A Very Deceiving Night: The graveyard watch

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Stone Gibson Titanic. To all of these very confusing factors we must add that, in these conditions, a ship which is sinking will look the same as a ship which is steaming away – the latter being much more likely – and one which is steaming away from a nearby ship cannot be in need of help; and this was possibly also in the minds of Second Officer Stone and Apprentice Gibson as they watched the Titanic slowly disappear, throughout that agonising night: 

Stone:

  1. What did he tell you?
    – He told me the ship was stopped, surrounded by ice, and he pointed out another steamer.
  2. He pointed out another steamer. What could you see of the other steamer?
    – One masthead light and a red sidelight and two or three small indistinct lights.
  3. Is that all he said about her?
    – And that the Third Officer had called her up on the Morse lamp and received no reply.
  4. He told you that?
    – Yes.
  5. Did you look and see these lights yourself?
    – Yes.
  6. How far away did you judge they were?
    – Approximately about five miles.
  7. What kind of steamer did you judge her to be from the appearance of the lights you saw?
    – A smallish steamer.
  8. Judging from the appearance of the lights, could she possibly have been the “Titanic” in your opinion?
    – Not by any means.
  9. During that 20 minutes did you notice anything which you would call funny or odd about her light?
    – Yes.
  10. What did you notice?
    – On one occasion I noticed the lights looked rather unnatural, as if some were being shut in and others being opened out; the lights appeared to be changing their position – the deck lights.
  11. Her deck lights?
    – Yes, and I lost sight of her red sidelight.

7944a. That would be consistent with her altering her heading?
– Yes.

  1. What was there funny about it?
    – Merely that some lights were being shut in and others exposed and I remarked to Gibson that the lights looked peculiar, unnatural, but when I took the glasses and brought her under close observation I took it to be due to the fact that very likely she was porting for some iceberg close at hand and was coming back on her course again, showing her other lights, the original lights.

stone gibson titanic

These lights of a village, 23 miles away, refracting in a superior mirage in Alaska, shows how confusing miraged lights can appear © James W. Helmericks

  1. And after Gibson had returned did you continue to keep this ship under observation?
    – Until she disappeared, yes.
  2. What did you see of her which disappeared?
    – A gradual disappearing of all her lights, which would be perfectly natural with a ship steaming away from us.
  3. (The Commissioner.) What do you mean by all her lights?
    – The deck lights, which were in view. The masthead light would be shut in except for a slight flickering, the glare of it, and the red sidelight would be shut in altogether. The lights I would see would be the lights at the end of the alleyway or engine room skylight, and the stern light.
  4. (Mr. Butler Aspinall.) Did the stern light that you speak of as disappearing, suddenly become black or gradually fade away as if it was going away?
    – It gradually faded as if the steamer was steaming away from us.
  5. Did it have the appearance of being a light on a ship which had suddenly foundered?
    – Not by any means.

Gibson:

  1. What had you noticed between one o’clock and twenty minutes past one, looking at her through your glasses?
    – The Second Officer remarked to me, “Look at her now; she looks very queer out of the water; her lights look queer.”
  2. You are sure that is what he said – “She looks very queer out of the water”?
    – Yes.
  3. Did he say what he meant?
    – I looked at her through the glasses after that, and her lights did not seem to be natural.
  4. (The Commissioner.) What do you mean by that?
    – When a vessel rolls at sea her lights do not look the same.
  5. But there was no water to cause her to roll, was there; you were not rolling?
    – No.
  6. There was no sea to cause her to roll?
    – No, Sir.
  7. (The Solicitor-General.) He made this observation to you. Did you look at her then through your glasses?
    – Yes.
  8. What did you see?
    – She seemed as if she had a heavy list to starboard.

Author’s note: From when Gibson began observing at 12.15am until she foundered at 2.20am, Titanic carried a list to port, so her whole, gradually sinking hull may only have appeared to rise up, in the abnormally refracting air.  The true height of her port light, in feet above sea level, can be seen in the following chart:

tim maltin a very deceiving night ebook 01

  1. Was anything said between the Second Officer and you as to whether this was likely to be a passenger steamer?
    – No.
  2. What did you think?
    – I thought she was a tramp steamer, and I told him so.
  3. When you saw her first. Now, tell me, when you first saw that glare of lights in the afterpart, could you see a line of lights?
    – No.
  4. It was more than a single light, was it not?
    – Yes.
  5. Could not you tell, when you first saw it, whether that glare of lights in her afterpart was running level with the water?
    – No.
  6. Now I wish you would just try and tell us what you mean when you say that later on, when you looked at her through the glasses, you thought she had a list, or you thought her lights looked queer; what was there about her lights to make you think that?
    – Her sidelights seemed to be higher out of the water.
  7. The sidelights seemed to be higher out of the water?
    – Yes.
  8. Do you mean that there was any time when you saw both sidelights?
    – Her red sidelight.
  9. And you say that watching her, you thought that her red sidelight did not stay at the same level, but got higher?
    – Yes.
  10. That was your impression was it?
    – Yes.

The Commissioner:
That would make a list to starboard?

  1. (The Solicitor-General.) Is that why you thought she had got a list to starboard?
    – Yes.
  2. You thought her red light was rising out of the water, and so you assumed that the other side was dropping?
    – Yes.
  3. Did you call the Second Officer’s attention to that?
    – Yes; he remarked it at the time; he told me to look through the glasses at it.
  4. Just tell us. You say the Second Officer spoke to you about it; what did he say?
    – He said, “Have a, look at her now, Gibson; she seems to look queer now.”
  5. You have not said anything about her port light yet, you know; did he say anything more?
    – No; I told him, “She looks rather to have a big side out of the water.”
  6. Had you noticed that she looked queer before he spoke to you about it?
    – No.
  7. You had not. Then you looked through the glasses?
    – Yes.
  8. And when you looked through the glasses what was it you saw? What was it that struck you?
    – That she seemed, to be heavily listed to starboard.
  9. You were looking at her port light?
    – Yes.
  10. What did you see about her port light?
    – It seemed to be higher out of the water than what it was before.
  11. Did not you, say anything to him about what you noticed, about her red light?
    – I said she seemed to have a big side out of the water.
  12. Did he agree with you or did he not?
    – Yes.
  13. He did agree with you?
    – Yes.
  14. When you looked at this ship’s red light and thought that it seemed queer, did you also look at her lights in the afterpart of her?
    – Yes.
  15. How did they stand in relation to the red light?
    – They did not seem to be the same as they were before.
  16. Can you help us about it; tell us if you can. What was it about her after-lights, this glare of lights in the afterpart, which made you think they were not the same as before? What was the difference?
    – That I cannot say.
  17. Were they in the same position as they were before?
    – They were in the same position, but they seemed to look different.
  18. They merely seemed to look different?
    – Yes.
  19. Did you think from looking at them that the ship was lying on an even keel?
    – Not by the white lights alone.
  20. You mean the white lights would not have suggested to you that she was not lying on an even keel?
    – No.
  21. (The Commissioner.) Am I to understand that, as far as you could tell, the position of the white lights had not changed?
    – They seemed to have changed, but I cannot say how.
  22. Did you look to see whether these after-lights seemed higher up out of the water, or lower in the water?
    – I noticed them all at the same time.
  23. What, the red light and the others too?
    – Yes.
  24. And do you mean that the white light seemed higher out of the water as well as the red light?
    – Yes.
  25. Was the glare of light which you saw on the afterpart of this vessel forward or aft of the masthead light?
    – Abaft the masthead light.
  26. So that you would be seeing her starboard side?
    – No, her port side.
  27. The glare of light which you say was aft, was aft of the masthead lights?
    – Yes.
  28. Was that to your left or your right as you were looking at her?
    – To the right.
  29. Do you mean the masthead light was to the right?
    – No, the masthead light was to the left.
  30. Was that before you saw her apparently steaming to the south-west?
    – Yes.
  31. Did you see her turn round?
    – No.
  32. Had you a good opportunity of seeing whether she had two masthead lights or not – I understand you only saw one?
    – I only saw one.
  33. How long had you the one masthead light under observation?
    – From the time I first saw her to the time she disappeared.
  34. How long would that be?
    – A quarter-past twelve to five past two.
  35. And during that time were you using glasses?
    – Yes.
  36. Do you think you could have missed the second masthead light had it been there?
    – No.
  37. Had you a discussion with the Second Officer as to whether this vessel was a tramp or not?
    – Yes.
  38. And did he agree with you?
    – Yes.
  39. (The Commissioner.) Did he give his reason?
    – That she was probably burning oil lights; that was the cause of the white head mast light flickering.

The looming, sinking Titanic was certainly a confusing sight, at least until she disappeared at 2.05am Californian Time, which was 2.17am Titanic Time, when Titanic’s hull split apart and her lights went out, three minutes before her darkened hull, with 1,500 people still clinging to it, slipped beneath the waves:

Gibson: 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. The Second Officer then said, “Call the Captain and tell him that the ship has disappeared in the S.W., that we are heading W.S.W. and that altogether she has fired eight rockets.” I then went down below to the chartroom and called the Captain and told him and he asked me if there were any colours in the rockets. I told him that they were all white. He then asked me what time it was…

  1. What was the time?
    – Five minutes past two by the wheelhouse clock.

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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