Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Story of the Californian

This is a repost of a blog originally posted on my myspace blog 05/29/07:


To me, this is one of the most intriguing events during the evening of April 14-15, 1912. The accounts of what happened on the SS Californian have been a source of controversy for the last 95 years. This blog is my attempt to perhaps clear up some of the issues, because the way I see it, most of the disputed claims and debates are irrelevant to the resulting history and the reasons behind it.

To those unfamiliar with the story, the Californian was another ship in the area of the Titanic on the night of the sinking.  As with much of what happened that night, specific details such as the distance between the two ships is not known.  The story presented here was created primarily by combining the testimonies given during the US Senate inquiry by the Californian's Captain Stanley Lord, Chief Officer George Stewart, Second Officer Herbert Stone and apprentice James Gibson, and the Titanic's Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall, as well as the final report delivered by Lord Mersey after the British enquiry. As with any testimony involving eyewitnesses (and especially in this case where some individuals may have been motivated to conceal certain facts), there are discrepancies and contradictions between these accounts. However, when they are put together they provide the following sequence of events:

Sunday, April 14th, 1912

10:30pm - The Californian comes up on a field of ice, and Captain Lord decides to stop the ship for the night rather than attempt to pass through it in the dark.

11:00pm – Californian's Third Officer Charles Groves observes the lights of another ship coming into view over the horizon off the Californian's starboard side. Due to the amount of light on the ship, Groves believes it is another passenger ship. Captain Lord also sees this other ship steam up, but he does not think it is a passenger ship. He asks the Californian's wireless operator, Cyril Evans, what ships are in the area. Evans replies, "Only the Titanic." Lord tells him to warn the Titanic about the ice. At the time, Jack Phillips is operating the wireless equipment on the Titanic and is trying to work through a backlog of personal messages that have not yet been sent due to equipment problems earlier.  Evans breaks in to the Titanic's communication with the message, "I say old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice." The interruption is apparently very loud in Phillips' ears, indicating that the two ships are in close proximity. Phillips snaps back with, "Shut up! Shut up! I am busy. I am working Cape Race."

11:30pm – Evans switches off his set and goes to bed.

11:40pm – The Titanic strikes an iceberg. In the process, she makes a hard turn to port in an attempt to avoid the collision. Groves notices that the ship he has been observing has stopped and it appears to him that she has turned out some of her lights, although the change in appearance could be due to it making a quick turn to port.

11:45pm - Lord instructs Groves to attempt contact with the other ship via Morse lamp. Groves can get no answer from the other liner.

Monday, April 15th, 1912

12:00am – On the Californian, Second Officer Herbert Stone takes watch from Groves. Lord heads to the chart room. Groves stops by the wireless room, as he occasionally likes to play with the set. However, Evans is asleep and Groves is not knowledgeable enough to work the receiver on his own. He fiddles with the equipment for a while, then gives up and goes to bed.

12:15am – The Titanic sends her first wireless distress message.

12:25am – The crew on the Titanic start loading lifeboats. Boxhall sees the lights of a ship about "two points off the port bow," and can see her green starboard light.

12:35am – Harold Cottam, the Carpathia's wireless operator, informs his captain that the Titanic needs help. Captain Rostron immediately turns his ship around and heads for the Titanic.

12:45am – The first lifeboat is lowered from the Titanic and the first distress rocket is fired. Over the next 15 minutes, Boxhall fires off four more rockets while he can see the green light of the other ship. On the Californian, Stone has been watching the ship that stopped about an hour earlier. He can see her red port light, and she seems to be pointing north toward him. Stone notices a white flash above the ship, followed by four more before he is joined on the deck by the apprentice. Although The Californian is stopped, she is drifting in the current, and her bow is slowly turning toward the south. Back on the Titanic, Boxhall observes that the other ship appears to be turning toward them. He can now see her red light in addition to the green. Stone notifies Captain Lord that the ship he is watching has been firing rockets. Lord asks if there is any color in them. Stone replies that they are all white. Lord tells Stone to try contacting the vessel with the Morse lamp, and goes back to lie down in the chart room.

1:05am – Apprentice James Gibson joins Stone on the deck of the Californian and is told of the events Stone has seen thus far. Gibson attempts contacting the ship with the Morse lamp, and then looks through his binoculars for a response. Gibson sees the ship fire two more rockets. Because he is watching through his binoculars, he can see the flash of the detonator, followed by the trail of the rocket, ending with a burst of white stars.

1:15am – While Stone and Gibson continue observing the ship, Stone remarks: "Look at her now Gibson, her lights look queer." Gibson agrees: the other ship seems to have "a big side out of the water."

1:30am – On the Titanic, Boxhall can now see only the other ship's red light. He fires one last rocket. He then leaves the bridge to assist with the lifeboats. On the Californian, Stone and Gibson see the ship to the south fire an eighth rocket. Gibson notices that the Californian is continuing to swing with the current, and her bow is now pointing to the west. Gibson notifies Lord that he has now seen a total of eight rockets.

2:05am – The last of Titanic's lifeboats leaves the ship

2:10am - Stone and Gibson on the Californian notice that the other ship seems to be slowly disappearing. Over the next several minutes, her red light disappears, and then all of her lights vanish. It looks to them as if the ship is steaming away. Stone tells Gibson to wake Lord and inform him. Gibson enters the chart room and tells Lord about the events.

2:20am – The Titanic disappears under the water.

2:40am – Stone informs Lord through the speaking tube that the ship is gone and there have been no more rockets.

3:30am - On the Californian, Stone and Gibson now see more rockets. These ones are further to the south and farther away, and they cannot see the ship that is firing them. At this same time, the Carpathia is approaching from the southeast and is firing rockets to let the Titanic know that they are coming. Passengers in the Titanic's lifeboats also first notice the rockets at 3:30am.

4:00am – Chief Officer George Stewart comes on deck and is informed of what Stone and Gibson have seen overnight. Meanwhile, the Carpathia reaches the Titanic's last reported position.

4:10am – The first lifeboat is picked up by the Carpathia

4:30am – Stewart wakes Lord and informs him about the rockets Stone had seen during the night. Captain Lord's response is, "Yes, I know; He's been telling me." Lord gets up and prepares to work out how to proceed through the ice.

5:20am – On instruction from Lord, Stewart wakes Evans and asks him to inquire about the rockets.

5:45am - Evans discovers that the Titanic has sunk.

6:15am – The Californian starts steaming to the Titanic's last reported position. It is very slow going at first as the ship has to navigate through thick field ice.

7:00am – The Californian is out of the ice and proceeding South at top speed.

8:30am – The Californian arrives next to the Carpathia.

8:50am – The Carpathia leaves the area.

10:40am – Californian leaves the area.

For nearly a century, debates have raged on about how far away from the Titanic the Californian actually was, and whether or not she was close enough to make any difference to the loss of life that night. Neither of these things will probably ever be known. However, based on this time line, there are several things that I believe can be considered facts:

1 – The ship seen by the crew of the Californian was the Titanic.

2 – The ship seen by the crew (and some passengers) of the Titanic was the Californian.

3 – The Californian was much closer to the Titanic than was the Carpathia.

Of course, many other things can be inferred from the timeline. My feeling is that even if the Californian had been able to proceed to the scene immediately after the Titanic's first CQD was sent, she would probably still have arrived too late to save any more passengers. Two hours and 15 minutes passed between the first distress transmission and the ship going under. In order for the Californian to be of any help, I think she would have to get there at least a half hour before the Titanic disappeared. According to testimony, it took the Californian more than two hours to reach the wreck site the following morning, which means that even if they had started in that direction at 12:15am, the Titanic would have gone under before they arrived. Of course since the Californian's wireless operator had gone to bed at 11:30, Captain Lord would not have been able to learn of the Titanic's situation until 12:45am when the first rocket was fired, and more accurately, not until he was first notified of the rockets sometime around 1am. This means that the earliest the Californian could have arrived at the scene would be somewhere around 3:15am....if their testimony concerning their progress on the morning of the 15th is correct.

However, this is where the discrepancies start to come in to play. For example, if the Carpathia is used as a reference, the probable distance between the Californian and the Titanic might be much smaller. When she first started heading toward the Titanic, the Carpathia was 58 miles away. She made it to the lifeboats in three and a half hours, giving her an average speed of 15 knots. At 3:30am, Stone and Gibson saw rockets from the Carpathia that were apparently further away to the south than the rockets they saw earlier, and 30 minutes later the Carpathia was at the Titanic's lifeboats. Using Carpathia's speed of 15 knots, she must have been about eight miles from the lifeboats at the time her rockets were seen. Following this logic, because the crew of the Californian noted that the Carpathia's rockets were farther away than the ones they had seen overnight, their ship must have been less than eight miles away from the Titanic when the eight rockets were seen during the night. The Californian's top speed was 13 knots. Therefore, even considering some slow maneuvering through ice, the Californian should still have been able reach the Titanic in less than an hour, which would put her at the scene at least 30 minutes before the Titanic sank.

Those who defend Captain Lord in debates today are of the firm belief that the first interpretation of the time line is more accurate, and use it as an attempt to clear Lord's name. However, it seems obvious to me that whether or not the Californian was close enough to help is irrelevant. The Carpathia wasn't close enough to make a difference in the death toll either. Therefore, the reason that the Carpathia's Captain Arthur Rostron is seen as a hero while Captain Lord is seen as a villain has nothing to do with their distance from the Titanic. Rostron is a hero simply because he got to the survivors first. Since both interpretations still place the Californian closer to the Titanic than the Carpathia was, it is safe to say that if Captain Lord had behaved in a manner similar to that of Rostron, his ship would have arrived at the scene before the Carpathia, and Lord would have been the hero. The reason Lord is labeled the sole bad guy is because he did not take the initiative to help the ship when he was first notified of the rockets. It doesn't matter whether or not he would have been able to get to the Titanic in time. What matters is that he didn't even try.

This brings me to something interesting about the time line that seems to always get ignored, and to me it goes a long way in explaining Captain Lord's actions. According to the time line, Lord first learned about the rockets at around 1am, but did not find out about the Titanic sinking until nearly 6am after the wireless operator was woken up. I don't think I have ever heard anyone question why the wireless officer was woken up at 5:20. Captain Lord didn't think it important enough to wake Evans up at 1am, and Stewart either didn't ask for or at least wasn't granted permission to wake him up when his watch started at 4:00. Normally, Evans would rise at 7am, so why did Captain Lord wait until 5:20am and then rouse the wireless operator just an hour and a half earlier than normal? I think one possible answer sheds some light on the mindset of Captain Lord, both figuratively and literally: At just about that time, the sun would have been coming up.

I believe Captain Lord's failure was his inability to adjust to the changing circumstances overnight. He stopped his ship at 10:30pm on the 14th because he felt it reckless to attempt passing through the ice field in the dark. However, despite the fact that another ship was in distress nearby later in the evening, his attitude did not change. He still refused to move his ship until night had passed. It seems to me that his thinking was if another ship found herself in trouble, it was due to the stupidity of that ship's captain, and he refused to act stupidly himself. We have to remember that to his mind, the Titanic disaster had not yet happened. Therefore, he was still in the frame of mind that was typical of the age: Even though he might have suspected that the ship firing rockets could have been the Titanic, he would have logically assumed that whatever was the matter, it could wait until daybreak because the Titanic could not possibly sink. Meanwhile, he was going to act responsibly and not endanger his own ship. This attitude is corroborated in a statement he made when asked to appear before the Senate: "If I go to Washington, it will not be because of this story in the paper, but to tell the Committee why my ship was drifting without power, while the Titanic was rushing under full speed." To his mind, even in light of the disaster, the most important factor was still that Smith had been careless while he had been careful. He still didn't recognize that what would have been seen as reckless carelessness at 11:39pm was transformed into selfless heroism just one minute later. Captain Arthur Rostron did, and that is why history remembers him as a hero, and Stanley Lord would spend the rest of his life trying to explain why he didn't get there first.

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