stuff & nonsense

By sleepyhead

Titanic ~ The "Californian" Incident

"From the position we stopped in to the position at which Titanic is supposed to have hit the iceberg, 19 1/2 to 19 3/4 miles; south 16 west, sir, was the course..."
~ Stanley Lord, master of Californian

One of the most enduring and divisive controversies of Titanic, is the part played by the Leyland Line steamer Californian and her master, Stanley Lord.

Firstly, I'd like to apologise for the image. This is an illustration taken from The Discovery of the Titanic by Dr. Robert Ballard, which outlines one of the many positional theories of Titanic and Californian. I had a play to make it a little more "interesting". I should warn you now that this goes on for a bit so don't worry if you can't read it all, but for me this is one aspect of the disaster that has and always will intrigue me the most. I could go on for hours on the subject and in presenting this brief summary I may not be as clear as I would like and certainly won't be able to discuss it in any great detail. There are some which I won't mention at all. As with so many other aspects of the disaster, the truth will never really be known but the subsequent personal condemnation of her captain has never sat well with me. I should point out that the first book I read in any detail to this matter was one in defence of Captain Lord, so that probably clouded my viewpoint. That doesn't mean that I wholeheartedly agree with his actions that night, but I also don't believe that they warranted the kind of criticism and vilification that he received.

Californian had set sail from London on 5th April bound for Boston. She was primarily a cargo vessel and although certified to carry passengers she had none on this trip. On the afternoon of 14th April she encountered icebergs and after unsuccessfully attempting to contact Titanic directly (the wireless operator Bride was busy writing up passenger's accounts at the time and ignored the signal) her wireless operator Cyril Evans sent to Antillian the message "Three large bergs 5 miles to the southwards of us." some 20 minutes later at around 7.30pm. Titanic, having overheard this message acknowledged receipt. Californian started encountering loose ice and at 8pm her master Stanley Lord had ordered an unusual watch be posted which comprised of a doubled lookout, the posting of a man on the forecastle head (the foremost point on the vessel) and he himself standing watch with the officer of the watch. By 10.30pm field ice was spotted a quarter of a mile ahead and Lord ordered her stopped for the night. I will let the captain explain the events of that night in his own words, from his testimony to the Senate Investigation into the disaster, which convened a mere four days after the disaster, in New York.

"When I came off the bridge, at half-past 10, I pointed out to the officer that I thought I saw a light coming along, and it was a most peculiar light, and we had been making mistakes all along with the stars, thinking they were signals. We could not distinguish where the sky ended and where the water commenced. You understand, it was a flat calm. He said he thought it was a star, and I did not say anything more. I went down below. I was talking with the engineer about keeping the steam ready, and we saw these signals coming along, and I said "There is a steamer passing. Let us go to the wireless and see what the news is." But on our way down I met the operator coming, and I said, "Do you know anything?" He said, "The Titanic."
So, then, I gave him instructions to let the Titanic know. I said, "This is not the Titanic; there is no doubt about it." She came and lay at half-past 11, alongside of us until, I suppose, a quarter past, within 4 miles of us. We could see everything on her quite distinctly, see her lights. We signalled her, at half-past 11, with the Morse lamp. She did not take the slightest notice of it. That was between half-past 11 and 20 minutes to 12. We signalled her again at 10 minutes past 12, half-past 12, a quarter to 1 o'clock. We have a very powerful Morse lamp. I suppose you can see that about 10 miles, and she was about 4 miles off, and she did not take the slightest notice of it. When the second officer came on the bridge, at 12 o'clock ,or 10 minutes past 12, I told him to watch that steamer, which was stopped, and I pointed out the ice to him; told him we were surrounded by ice; to watch the steamer that she did not get any closer to her. At 20 minutes to 1 I whistled up the speaking tube and asked him if she was getting any nearer. He said, "No; she is not taking any notice of us." So, I said "I will go and lie down a bit." At a quarter past he said, "I think she has fired a rocket." He said, "She did not answer the Morse lamp and she has commenced to go away from us." I said, "Call her up and let me know at once what her name is. So, he put the whistle back, and, apparently, he was calling. I could hear him ticking over my head. Then l went to sleep."

When asked if he heard anything more about it, he replied.

"Nothing more until about something between then and half-past 4, I have a faint recollection of the apprentice opening the room door; opening it and shutting it. I said "What is it?" He did not answer and I went to sleep again. I believe the boy came down to deliver me the message that this steamer had steamed away from us to the southwest, showing several of these flashes or white rockets; steamed away to the southwest."

Indeed the Californian's wireless operator Evans did contact Titanic with the message, "We are stopped and surrounded by ice." only to be told in response, "Keep out! Shut up! You're jamming my signal. I'm working Cape Race." Evans continued to listen to the one way traffic (his wireless set not being powerful enough to hear Cape Race himself). At 11.35pm Evans, who had been on watch since 7am that morning with only a half hour break for breakfast and dinner and an hour for lunch switched off his set and turned in. He was wakened at around 5am by Chief Officer George Stewart who informed him that rockets had been fired through the night and would he go on the set and see if anything was the matter, which he did and discovered from communication with SS Frankfurt (which had been the first ship to reply to Titanic's distress call) that Titanic had sunk.

Upon hearing the news, Lord ordered Californian to sail immediately for Titanic's reported position. Setting off full ahead at around 5.15am on the morning of 15th April, Californian had to slow to proceed through thick ice which took around half an hour but by 6.30am she was once again full ahead and pulled alongside the Carpathia who had recovered Titanic's lifeboats at 8.30am, some 3 and a quarter hours later. It should be noted at this point that the position reported by Titanic was inaccurate and having raced to that position, Californian had to set sail south to avoid more ice and back northeast to meet Carpathia. Californian stayed on station to look for survivors but none were found. Lord continued on to Boston and docked on 19th April, the day the Senate Investigation began (his testimony was made on 26th April).

The public were shocked by the events and demanding answers to what happened. The press in America jumped on every piece of rumour and conjecture regarding Californian and her master. Reports that Lord had been drunk in his cabin at the time or he was completely callous or even afraid to attempt to manoeuvre in ice. He was accused of being a martinet whose crew were so afraid of him they wouldn't dare to wake him. Much of the press speculation centred around the personal animosity between newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and financier J.P. Morgan, whose company financed the formation of International Mercantile Marine, owners of both White Star and Leyland Lines (owners of Titanic and Californian respectively). In both the Senate Investigation and the subsequent Formal Investigation ordered by the British Board of Trade (which commenced on 2nd May 1912) Lord was subpoenaed as a witness and in both cases left being derided as the master of the Ship that ultimately cost the lives of all souls onboard Titanic.

In both cases, the evidence of donkeyman Ernest Gil was damning. He testified that the ship seen from Californian could only have been Titanic and he had seen two rockets which might have been blue or white. When pushed he said white. He also testified that he overheard the officers saying they had seen more and that they had reported to the captain several times. Gil was paid $500 by the newspapers for his story prior to testifying. Testimony from the survivors also spoke of a mystery ship that could be seen from Titanic. Although no clear evidence was provided that this was Californian it was concluded due to the evidence given that it was indeed her.

In the case of the American inquiry, the committee summed up Californian's inaction thus.

"The committee is forced to the inevitable conclusion that the Californian, controlled by the same company, was nearer the Titanic than the 19 miles reported by her Captain, and that her officers and crew saw the distress signals of the Titanic and failed to respond to them in accordance with the dictates of humanity, international usage, and the requirements of law. The only reply to the distress signals was a counter signal from a large white light which was flashed for nearly two hours from the mast of the Californian. In our opinion such conduct, whether arising from indifference or gross carelessness, is most reprehensible, and places upon the commander the Californian a grave responsibility. The wireless operator of the Californian was not aroused until 3.30 a.m., New York time, on the morning of the 15th, after considerable conversation between officers and members of the crew had taken place aboard that ship regarding these distress signals or rockets, and was directed by the Chief Officer to see there was anything the matter, as a ship had been firing rockets during the night. The inquiry thus set on foot immediately disclosed the fact that the Titanic had sunk. Had assistance been promptly proffered, or had wireless operator of the Californian remained a few minutes longer at his post on Sunday evening, that ship might have had the proud distinction of rescuing the lives of the passengers and crew of the Titanic."

The British inquiry went further implying that the corroborative testimony of all Californian's officers as to her position was simply wrong. At 19 miles from Titanic she simply couldn't have seen her and thus since she most clearly had, her reported position must have been inaccurate. However it did not reflect the personal attack on Lord that the American inquiry had.

"All the officers are stated to have taken sights, and Mr. Stewart in his evidence remarks that they all agreed. If it is admitted that these positions were correct, then it follows that the "Titanic's" position as given by that ship when making the C.Q.D. signal was approximately S. 16° W. (true), 19 miles from the "Californian"; and further that the position in which the "Californian" was stopped during the night, was thirty miles away from where the wreckage was seen by her in the morning, or that the wreckage had drifted 11 miles in a little more than five hours.
There are contradictions and inconsistencies in the story as told by the different witnesses. But the truth of the matter is plain. The "Titanic" collided with the berg 11.40. The vessel seen by the "Californian" stopped at this time. The rockets sent up from the "Titanic" were distress signals. The "Californian" saw distress signals. The number sent up by the "Titanic" was about eight. The "Californian" saw eight. The time over which the rockets from the "Titanic" were sent up was from about 12.45 to 1.45 o'clock. It was about this time that the "Californian" saw the rockets. At 2.40 Mr. Stone called to the Master that the ship from which he'd seen the rockets had disappeared.
At 2.20 a.m. the "Titanic" had foundered. It was suggested that the rockets seen by the "Californian" were from some other ship, not the "Titanic." But no other ship to fit this theory has ever been heard of.
These circumstances convince me that the ship seen by the "Californian" was the "Titanic," and if so, according to Captain Lord, the two vessels were about five miles apart at the time of the disaster. The evidence from the "Titanic" corroborates this estimate, but I am advised that the distance was probably greater, though not more than eight to ten miles. The ice by which the "Californian" was surrounded was loose ice extending for a distance of not more than two or three miles in the direction of the "Titanic." The night was clear and the sea was smooth. When she first saw the rockets the "Californian" could have pushed through the ice to the open water without any serious risk and so have come to the assistance of the "Titanic." Had she done so she might have saved many if not all of the lives that were lost."

Since Lord was not officially part of the FI and there only as a witness he had no recourse to appeal the findings, but in spite of them no formal action was ever taken to investigate his fitness to continue to hold a Certificate of Competency, which the report would certainly have allowed. Documents from that time indicate that proceedings were considered but do not make clear why they were no pursued. Lord lost his position with the Leyland Line, but soon regained command with another British company, Lawther Latta, remaining at sea through the Great War and into the 1920's with them. He died in 1962, continuing to protest his innocence.

Interest in Titanic was reawakened in 1985 when her wreck was discovered by a team lead Dr. Robert Ballard. With her discovery and the ability to reasonably estimate her actual point of foundering, fresh calls for the evidence against Californian to be reviewed were made. This was rejected initially but in 1990 a reappraisal was ordered. To that end the Marine Accident Investigation Branch appointed an inspector to investigate and three months later reported back. Having found several key findings unacceptable a further re-examination was ordered by the Chief Inspector. Almost a year after its request, the final report was released.

The reappraisal touched on the main factors which the original inquiries had based their accusations.

1. How far apart were Titanic and Californian.
2. To consider if Titanic was seen by Californian.
3. Were Titanic's distress signals seen by Californian and whether proper action was taken.
4. Assess the actions of Captain Stanley Lord between the hours of 10pm on 14th April and resumption of her passage on 15th April.

The Report concluded that given the new evidence Titanic and Californian were between 17 and 20 miles apart at the time of the accident. It was considered probable that Californian did see Titanic, but only due to the phenomenon of super-refraction (the downward bending of light etc due to a temperature inversion which allows the detection of objects beyond the geometric horizon). It also concludes that Californian did see the rockets and that her crew did not act appropriately although in that respect it is more critical of Second Officer Herbert Stone who stood the watch and who should have seen to the fact that the Captain was properly appraised of the situation.

Importantly, the report concludes.

"Although not specifically within the terms of reference of the reappraisal, this Report would be incomplete without some consideration of whether the action which Californian should have taken would have lead to the saving of the lives of those who were lost.

The first rocket appears to have been fired at about 0045 hrs (TITANIC time). The ship sank at 0220 hrs. If CALIFORNIAN saw the first rocket and took immediate action to head straight for it, and had quickly worked up to full speed (which would have taken several minutes) she would probably, given my minimum distance off of 17 miles, have reached the scene at just about the time of the sinking. This however is unrealistic. No officer would take such action on seeing a single distant flash which might be a shooting star or even a visual aberration: such sights are quite common. More practically, if proper action had been taken as set out above, Captain Lord would have been on the Bridge at perhaps 0055 hrs and begun heading towards the rockets, but cautiously at first because of the ice for at that stage the urgency of the situation would not be known and it would be right for him to have regard for the safety of his own ship. Meanwhile the Wireless Operator would have been called and would shortly receive TITANIC's SOS with its incorrect position. This would have put Captain Lord in something of a quandary: probably he would have called TITANIC by wireless giving CALIFORNIAN's position, saying what had been seen and asking TITANIC to check her position. This would very likely have led to the error in dead reckoning being discovered, after which full speed would be made towards the correct position; but with the time lost CALIFORNIAN would arrive well after the sinking. It therefore seems clear that - if I am right as to the distance apart - the effect of CALIFORNIAN taking proper action would have been no more than to place on her the task actually carried out by CARPTHIA, that is the rescue of those who escaped. I do not think that any reasonably probable action by Captain Lord could have led to a different outcome of the tragedy. This of course does not alter the fact that the attempt should have been made."

In so much as there are and always will be still clearly unanswered questions over the crew's inaction that night, at least there was officially at last exoneration in the culpability of the deaths of around 1,500 souls.

The main point of tonight's blip was really to outline the basic facts about what happened in respect of Californian that night and what I believe was the personal injustice served upon Captain Lord at the time, either directly or indirectly. I don't think that the crew of Californian acted appropriately but nor do I believe that was entirely his fault. However, as captain, he was ultimately responsible for it.

As I said at the start, I could go on, but I am aware that as I write this in Word (had to been done given the topic and heh, several revisions old) it is now 6 pages long. I haven't talked about the Samson, a third ship that may have been fishing illegally in the area at the time and the fact that recent studies of the shipping logs from April 1912 and a better scientific understanding of the effect of the cold Labrador current in an effect called cold water mirages could explain better why Lord did not identify Titanic on the night, how the iceberg was not seen until too late by the lookouts and why the Morse lights on both ships were so ineffective. Nor have I discussed the controversy over the missing scrap log or the use of rockets at the time not only for distress but as a form of communication between ships, Company Signals as they were called, or the recent discovery of the rocket box from Titanic appears to show that it was not just white rockets fired from her that night. Grrr...

There are several books on Titanic and Titanic lore, some of which are better than others and each with their own point of view. If this interests you at all I urge you to read as many as possible and make your own conclusions.

I'll be back to catch up with everyone after tea.

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