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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

TITANIC - The night glasses


'We have no look-out glasses in the crow's nest.'

 

The Pilot Night Glasses
1912 ad for night glasses. (Catalogue from W. & L.E. Gurley Co., Troy, New York, May 1912, p. 488)

Were there any night glasses aboard Titanic? In Part I of this article, we read Lightoller’s testimony of the pairs carried aboard, and made no mention of any. He said there was only one set for each of the Senior Officers and the Captain, plus “[a] pair for the Bridge, commonly termed pilot glasses.” (B14327) At least one pair of night glasses has been recovered from Titanic’s wreck site, but this most likely belonged to a passenger23.
We have already established what the sea and weather conditions were in the hours leading up to the collision, but before tackling the ultimate question of whether binoculars might have been of any use to the lookouts, we need to consider what the visibility was. Lightoller reported that it remained “perfectly clear” (B13681) until he was relieved at 10 p.m. by First Officer Murdoch, although at the end of his watch he noted that it was “a little hazy on the horizon, but nothing to speak of.” (B14282) Near the end of Murdoch’s watch, this may have become slightly more pronounced; lookout Frederick Fleet testified that about 11:30 p.m. – ten minutes before the collision – he began to notice it. (B17262)24 This might be cause for concern – as Lightoller explained at the British Inquiry (13643-13647): “The slightest haze would render the situation far more difficult” if there were ice. It would also require the Officer of the Watch to call the Captain to the Bridge immediately.25
With this in mind, let’s look at the testimony Fleet gave at the British Inquiry; he was in the crow’s nest from 10 p.m. onward with Reginald Lee:
17248. Could you clearly see the horizon?
The first part of the watch we could.
17249. The first part of the watch you could?
Yes.
17250. After the first part of the watch what was the change if any?
A sort of slight haze.
17251. A slight haze?
Yes.
17252. Was the haze on the waterline?
Yes.
17253. It prevented you from seeing the horizon clearly?
It was nothing to talk about.
17254. It was nothing much, apparently?
No.
17255. Was this haze ahead of you?
Yes.
17256. Was it only ahead, did you notice?
Well, it was only about 2 points on each side.26
17257. When you saw this haze did it continue right up to the time of your striking the berg?
Yes.
17258. Can you give us any idea how long it was before you struck the berg that you noticed the haze?
No, I could not.
And further on:
17266. Did it interfere with your sight ahead of you?
– No.
17267. Could you see as well ahead and as far ahead after you noticed the haze as you could
before?
– It did not affect us, the haze.
17268. It did not affect you?
No, we could see just as well. [author’s emphasis]
Frederick Fleet
Lookout Frederick Fleet.
Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division
(LC-DIG-hec-00939)
Given that the iceberg sighting fell squarely on the shoulders of Fleet and his partner, if anyone would have had a reason to use poor visibility as an excuse it would have been them. With that reasoning, it can be safely assumed that Fleet’s testimony is accurate and that the haze was not cause for immediate concern. Lee, though, contradicted Fleet when he described the haze as “extending more or less round the horizon.”(B2402) He went on to say that, “We had all our work cut out to pierce through it just after we started. My mate happened to pass the remark to me. He said, ‘Well; if we can see through that we will be lucky’.” And later on, he described the iceberg as “a dark mass that came through that haze.” (B2441). Was he exaggerating, so as to remove all doubt as to whether they should have been able to see the iceberg sooner?
The Wreck Commissioner at the British Inquiry, the Right Honorable Lord Mersey, apparently thought so:27
“My impression is this, that the man was trying to make an excuse for not seeing the iceberg, and he thought he could make it out by creating a thick haze.” (follows B17272) Lee’s story of a haze that they could barely see through is also illogical, since it would have meant that First Officer Murdoch – an experienced, capable officer – would have either had to have been asleep, grossly negligent or in complete disregard of his captain’s instructions to call him if conditions became “at all doubtful” (B13635). Fleet also denied Lee’s assertions. (B17395-17400) For these reasons, this article will proceed on the basis that Fleet’s testimony was the more accurate of the two.
Titanic Iceberg
This photograph was published after the sinking and was believed by many to show the iceberg that sankTitanic28.
(Author’s collection)

At this point, we should pause in our discussion to consider a question: Just how large did the iceberg appear to the lookouts when they saw it? There seems to be a popular conception that the iceberg was a huge mass looming out of the darkness. But applying some trigonometry yields a far different picture. First, we can use a height of 70 feet (21.3 meters) for the iceberg, based on its observed height relative to Titanic’s Bridge as it passed by29. Icebergs are usually much wider than they are tall, so we will use a figure of 225 feet (45.7 meters) for its width.30 Next, we will use an estimate of 2,280 feet (695 meters) for how far away the iceberg was when Fleet and Lee first spotted it. Despite being pressed repeatedly for this at the post-sinking hearings, neither Fleet nor Lee would hazard a guess. However, we can estimate the distance reasonably well based on the ship’s speed and the timeline of events.31
Based on these figures, we can calculate the iceberg’s apparent size using an astronomical measurement called apparent angular size.32 Imagine standing in the center of a large circle extending out 2,280 feet in all directions. If we divide our circle into 360°, the apparent angular size is the amount of that circle – in degrees – that the iceberg would occupy if we placed it at the edge of the circle. When the iceberg was first seen, its apparent angular size would have been approximately 3¾° in width and 1¾° in height). What does this mean? Hold up your index finger at arm’s length, pointed sideways, and the outer two segments of your finger would completely cover up an iceberg that size at that distance (one finger’s width at arm’s length equals about 2°). It’s important to remember that these numbers are based on several estimates and “best guess” calculations. However, our calculations are fairly conservative and, if Fleet and Lee actually saw the iceberg further away, it would have appeared smaller yet. (And the peak of the iceberg would have been well below the visible horizon in the background long before it was seen.)

Angle

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