Looming Titanic

A Very Deceiving Night: Looming Titanic

Posted by

And the looming Titanic was just as confusing to the Californian as the Californian was to the Titanic. Looming made the Titanic appear nearer (higher) but it did not change her angular size, which remained proportionate to her true distance, thus making her appear to the nearby ship to be smaller than she really was.

An example of this can be seen in the ice blink photograph, below, where I have introduced two objects: a large ship on the horizon, and a small boat in the foreground. In fact, both these objects are exactly the same size, but the boat in the foreground looks smaller, because we perceive it to be nearer:

tim maltin a very deceiving night ebook 01

Another example of this can be seen in below image, where the nearer ball looks smaller than the ball further away.  In fact, both the balls in this image are the same size, as you will see if you measure them:        

tim maltin a very deceiving night ebook 01

Image © Dr Huseyin Boyaci, Department of Psychology, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey

The strongest cues to distance on the sea is the height of the horizon, relative to the object you are viewing and the clarity of the object viewed. Essentially, the extraordinarily clear air and the abnormal refraction on the horizon that night altered the distance cues and caused the constant angular size of the Titanic to appear to change.

This confusion was compounded further because in these conditions the looming Titanic would also have appeared distorted, probably with her hull towering and superstructure stooping, adding to the confusion about her size, distance and identity:

tim maltin a very deceiving night ebook 01

A distorting ship in a superior mirage, photograph by Pekka Parviainen

Adding even to all these confusions is the fact that mirages are always very small. All the photographs of mirages in this book are taken with strong telephoto lenses. In reality, the actual angular width of the miraging strip is always less than half the width of your little finger extended at arm’s length.  Californian therefore had a very small canvas on which to make out features of the Titanic.

As a result of all these factors, the observers on the nearby ship concluded that the ship they were looking at was not the Titanic:

James Gibson, Apprentice, Californian:   

  1. (The Commissioner.) What was it made you think it was a tramp steamer? You saw nothing but the lights?

– Well, I have seen nearly all the large passenger boats out at sea, and there was nothing at all about it to resemble a passenger boat. 

  1. What is it you expected to see?

– A passenger boat is generally lit up from the water’s edge. [Author’s note, this indicates towering of the lowest part of Titanic’s hull, where there were no lights, and this was possibly accompanied by a stooping of Titanic’s superstructure, which would make Titanic look like a small, tramp steamer].

  1. You said you thought this was a tramp steamer?
    – Yes.
  2. Why did you think so?
    – She had no appearance at all of a passenger boat.
  3. What time did it first dawn on you that this was a tramp steamer?
    – As soon as I looked at her.
  4. What time did you look at her first?
    – About a quarter or twenty past twelve.

Herbert Stone, Second Officer of the Californian:   

  1. What kind of steamer did you judge her to be from the appearance of the lights you saw?
    – A smallish steamer.
  2. Judging from the appearance of the lights, could she possibly have been the “Titanic” in your opinion?
    – Not by any means.


Stanley Lord, Captain, Californian:

1959 Affidavit:  At 10.30 p.m. as I was leaving the bridge, I pointed out to the Third Officer what I thought was a light to the eastward which he said he thought was a star.

I went down to the saloon deck and sent for the Chief Engineer. I notified him that I intended to remain stopped until daylight but he was to keep main steam handy in case we commenced to bump against the ice.

I pointed out to him the steamer I had previously seen approaching from the eastward and southward of us and about 10.55 p.m. we went to the wireless room. We met the wireless operator coming out and pointing out the other vessel to him I asked him what ships he had. He replied: “Only the Titanic.” I thereupon remarked, judging from what I could see of the approaching vessel, which appeared to be a vessel of no great size and comparable with our own: “That isn’t the Titanic.” I told him to notify the Titanic that we were stopped and surrounded by ice in the position I had calculated, and he left at once to do so.

Later I noticed the green (starboard) light of the approaching vessel, also a few deck lights in addition to the one masthead light previously seen. [Titanic’s superstructure was possibly stooping, reducing the rows of lights which would normally be associated with a very large passenger liner].

At 11.30 p.m. I noticed that the other steamer was stopped about five miles off, also that the Third Officer was morsing him. I continued watching and noticed that she didn’t reply. [Author’s note, it is interesting that Titanic could not even see the Californian at this stage, let alone think she was close enough to Morse to and this is because the Californian was heading northeast by north at this time.]

Captain Lord also described this to the British Inquiry:

  1. Did you continue to watch the approaching vessel?
    – Yes.
  2. Till what time?
    – Half-past 11. I was standing on deck watching it.
  3. All this time you were stopped?
    – We were stopped.
  4. What size steamer did she appear to you – can you give us some idea?
    – She was something like ourselves.
  5. Something like yourselves?
    – Yes.
  6. Medium size?
    – A medium size steamer.
  7. What distance do you think she was from you when you could see the lights?
    – About five miles.
  8. Does not it strike you now that that steamer you saw sending up rockets must have been the “Titanic”?
    – No.
  9. Not now?
    – No, I am positive it was not the “Titanic.”
  10. Why are you positive it was not?
    – Because a ship like the “Titanic” at sea it is an utter impossibility for anyone to mistake. [Except in miraging conditions]
  11. That must depend upon the distance you are from her?
    – Well, my distance, according to my estimate, is 4 to 5 miles. [Looming]
  12. But might not she have been a good deal further off?
    – I do not think so. I do not think we would have seen her sidelights.
    [Abnormally clear air]

Lord had first spotted the Titanic at about 10.30pm, when Titanic was 30-35 miles from the stopped Californian and he noticed that the light he could see right on the horizon [actually Titanic’s miraging masthead light at more than 30 miles distance] “was a most peculiar light”:

STL227. – “When I came off the bridge, at half-past 10, I pointed out to the officer [Third Officer Groves] that I thought I saw a light coming along, and it was a most peculiar light, and we had been making mistakes all along with the stars, thinking they were signals. We could not distinguish where the sky ended and where the water commenced. You understand, it was a flat calm. He said he thought it was a star, and I did not say anything more. I went down below.”

Groves later studied this strange light himself, just before Titanic’s collision, when she was still about 12 miles away and he realized that the peculiar-looking masthead light now in fact appeared to be two lights:

  1. 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.
  2. When do you think you began to pay particular attention to her?
    – About 11.15.
  3. About five minutes after you first saw her?
    – About five minutes after I first saw her.
  4. Did you then see more lights than one?
    – About 11.25 I made out two lights – two white lights.
  5. Two masthead lights?
    – Two white masthead lights.

This could have been Titanic’s one masthead light, appearing as two in the miraging conditions.  An example of this is seen in the following photograph where the single lights on the top of two aerial masts are each multiplied in the miraging conditions.  One light above the other could also have been interpreted as the fore masthead and main masthead lights of an approaching ship:

tim maltin a very deceiving night ebook 01

Two aerial masts, with just one light on the top of each, multiply in the miraging conditions in this  photograph taken by Pekka Parviainen.


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.

Leave a Reply