A Very Deceiving Night: Imaginary light

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Titanic imaginary light. Some survivors in Titanic’s lifeboats described the Californian as “an imaginary light” or “a reflection on the ice”, getting very close to the truth about the looming Californian that night, before she disappeared when the warmth and breeze of the dawn broke the thermal inversion which was causing her to loom above the height of the horizon, as seen from a Titanic lifeboat:

Able Seaman John Poingdestre 3076-7: …I saw an imaginary light which kept showing for about ten minutes.

  1. (The Commissioner.) How do you see an imaginary light?
    – Well, what we thought was a light. There is such a thing at sea as seeing imaginary lights.
  2. Oh, is there?
    – Yes.
  3. (The Commissioner.) I do not understand it. Did you imagine that you saw a light?
    – Yes.
  4. Or did you see a light that you imagined, which?
    – Well, one way or the other.
  5. (Mr. Butler Aspinall.) Where was it that you saw what you call this imaginary light?
    – Off my port bow.
  6. (The Commissioner.) Have you ever seen imaginary lights at sea before?
    – Yes.
  7. Are they frequent things?
    – Yes, I have been on the look-out on ships on the forecastle head, and reported a light, and it has been an imaginary light; as soon as you see it it has gone again.
  8. (Mr. Butler Aspinall.) How high above the horizon or above the sea do you think this imaginary light was? Was it low down, or rather high up?
    – It seemed low.
  9. Low down, near the horizon?
    – Yes.
  10. What distance did you judge it to be?
    – A matter of four or five miles.

Titanic Quartermaster Hitchens:  I pulled for that light – this imaginary light. We were pulling for it all the time.

Titanic passenger Major Arthur Peuchen: Then he imagined he saw a light. …I could not see these lights. I saw a reflection. He thought it was a boat of some kind. …We kept on rowing toward this imaginary light…

AGP247. Referring to that light that you observed, that you said you thought was a hallucination, did that disappear after awhile?
– Yes; it disappeared; but I did not think, from my knowledge of yachting, that it was a boat light. I think it was one of those reflected lights. The northern lights were very strong that night. It might have been some reflection on ice. I was not satisfied it was the light of a steamer, by any means.

AGP248. You could not tell, then, of course, whether it might be a stern light or what sort of a light it might be on a steamer?
– It was a glare. It was not a distinct light, it was a glare.

AGP283…if we had known that some ship [Carpathia] was coming we would not have started off rowing for an imaginary light, trying to make a great many miles.

Titanic Lookout George Symons:  11713. And did you row towards it?
– Yes, Sir, rowing after it.

  1. But it disappeared?
    – Yes.
  2. Did you appear to be catching it up at all?
    – No. I thought my own self she was gradually going away from us.

William Lucas guessed Californian was 8-9 miles away, but in the strange, miraging conditions he was able to see Californian’s port sidelight when he was in a lifeboat, down near the cold, dense air just above the freezing sea, although Californian appeared to be receding all the time, as the thermal inversion waned before dawn:

  1. You said you saw a sidelight and a masthead light?
    – Yes.
  2. Was I right in thinking that you said you judged them to be eight or nine miles apart?
    – Yes.
  3. Could you see a sidelight eight or nine miles distant?
    – A night like that I could.
  4. Eight or nine miles distant?
    – I think so.
  5. You saw nothing more of the vessel to which those lights belonged?
    – No; the light went further away every time we looked at it.
  6. (The Commissioner.) I am not quite clear about it. Did you see this masthead light and this sidelight before you got into the boat?
    No.
  7. Before you were on the surface of the water?
    – No, I never saw it.
  8. And you saw one of them nine miles away when you were down in the boat?
    – Yes.

With the daylight that morning a breeze sprang up, destroying the thermal inversion and heavy stratification of the air that had been present in the still air of the night, as is recorded by Lawrence Beesley, who described the dawn from a Titanic lifeboat in his book “The Loss of the Titanic”, published in 1912:

“And with the dawn came a faint breeze from the west, the first breath of wind we had felt since the Titanic stopped her engines.” 

Peuchen: AGP255. What time did the dawn come?
– We could just commence to distinguish light, I think, about near 4 o’clock.

Herbert John Pitman: HJP910. And there was not very much wind?
– No; we got a little wind at 4 o’clock, a little breeze at 4 o’clock.

HJP458. And you lay in the vicinity of that scene for about an hour?
– Oh, yes; we were in the vicinity of the wreck the whole time.

HJP459. And drifted or lay on your oars during that time?
– We drifted toward daylight, as a little breeze sprang up.

Titanic Quartermaster Arthur J Bright: AJB115. You did not see any ship or vessel of any sort next morning, in the direction of the light that you had seen during the night?
– No. That seemed to disappear all at once. The next we saw was the
Carpathia, just before daylight.

Titanic Able Seaman Edward John Buley: EJB126. But you never heard of that ship any more?
– No; we could not see anything of her in the morning when it was daylight. She was stationary all night; I am very positive for about three hours she was stationary, and then she made tracks.

EJB127. How far away was she?
– I should judge she was about 3 miles.

EJB128. Why could not she see your skyrockets?
– She could not help seeing them. She was close enough to see our lights and to see the ship itself, and also the rockets. She was bound to see them.

EJB129. You are quite certain that it was a ship?
– Yes, sir; it was a ship.

EJB130. How many lights did you see?
– I saw two masthead lights.

EJB147. You are quite positive there was no illusion about that boat ahead?
– It must have been a boat, sir. It was too low down in the sea for a star. Then we were quite convinced afterwards, because we saw it go right by us when we were in the lifeboats. We thought she was coming toward us to pick us up.

EJB148. How far away was she?
– Three miles, sir, I should judge.

Frederick Fleet: FRF327. What became of that light?
– We did not know. We pulled for it, but we did not seem to get any nearer to it.

FRF328. Did it finally disappear?
– No. Well, it disappeared by daybreak.

Able Seaman George Moore: GEM107. Did that light disappear?
– We kept pulling for it until daylight, and we could not see a thing of it then.

Steward Alfred Crawford: After that Capt. Smith came to the boat and asked how many men were in the boat. There were two sailors. He told me to get into the boat. He gave me orders to ship the row-locks and to pull for a light. He directed me to a light over there. We were pulling for about six hours, I should say, and there were four men in the boat and a lady at the tiller all night.

ALC159. The captain told you to get into that boat and row toward the light?
– Yes; the captain told me to get in the boat and row toward that light. He told us to row for the light and to land the people there and come back to the ship. We pulled until daybreak and we could not catch the ship.

ALC161. Did you see the light?
– Yes, sir; there were two lights.

ALC162. How far away?
– I should say it was not farther than 10 miles.

ALC163. What were they; were they signals?
– They were stationary masthead lights, one on the fore and one on the main. Everybody saw them – all the ladies in the boat. They asked if we were drawing nearer to the steamer, but we could not seem to make any headway, and when day broke we saw another steamer coming up which proved to be the
Carpathia; and then we turned around and came back. We were the farthest boat away.

ALC164. You had not been rowing toward the Carpathia?
– No; we had been rowing the other way.

ALC165. Toward this other light?
– Yes.

ALC166. You say you rowed how long?
– Until we left the ship, because the ladies urged us to pull for the ship.

ALC167. Until daylight?
– Yes, sir.

ALC168. And you got no nearer to that light?
– We did not seem to be making any headway at all, sir.

ALC169. Tell the committee what you think that light was.
– I am sure it was a steamer, because a sailing ship would not have two masthead lights.

ALC170. How far do you think it was away from the Titanic when the captain told you to row toward it?
– Capt. Smith could see the light quite plain, as he pointed in the direction that we were to make for. We pulled toward the light, and we could not reach it.

  1. Did you yourself ever see any sidelights?
    – Yes.
  2. What sidelight or sidelights of that steamer did you see?
    – There was the red and the green light.
  3. You saw them both?
    – Yes.
  4. I suppose you turned round to look?
    – Yes, I stopped rowing then.
  5. Did you see those sidelights on one or more occasions?
    – On the one occasion.
  6. (The Commissioner.) I do not understand that. Do you mean to say you saw both the red and the green lights at once?
    – We drifted.
  7. I know you did; but you say you saw them both at the same time, as I understand?
    – We were bow on.
  8. (Mr. Butler Aspinall.) Yes. (To the witness.) Do you think the vessel’s head was pointing right towards you?
    – Yes. [Author’s note, this is exactly what we would expect at 1.30am]
  9. How long have you been serving on the sea?
    – Since 1882.
  10. So that you have had a good deal of experience?
    – Yes.
  11. Is it your view that at the time you looked and saw the sidelights of that steamer that you were about dead ahead of her?
    – Yes.
  12. You have not told us what distance you rowed in the direction of these lights?
    – I should say between 3 and 4 miles; by the time the morning came we were furthest away from the “Carpathia.”
  13. Did they ever appear to get any nearer?
    – No.
  14. Do you think the other boat was moving?
    – I thought probably she might have been drifting.
  15. You thought they were drifting?
    – The other ship was drifting.
  16. In the same direction as yourselves?
    – No, it seemed as if she was drifting away from us.

Thomas Jones, seaman THJ061. I pulled for about two hours, and then it started to get daybreak, and we lost the light

William H Taylor Fireman: WHT073. Did that light disappear?
– Yes, sir.

Henry Etches, bedroom Steward: 131. After you started out to sea, away from this wreck, did you see any lights of other vessels?
– Yes, Sir; we saw a light that there was quite an argument over. Some said it was a star; others said it was a ship. But we pulled toward it, and we did not seem to approach it an inch nearer. It had every appearance of a masthead light of a ship, but rather a faint light.

Titanic Quartermaster George Thomas Rowe:  We kept on pulling for it, because it was the only stationary light.

Mr. ROWE.
Toward daylight the wind sprung up and she sort of hauled off from us.

Californian, The Flying Dutchman, looming close all night, had seemed to haul off in the wind that came with the dawn.

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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