107 #57: Titanic’s distress signal gave the wrong position

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titanic distress signal

TRUE. At about 7.30 p.m., Lightoller took a set of star sights in order to calculate Titanic’s position. Third officer Pitman recorded the timings of these stellar observations on a small deck watch, but it is likely that at this point he made an error, only recently discovered by Titanic expert Sam Halpern, of one minute of time when translating these star sight timings to Titanic’s ship’s chronometer time.

Boxhall then worked out Titanic’s position using this incorrect timing data, which therefore resulted in an error of 15 minutes of arc of longitude, giving a position approximately 13 miles too far west. Because the error was only one of timing and not of celestial observation it affected all of the star observations equally, and thus they all agreed, apparently confirming the incorrect result, which therefore went unnoticed.

James Moore, captain of the Mount Temple, which also rushed to Titanic’s aid that night, testified that he had received two different distress positions from Titanic:

‘The first position I got was 41° 46’ N., 50° 24’ W. It was afterwards corrected to 41° 44’ N. and 50° 14’ W.’

However, neither of these positions was anywhere near correct, as Dr Robert Ballard proved when he discovered the wreck in 1985 at 41’ 43’ N, 49’ 56’ W, thirteen miles east of the final distress position given by Titanic. This mistake was one reason that the wreck was not found until 73 years after the sinking.

Boxhall was so sure of his position that he asked that his ashes be scattered at the second CQD position after his death in 1967; he never knew that the ship in fact sank 13 miles east of it, though he should have noticed at the time that his carefully calculated position was unusually far ahead of Titanic’s Dead Reckoning position for 8 p.m. ship’s time.

Captain Moore testified at the time that he thought Titanic’s CQD position was at least eight miles too far west, since, when he arrived at her reported position, he found himself on the west side of the ice barrier running north/ south; Titanic, coming from the east, could only have been on the east side of this barrier. Moore was therefore aware of Titanic’s navigational mistake at the time, but his evidence was discounted in the light of Boxhall’s evidence that his star sight calculations all agreed with each other, together with the fact that Carpathia came across Titanic’s lifeboats using Boxhall’s position. In fact, it was pure luck that Carpathia’s path to the incorrect distress position just happened to bring her across Titanic’s actual wreck site.

If you’d like to read the full book of101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic…But Didn’t!, or any of my other books on Titanic, please visit my Author Page on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/tim-maltin/e/B005LNHYEQ/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1

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