you got off the Titanic?
– Yes, sir.

As Boxhall testifies, it was not until the order was given to clear Titanic’s lifeboats, that Californian’s lights were first seen by anyone on Titanic, when the air was colder and Californian had swung further towards the Titanic, opening out her high masthead lights:

  1. When the order was given to clear the boats what did you do; did you go to any particular boat?
    – No, I went right along the line of boats and I saw the men starting, the watch on deck, our watch.
  2. Which side of the ship?
    – The port side, I went along the port side, and afterwards I was down the starboard side as well but for how long I cannot remember. I was unlacing covers on the port side myself and I saw a lot of men come along – the watch I presume. They started to screw some out on the afterpart of the port side; I was just going along there and seeing all the men were well established with their work, well under way with it, and I heard someone report a light, a light ahead. I went on the bridge and had a look to see what the light was.
  3. Someone reported a light ahead?
    – Yes; I do not know who reported it. There were quite a lot of men on the bridge at the time.

Titanic was continually visible from Californian, however, because her 150 feet high masthead light, fully opened out, was in full view of the Californian the entire time, because, as we have seen, Titanic had been approaching Californian from the eastward and southward, before her collision, after which she then turned to starboard (right), northwards and came to a stop heading almost directly towards the Californian.

When the stationary Californian was first seen from the Titanic she was hull-down, below the horizon, with only her two masthead lights visible, but then Boxhall noticed her gradually approach and approach, until her sidelights – and even the porthole lights in her hull – were visible with the naked eye.  Boxhall’s dramatic account, transcribed from a BBC radio interview he gave in 1962, accurately describes the turning Californian, as well as her apparent approaching, before turning away:

And I worked on the boat covers, taking off the boat covers, on the Boat Deck, when I heard the Crow’s Nest report a light on the Starboard Bow. Well I went on the bridge right away, and I found this light with my own glasses but I wanted the telescope to define what it was and I realized then it was two masthead lights of a steamer below the horizon [Author’s note, the ‘false horizon’ caused by the mirage did not alter the actual sea horizon, where Californian first appeared hull-down, as the bottom of the duct was above the level of the observers on the Titanic] and the lights were very close [together] and I went back and told the captain, “There is a steamer in sight very nearly ahead but slightly on the Starboard Bow and if she continues on her course she’ll pass close to us down the Port Side.” Well I asked the captain, “Shall I send up some distress rockets, sir?” Then we started sending off these distress rockets, the Quartermaster and I on bridge, but I never knew how many I had fired. I knew very well that there were some in the box. The box holds a dozen and when, I told the captain I said, “There are still some in there, sir, but I don’t know how many I fired.” I didn’t see any reply. Some of the passengers that was on the bridge said that they did see a reply.

We also called up this ship as she grew closer with a, with a Morse Lamp, a very powerful Morse Lamp that we had, and eventually this steamer approached and approached until you could [see it with the na]ked eye and I should say that she must have been within five miles off, you could not only see her lights with the naked eye but you could see the lights in her portholes.  So I reckon that she, she must have been within five miles. And then eventually she turned away and showed her stern light. And about that time the captain came across the bridge and said, “Mr. Boxhall, you go away in that boat,” pointing to the Port Emergency Boat number two. And he said, “Now hurry up Mr. Wilde is waiting to lower it.” So I said, “You see that white light over there, sir?” pointing it out to him. He said, “Yes,” I said, “that is the stern light of that ship.”

And Boxhall confirmed this turning and apparent approaching of the Californian at the British and American Inquiries into the disaster, in 1912:

Boxhall: 15401:  I saw her green light and the red. She was end-on to us. Later I saw her red light. This is all with the aid of a pair of glasses up to now. Afterwards I saw the ship’s red light with my naked eye, and the two masthead lights. The only description of the ship that I could give is that she was, or I judged her to be, a four-masted steamer.

  1. (The Commissioner.) What distance did you suppose her to be away?
    – I judged her to be between 5 and 6 miles when I Morsed to her, and then she turned round – she was turning very, very slowly – until at last I only saw her stern light, and that was just before I went away in the boat.
  2. After a time you saw what you took to be the stern light of a ship?
    – It was the stern light of the ship.
  3. Did you infer from that that the ship was turned round, and was going in the opposite direction?
    – Yes.
  4. When you first saw her, I understand you to say she was approaching you?
    – She was approaching us, yes.

JGB522. What lights did you see?
– The two masthead lights and the red light.

JGB523. Were the two masthead lights the first lights that you could see?
– The first lights.

JGB524. And what other lights?
– And then, as she got closer, she showed her side light, her red light.

JGB525. So you were quite sure she was coming in your direction?
– Quite sure.

JGB956. I understood you to say that you saw a steamer almost ahead of you, or saw a light that night, about the time of the collision?
– Shortly afterwards; yes, sir.

JGB957. Did you describe that light? What was the character of the light you saw; and did you see more than one?
– At first I saw two masthead lights of a steamer, just slightly opened, and later she got closer to us, until, eventually, I could see her side lights with my naked eye.

JGB958. Was she approaching you?
– Evidently she was, because I was stopped.

JGB959. And how far away was she?
– I considered she was about 5 miles away.

JGB960. In which direction?
– She was headed toward us, meeting us.

JGB1127. You are very positive you saw that ship ahead on the port bow, are you?
– Yes, sir, quite positive.

JGB1128. Did you see the green or red light?
– Yes; I saw the side lights with my naked eye.

JGB1129. When did you see them?
– From our ship, before I left the ship. I saw this steamer’s stern light before I went into my boat, which indicated that the ship had turned around. I saw a white light, and I could not see any of the masthead lights that I had seen previously and I took it for a stern light.

JGB1130. Which light did you see first?
– I saw the masthead lights first, the two steaming lights; and then, as she drew up closer, I saw her side lights through my glasses, and eventually I saw the red light. I had seen the green, but I saw the red most of the time. I saw the red light with my naked eye.

JGB1134. Afterward you saw the green light, which showed that she had turned?
– I think I saw the green light before I saw the red light, as a matter of fact. But the ship was meeting us. I am covering the whole thing by saying the ship was meeting us.

JGB1135. Your impression is she turned away, or turned on a different course?
– That is my impression.

JGB1138. Her course, as she came on, would have been nearer to your course; that is, your course was ahead, there, and she was coming in toward your course?
– Yes, sir; she was slightly crossing it, evidently. I suppose she was turning around slowly.

JGB1139. Is it your idea that she turned away?
– That is my idea, sir.

JGB1140. She kept on a general course toward the east, and then bore away from you, or what?
– I do not think she was doing much steaming. I do not think the ship was steaming very much, because after I first saw the masthead lights she must have been still steaming, but by the time I saw her red light with my naked eye she was not steaming very much. So she had probably gotten into the ice, and turned around.

JGB1141. What do you think happened after she turned around? Do you think she went away to avoid the ice?
– I do not know whether she stayed there all night, or what she did.

JGB1148. You saw not only the mast light but the side lights?
– I saw the side lights. Whatever ship she was had beautiful lights. I think we could see her lights more than the regulation distance, but I do not think we could see them 14 miles.

Titanic Able Seaman Edward J Buley also noticed the stationary Californian appearing to approach Titanic: EJB142. When did you first see that boat on the bow? How long was it before you launched?
– When we started turning the boats out. That was about 10 minutes after she struck.

EJB143. Did that boat seem to be getting farther away from you?
– No; it seemed to be coming nearer.

EJB144. You are possessed of pretty good eyes?
– I can see a distance of 21 miles, sir.

Steward Alfred Crawford noticed Californian both swinging, and appearing to approach and recede; and he even noticed the relative heights of her two masthead lights:

Senator BURTON. You saw two steamer lights, Mr. Crawford, did you?

Mr. CRAWFORD. Two lights; one steamer light; one steamer with two lights. A steamer carries two lights, one on the fore and one on the main.

Senator BURTON. One was a little higher than the other?

Mr. CRAWFORD. Yes, sir; the after light was higher than the foremost.

Senator BURTON. You can not be deceived about that, can you?

Mr. CRAWFORD. No, sir; I am positive. Everyone in the boats was positive of that. We all thought she was making toward us.

Senator BURTON. Did she seem then to be moving toward you?

Mr. CRAWFORD. No; she seemed more like she was stationary.

Senator BURTON. You thought she was coming toward you?

Mr. CRAWFORD. We thought she was coming toward us.

Senator BURTON. Why did you think she was coming toward you?

Mr. CRAWFORD. Sometimes she seemed to get closer; other times she seemed to be getting away from us.

This last remark is quite typical of appearances in mirages, as objects often appear nearer and then further away, as the waves on the inversion pass by the line of sight.

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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