carpathia collects survivors

A Very Deceiving Night: N52W

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SS Carpathia collects survivors

Just as the scintillation in the thermal inversion had scrambled Titanic’s Morse lamp signals, the abnormal refraction scrambled the message that the sinking Titanic’s lights would otherwise have conveyed to the Californian: That it was a sinking ship they were viewing, not one steaming away.

The strange optical effects that night continued well beyond Titanic’s sinking.

Carpathia picked up Titanic’s radio distress signal at 12.35am and headed straight for the doomed liner.  But at 2.40am, when she was still 18 miles away from Titanic’s wreck site, Captain Rostron saw the first of a series of green flares, which were being burnt by Titanic’s Fourth Officer Boxhall, in his lifeboat No. 2.  In the abnormally refracting conditions, the fact that Captain Rostron could see this low, green signal at such a distance caused him to conclude that it must have been the starboard light of the giant Titanic herself:

“At 20 minutes to 3 I saw the green flare, which is the White Star Company’s night signal, and naturally, knowing I must be at least 20 miles away, I thought it was the ship herself still. It was showing just for a few seconds and I passed the remark that she must still be afloat.”…”At twenty minutes to three I saw a night signal, as I was saying, and it was just about a half a point on the port bow, practically right ahead.”

Here Rostron testifies again to the apparent height of Boxhall’s looming, hand-held flare:

“At 2:40, I saw a flare, about half a point on the port bow, and immediately took it for granted that it was the Titanic itself, and I remarked that she must be still afloat, as I knew we were a long way off, and it seemed so high.”

Captain Rostron testified that every time he saw this light, he fired a rocket in answer: “I had been firing rockets and the Company’s signals every time we saw this green light again.”

In his autobiography, Tramps and Ladies, Second Officer Bisset of the Carpathia explained the sighting of this green flare by saying it went 500 feet into the sky, 25 miles away, and so appeared right on their horizon. But in fact it was just a hand-held flare in one of Titanic’s lifeboats, and yet that night it was seen at a distance of about 18 miles.

Even when Carpathia was very near the lifeboat, the abnormal conditions of visibility continued to make it difficult to judge distances, as Bisset later explains, at 4.00am:

“Steered cautiously towards a green flare sighted low in the water, at a distance difficult to judge in the continuing peculiar conditions of visibility. It appeared likely, but at first was not certain, that this flare was from a lifeboat…the light of the green flare towards which we were steering had burnt out.”

But at 3.15am, just over half an hour after they had first sighted Boxhall’s green flare at 18 miles range, Carpathia observed the Californian at a range of about 20 miles. As the Carpathia approached Titanic from the southeast, she observed the masthead lights and even the port sidelight of the Californian, two points on Carpathia’s starboard bow:

Rostron: “…during the night previous to getting out of the “Titanic’s” position. We saw masthead lights quite distinctly of another steamer between us and the “Titanic.” That was about quarter-past three.

  1. The masthead lights?
    – Yes, of another steamer, and one of the Officers swore he also saw one of the sidelights.
  2. Which one?
    – The port sidelight.
  3. What time was it?
    – About a quarter-past three.
  4. And how was the light bearing?
    – About 2 points on the starboard bow.
  5. On your starboard bow?
    – On my starboard bow; that would be about N. 30, W. true.

As you can see from the following diagram, this is exactly where you would expect the Californian to appear from the Carpathia, approaching from the southeast:

ss carpathia

However, again the abnormal refraction misled Captain Rostron, making him conclude that the ship he saw must have been between him and the Titanic, rather than about ten miles beyond it, as – under normal conditions – they would not have been able to see a ships sidelight at 20 miles.

Meanwhile, Stone and Gibson on the Californian were watching as Carpathia approached Titanic’s wreck site from the southeast, right on their starboard beam, firing rockets as she went, which Boxhall answered by showing flares in his lifeboat, which was still almost 10 miles ahead of the northwest-heading Carpathia, and which therefore appeared two points before Californian’s beam, as shown in the following diagram:

screenshot 2019-01-05 at 19.14.39

In the thermal inversion, Carpathia’s high rockets 20 miles away appeared the same height as Boxhall’s low, hand-held flares, 10 miles away:

As Apprentice Gibson on the Californian said in his April 18th 1912 affidavit to Captain Lord: “At about 3:20 looking over the weather cloth, I observed a rocket about two points before the beam (Port), which I reported to the Second Officer [this was a green flare from Boxhall’s boat]. About three minutes later I saw another rocket right abeam [this was the Carpathia answering] which was followed later by another one about two points before the beam [this was Boxhall steering them by his flares, as per Rostron’s testimony, cited above].”

In the abnormally refracting conditions of that night, it’s also possible that Californian’s lights and Boxhall’s flares, and possibly even Carpathia’s rockets, may also have been seen at a great distance from the Mount Temple, as that ship approached Titanic’s wreck site before dawn, from the southwest.

On the 9th of May 1912, an affidavit was submitted to the American inquiry from Dr F.C. Quitzrau who was travelling as a second class passenger on the Mount Temple at the time of the Titanic disaster. In his affidavit, Quitzrau said:

“About 3 o’clock New York time, 2 o’clock ship’s time, the Titanic was sighted by some of the officers and crew; that as soon as the Titanic was seen all lights on the Mount Temple were put out and the engines stopped and the boat lay dead for about two hours; that as soon as day broke the engines were started and the Mount Temple circled the Titanic’s position…”

This could possibly have been the lights of the Californian, observed beyond the ice barrier.

Later, on the 6th of August 1912, W.H. Baker, Mount Temple’s new fourth officer wrote:

“They were from ten to fourteen miles from her when they saw her signals. I gather from what was told me that the captain seemed afraid to go through the ice, although it was not so very thick. They told me that they not only saw her deck lights but several green lights between them and what they thought was the Titanic. There were two loud reports heard which they said must have been the ‘finale’ of the Titanic; this was some time after sighting her, I gathered . . . I must tell you these men were fearfully indignant that they were not called up to give evidence at the time, for they were greatly incensed at the captain’s behaviour in the matter.”

Given the abnormally refracting air that night, it is possible that the ship seen from the Mount Temple, as she approached from the southwest, was in fact the Californian, beyond Titanic’s distress position, with the green flares from Boxhall’s lifeboat to the south-eastward of Californian…and those loud reports, if accurate, could possibly have been the booming from two of Carpathia’s distress rockets, as she raced to the scene, as a thermal inversion also has the effect of bending sound waves downward, away from the warmer air above and back down towards the ground, though sound waves travel much less far than light and whether any sound was heard would depend on where those sound waves hit the surface of the sea:

ss carpathia

Temperature Inversions & Sound Propagation Diagram, showing how sound travels further than normal in thermal inversions, due to abnormal refraction © Mike O’Connor, Physics Applied

Californian then watched Carpathia come to a stop to pick up Boxhall’s boat at 4.05am:

  1. When after 4? – 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 then just abaft the port beam showing two masthead lights apparently heading much in the same direction as ourselves.

This is confirmed by Stewart at the British Enquiry:

  1. Did you see anything?- Yes, I saw a steamer to the southward.8597. At 4 o’clock in the morning?- Yes.8598. What was it you saw at 4 o’clock in the morning?- I saw two white masthead lights and a few lights amidships.

8604 “I looked to the southward and saw a light. On looking through the glass I saw two masthead lights and a lot of lights amidships, apparently a four-masted steamer. This was 4 a.m.”

  1. When the Captain said: “She looks all right,” what was he referring to? – She just looked like an ordinary steamer stopped. 8643. It comes out for the first time in the last minute? – I thought all the time that that ship had something to do with it or knew something about it.
  2. Is it in your mind at all that it was the “Carpathia” you saw?

It was the Carpathia, stopped and picking up Titanic’s lifeboats.

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.


    1. Yes, they nearly always occur where very warm water (such as the Gulf Stream) meets very cold water (such as the Labrador Current). Of course they can occur on land, too, when warmer air overlays colder air. These are called thermal inversions and they can create abnormal refraction.

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