Where was Californian?To try to discover the position of Californian during the time when Titanic was sinking is to venture where mariners fear to sail. I am conscious that many have been this way before, but many have had particular axes to grind and many have been quite unqualified to lay down the law on the subject. Oddly enough, the only widely known book on the topic to be written by a qualified Master is Leslie Harrison's very biased A Titanic Myth: The Californian Incident. The whole story is bedevilled by rough estimations, hazy memories and outright lies. These are on top of the usual errors inherent in 1912 style navigation.
A vital piece of evidence is missing. Californian's log was evidently destroyed during World War II, though even this is not certain. Certainly it has never been subjected to modern forensic testing. It has been known since 1912 that several hours of the night of April 14th, 1912, were not written up in the log, but there is no technical proof that it was ever actually altered.
I propose to attack the problem using those facts which can be established by technical evidence, making little use of estimations, especially estimations of distances between lights at night. The reason for this is clear. To take a simple example, witnesses from Titanic placed the lights seen from her at anything from 3 to 10 miles away. To quote the Bard, "That way madness lies".
The Evidence.What can be found in the technical evidence? The facts are found in many sources and their interpretation requires a knowledge of the navigational procedures of 1912. I consider the following to be demonstrable.
- Titanic sank at 41° 43'N, 49° 57' W.
- The collision occurred at close to 41° 47' N, 49° 55'W, as per the 1990/92 enquiry.
- Rockets fired from a ship's deck were visible at over 30 miles in theory. The range was limited by their brightness, rather than the curvature of the earth. Sir James Bisset believed 25 miles was quite possible.
- Flares burning in a boat were visible from a ship's bridge (height of eye 40 ft) at up to about 10 miles.
- The lights on the boat deck of Titanic were visible from the bridge of Californian at a range of up to 16 miles, if bright enough. (From the Extreme Range Table)
- A ship's position was only truly fixed twice a day. This occurred shortly before dawn and soon after sunset, when multiple star sights were taken. All other positions combined celestial navigation with dead reckoning and must be considered inaccurate.
- Captain Lord is known not to have fixed his position on the evening of April 14th. He merely took the latitude by Polaris. At 10-30 p.m. he had therefore been without a full fix since about 4-30 a.m. (Sunrise was at about 5-20 a.m.).
- During the time since his morning fix (assuming one was taken) Lord had steamed about 200 miles at 11 knots. In the course of this he had finished the Great Circle part of his course to Boston and had changed to a rhumb line course of 269° True. This was all done by a combination of celestial navigation and dead reckoning.
- A latitude by Polaris is easy to calculate, but the observations are not easy, because Polaris is not very bright and the horizon must be clear and sharp.
- Lord had no reason to go further south if he could avoid it. His noon latitude was already 16' south of Boston.
- Late in the afternoon of April 14th, when he had no need of an alibi, Lord gave his position to Antillian as 42° 3' N, 49° 9'W. This agrees with his noon position of 42°5'N, 47° 25'W and a course of 269°True. Both positions must be considered honest estimates. In particular, the noon latitude must be considered correct to within one mile, as any competent navigator can take the latitude this accurately.
- The ship Parisian reported three distinctive flat topped icebergs in 41° 55'N. these are believed to be the ones reported by Lord 5 miles south of 42° 3'N, that is, in 41° 58'N. Neither position is definitely correct.
- All longitudes given by Lord are suspect. At no time did he give an unimpeachable longitude for any time during April 14th. In his 1959 affidavit, he states that he took observations for longitude late in the afternoon, but he only gives the longitude in terms of miles from his noon position. The longitude at the noon position is itself an estimate, based on observations taken hours earlier.
- Lord's 10-30 p.m. longitude of 50°7' W is manifestly wrong, as it puts him far into the icefield, if not west of it.
- Lord's calculation of the latitude of the wreck site appears at first glance to be either falsified or the result of serious incompetence. His latitude of 41°33' N is ten miles south of the wreck. This is far outside the usual margin of error but is is possibly accounted for a south-going current and the effect of the wind that sprang up before dawn. His longitude of 50° 1'W is acceptable, given that it is the result of dead reckoning based on a longitude obtained late in the afternoon.
- A southgoing current of about one knot existed in the area of the icefield. A current of under half a knot, running about ENE, was encountered to the southeast of it, as evidenced by the direction in which wreckage and bodies went.
- Lifeboat 2, commanded by Fourth Officer Boxhall, was the most southerly boat and at 4-00 a.m. was found by Carpathia no more than 2 miles south of the wreck site, having made no attempt to head for the light seen in the north..
- The inherent difficulty of the observation.
- The error inherent in carrying the latitude forward by dead reckoning based on speed and the course steered.
- Lord's' navigation up to 7-30 p.m. is both truthful and accurate, except in his longitude. His Latitude by Polaris is precise. All that affects his stopping position is that the southerly current takes effect at around 9-30 p.m. He stops, therefore, in about 42° 4' N, only a little further south than he claimed and about 17 miles north of Titanic's track. By the time of the collision, he is a further mile south. Both ships then drift at the same rate and stay about 16 miles apart. At 2-20 a.m. Titanic sinks. Californian continues to drift and at 6-00 a.m. is about 12 miles from the wreck.This satisfies the requirement that Californian is at all times close enough to see the rockets fired by Titanic and Carpathia, but out of range of Boxhall's' flares.
It is right at the limit of visibility for the lights on Titanic's boat deck.
It roughly agrees with Bisset's estimated position of Californian in the morning, remembering that it is only an estimate, as is the speed I am allowing for the current.
- The position of the icebergs sighted in the afternoon of April 14th is correctly reported by Parisian and Californian is 3 miles south of the position given by Lord. The latitude by Polaris of 42° 5' N later given by Lord is wrong, either through genuine error or though Lord's desire after the event to place himself far north of Titanic.In this case, Californian is only 3° off course since her noon position. This could easily result from poor steering and/or a minor compass error.
This course places Californian 's stopping point in 41° 58' N, after allowing one mile for drift south during the previous hour. Californian drifts a further mile by the time of the collision and is then 10 miles from Titanic. The ships drift at the same rate and about 10 miles apart until 2-20 a.m. Californian drifts to 41° 52' N by 4-00 a.m. and to 41°50' N by 6-00 a.m.
This scenario places Californian 10 miles from Boxhall at 4-00 a.m. This is right at the extreme range of his flares. At 6-00 a.m. Californian is about 8 miles from Carpathia.
If Californian was 10 miles from Titanic during the sinking, the lights on the upper decks of Titanic were visible. All the rockets fired by Titanic and Carpathia were visible, but Boxhall's flares were at the limit of their range.
Californian's 6-00a.m. position is close to Bisset's estimation.
My Approach to the Problem.I propose first to look at the evidence in a general way. Some believe that Captain Lord falsified his navigation through wishing to prove that he was far north of Titanic all night. His supporters claim that he was "one of the better navigators". What does the hard evidence say?
I next make a two-pronged attack on the evidence. Can a southerly limit for Californian's position be found? What if a northerly limit is considered? Do the two limits produce any agreement?
Assessing Lord's Credibility.Captain Lord's navigation is not of the same standard as the big liners. In particular, he did not take the opportunity to fix his position by a round of star sights on the evening of April 14th. His longitudes are all suspect, because of this. The claimed afternoon longitudes mentioned in his 1959 affidavit are not expressed in the proper form and mean nothing.
Such a casual attitude is not exceptional and does not prove that Lord was falsifying his navigation. The working of star sights in 1912 was a long and tedious process. A fix by only three stars took about an hour to work. A textbook fix used five or more stars and took double the time. In mid-Atlantic, the precise longitude was not really that important, as there are no isolated dangers. Lord was only doing what countless others had done for years.
Lord's latitude at 10-30 p.m., carried forward from his Latitude by Polaris at 7-30 p.m., is subject to two errors.
The difference between Lord's estimated latitude of the three icebergs and Parisian's is about three miles. It is not certain that Parisian's position is better than Lord's. The discrepancy by itself proves nothing though it is notable that Lord, who arrived on the scene some hours after Parisian, places the bergs 3 miles north of Parisian's estimate. Was Lord further south than he thought at the time?
Establishing a Southerly Limit.It is possible to set a southerly limit to Lord's overnight position.
At 4-00 a.m. Boxhall fired a final green flare in boat 2. This flare, visible at ten miles, was not seen on Californian, nor were any of his earlier flares. On Californian Second Officer Stone and Apprentice Gibson were looking towards Boxhall's boat but saw only Carpathia's rockets. Therefore, at 4-00 a.m., and for over one hour earlier, Californian was more than ten miles from boat 2. Taking a view least favorable to Lord, I place Boxhall in 41° 42'N and Californian at least eleven miles north, in 41° 53'N. at 4-00 a.m.
Allowing for a south going current of one knot, at 4-00 a.m. Californian had been drifting south since 10-30 p.m. and had covered some 5� miles. Again taking the most unfavorable view and ignoring the odd half mile, I place Californian no further south than 41° 58' N at 10-30 p.m.
Under this scenario, at the time of the collision Californian, having drifted one mile south since stopping, would have been in 41° 57' N, ten miles north of the collision position determined by the 1990/92 enquiry.
Continuing this line of argument, by 6-00 a.m., when Californian got underway, she would have drifted to 41° 51' N, which is about nine miles north of where Carpathia picked up boat 2. This agrees roughly with Carpathia's Second Officer Bisset's statement that he saw Californian getting underway about ten miles north of his ship.
I therefore argue that Californian was at least ten miles from Titanic at the time of the collision and throughout the sinking. Had she been further south, Boxhall's flares would have been visible shortly after the sinking.
The Search for a Northern Limit.A northern limit for Californian's position is harder to establish. Lord's noon latitude of 42° 5'N was genuine, as I have shown. He had no need or desire to go further south, being already south of Boston and with no more than adequate coal. The numerous ice reports which were sent during April 14th mostly place the ice south of 42° N. Lord may well have hoped to avoid a diversion south by passing north of the thickest ice. Neither Lord nor his officers mention any change of course after noon. Californian continued to steer 269° True until 10-30 p.m. The course, slightly south of west, might have been chosen to allow for the weak ENE current mentioned above.
It is not possible to be sure when Californian came under the influence of the southerly current in the area of the icefield. By 10-30 p.m. she was certainly affected. It seems to me that two extreme situations should be considered.
- At 10-30 p.m. Californian was no further north than 42° 5' N and no further south than 41° 58' N.
- Californian's course and stated positions can be explained by sloppy navigation.
- The latitude by Polaris may be false, as may the afternoon longitudes given in Lord's 1959 affidavit, but this can not be proven.
- Captain Lord can not be proven to have falsified his navigation on a grand scale. His records are not very precise, but are within the realm of the possible.
- I consider that my approach has yielded a very objective view of this controversial matter. Other methods, based on the witnesses' accounts of lights are liable to so many errors, due to the subjectivity of their accounts, as well as the vexed question of refraction effects, as to be invalid.
- It is not possible to state a definite distance between the two ships. All that can be shown is that it was between 10 and 16 miles during the sinking. To be more precise than that is to go beyond the limits of the objective evidence.
- My purely subjective opinion is that a 10-30 p.m. latitude of about 42° N is about correct and represents a reasonable compromise between the navigational data and the estimates of distances given by witnesses.
Californian to the Rescue!Let us imagine that Californian is a happy ship, commanded by a brave but not reckless captain, who has the full confidence of his officers. He trusts them also and their advice is always welcome. Now let's send this Californian to the rescue.
I have worked out independently that Californian was not less than ten miles from Titanic. The distance of five miles reported by some does not stand up to critical study.
Captain Lord gave evidence that he had ordered his engineers to have steam ready, in case the ship got too close to ice during the night. They could therefore get underway quite quickly. Records show that he had a crew of 49, including himself. Californian carried six boats, two of which were small craft used for ship's business in harbour. In theory, they could carry 218 people. Californian was a 6,233 GRT ship and could have readily carried all on board Titanic for a few hours until more help arrived. She carried no doctor.
On the basis of the ten mile distance and Californian 's known top speed of thirteen knots, here is a possible best case scenario. Times are Titanic times, from Walter Lord. If the distance were more than ten miles, about 4' 40" would be needed for each mile.
11-00 p.m. April 14. Evans tries to warn Titanic of ice. He neglects to preface his call with MSG for Masters' Service Gram, signifying an important message for the Captain. Phillips tells him to shut up. He does so very literally and by 11-35 p.m. has closed down his radio for the night.
12-45 a.m. April 15. Titanic fires her first rocket. Stone sees it. He is puzzled. Is it a rocket, a meteor (several have been seen) or what? (This is fact from his own testimony, not fancy). In any case, a single rocket does not constitute a distress signal. Rockets fired at regular intervals are needed.
12-55. By now, Titanic has fired a second rocket, Stone has realized he is seeing distress signals and has called Captain Lord and First Officer Stewart to the bridge. They believe his report and send apprentice Gibson to wake Evans and get him to work.
1-00. Evans has heard one of Titanic 's many distress calls. He takes the distress position of 41° 46' N, 50° 14 W to Captain Lord. Lord is puzzled. That position is SSW of where he thinks he is and twenty miles away, beyond the ice field. (He knows the ice field is there, from radio reports). The rockets are seen about SSE and are plainly closer. He asks Evans to seek clarification. (Note that the real Captain Lord, having been advised in the morning of the SOS position, headed SW for it through thick ice. This was in spite of all the pyrotechnics during the night having been seen in the southeast. Did he thinkTitanic had passed through the ice, only to sink on the other side? Captain Moore of Mount Temple saw at a glance that this was not possible.)
1-05. Evans calls Phillips for more information. Phillips sends Bride to the bridge. Captain Smith comes to the radio room. He tells Phillips to assume that the ship which is in sight of Titanic to the NNW must be Californian, regardless of what the two Captains think their dead reckoning shows. Phillips passes this to Evans.
1-10. Captain Lord is now convinced that Titanic is the ship firing rockets in the SSE. He uses the telegraph to call for half speed ahead and turns cautiously towards Titanic. Titanic continues to fire rockets to guide him.
1-15. Captain Lord orders extra lookouts and rings for full speed ahead. He sends Stewart to organize the preparation of his lifeboats. Others are ordered to prepare to receive survivors.
2-00. Californian arrives alongside Titanic, five minutes before the last boat is lowered. Titanic is now sinking quickly by the head as water floods in through the various openings in her foredeck, as well as the holes down below. Panic is beginning to spread and people are making for the stern. Captain Lord orders his boats lowered. He orders five men into each boat, four to row and one to steer. This occupies 20, assuming that only the large lifeboats are used. (Californian had only 22 seamen, including Lord and his officers, the carpenter, an ordinary seaman and a deck boy. Lowering and handling the boats would not have been expertly done). The boat crews have orders to beat people off with oars if need be, to prevent capsizing. They keep well away from Titanic, as nobody knows what disturbance will be created when such a large ship sinks. Lord tries to call Captain Smith through a megaphone and tell him that all should swim for his boats, or for the cargo nets now hanging fromCalifornian. Those on Titanic have trouble getting off. For most it is too far to jump. Those nearest the bow are best placed to slip overboard. Some slide down the lifeboat falls. In the five or ten minutes before Titanic sinks chaos reigns and little is achieved. Total darkness falls as Titanic 's lights fail.
2-20. Titanic sinks. Those who can, swim for Californian or her boats.
2-40. Most in the water are now dead or unconscious. (See the United States Search and Rescue Task Force on survival times in near-freezing water and the effects of swimming). Fewer than 200 are in Californian 's boats. Some of those clinging to the nets will make it but many will drop off as the cold gets them. The few crewmen on board, probably mostly firemen and stewards, are divided between hauling people on board and helping those who make it. A few remain at their normal posts for safety. Each boat is fully loaded in perhaps fifteen minutes, the stronger survivors helping the seamen to get others on board. The problem is getting the survivors out of the boats fast enough to give time to pick up a second load. (It took Carpathia's much larger crew over four hours to pick up 712, although this includes time spent picking up thirteen boats and waiting for some boats to arrive).
4-00. The boats return from a final search for survivors. The intense darkness has made the task nearly impossible. They can do no better than Titanic's Fifth Officer Lowe did. They have found a few exceptionally tough ones and have picked up everybody from collapsibles A and B. Carpathia has arrived.
Conclusions. By prompt action, good seamanship and good luck, Californian could have saved several hundred people, perhaps 400 or so. Certainly no more, and some experienced seamen would argue for fewer. The freezing water would have taken the rest. It could be argued that I have allowed too long between the first rocket firing and Californian getting underway, but ten minutes either way matters little. Certainly Captain Lord's best course of action would have been to steam towards the rockets, before using the radio to clarify the situation as he did so. Ultimately this matters little. They needed hours and they had minutes.