Students of the Californian controversy have sometimes expressed puzzlement regarding various eyewitness descriptions of the so-called 'mystery ship' observed by the Californian's watch officers on the night the Titanic went down. Third Officer Charles Groves (who was on duty from 8 p.m. on April 14th until about 12:15 a.m. on the morning of April 15th) said that the nearby vessel was showing " ... a lot of light. There was absolutely no doubt her being a passenger steamer, at least in my mind." Second Officer Stone and Apprentice Gibson, on the other hand, described the nearby vessel in terms that were diametrically opposed to the description provided by Third Officer Groves. Gibson said that "...I have seen nearly all the large passenger boats out at sea, and there was nothing at all about it to resemble a passenger boat." Stone agreed, saying that the nearby vessel merely showed "...one masthead light and a red sidelight and two or three small indistinct lights."
The reader might well wonder how Titanic researchers can possibly arrive at an accurate assessment of the Californian controversy in the face of such widely-varying testimony. How could Third Officer Groves claim to see a large passenger liner that was awash in a "blaze of the white lights," while Gibson (supported by Stone) believed he saw a poorly-lit "tramp steamer" or "medium size steamer?"
The answer to this puzzling question will become readily apparent if the reader will undertake a careful analysis of the Titanic's movements (both before and immediately after the collision) in conjunction with the Californian's position relative to the Titanic after the latter vessel came to a stop.
Let us begin our examination.
It is well known that, after the initial sighting of the fatal iceberg by the Titanic's lookouts, the order "Hard astarboard!" was given and the great liner turned two points (about 22 degrees) to port before the collision took place. After the ship's initial contact with the iceberg, the order "Hard aport!" was given and the Titanic slowly began turning to starboard, finally coming to a stop with her bows pointed in a northerly direction. (See Rowe and Beesley for confirmation; the Titanic's bow section was still facing northward when Dr. Ballard discovered it lying on the ocean floor in 1985.)
A short time after the vessel came to a stop, observers on board the Titanic noticed the lights of another ship visible about 1/2 point (5 1/2 degrees) off the Titanic's port bow. The Titanic was therefore pointed almost directly toward this nearby vessel and was displaying her red port sidelight to the unknown ship.
Now that we have briefly examined the Titanic's movements both before and immediately after her collision with the iceberg, let us examine the testimony of the Californian's watch officers and see if we can reconcile their observations with the Titanic's known movements.
At about 11:10 p.m. the Californian's Third Officer Groves saw the masthead light of an approaching steamer about ten or twelve miles from the Californian. As the ship got closer Groves could see a bright glare from her deck lights and was certain that the approaching vessel was a large passenger steamer. At 11:25 p.m. Groves noticed a second masthead light as it became visible above the nearby steamer.
At 11:40 p.m., however, the approaching ship stopped and, at the same time, her bright deck lights disappeared from Groves' view. At first Groves felt that the ship had put out her lights for the night, but later, upon reflection, he decided that the vessel's lights had only *seemed* to go out because she had made a sudden turn and changed her heading -- perhaps to avoid ice. (Groves testified that "She shut her lights out, my Lord," -- the term "shut out" being nautical parlance for "block from view" rather than "extinguish.") The Californian's Third Officer could still see the nearby ship's two masthead lights, though, and -- now that most of her bright deck lights had disappeared -- he could also see her red port sidelight. Apprentice Gibson, who came on duty twenty minutes later at midnight, was certain that the nearby ship (which was located SSE of the Californian) must have been pointing north of NNW in order to show her red port sidelight to the Californian. Gibson could see the glare of the ship's deck lights extending to the right of the bright masthead light, confirming that the nearby ship was pointed slightly north of the Californian's position. (See the preceding diagram of the Titanic's movements in relation to the Californian's position.)
Thus far we have established that the movements of the Titanic correspond very nicely with the movements of the unknown vessel that "shut her lights out" and came to a stop SSE of the Californian while pointed slightly north of the Californian's position. However, we are still faced with the strange dichotomy between the brightly-lit passenger steamer described by Third Officer Groves and the poorly-lit tramp steamer described by Second Officer Stone and Apprentice Gibson. Perhaps it is time for us to take a closer look at how the Titanic would have appeared to observers who were positioned almost directly ahead of the great vessel.
The following closeup photograph will give the reader a good idea of the approximate view of the Titanic that would have been had by a vessel situated a few degrees off the Titanic's port bow.
The above photograph of a lighted Titanic model is much brighter than the real Titanic would have appeared at night, though, and many parts of the model which are visible in the photo were actually poorly lit and very difficult to discern on board the real ship. The author has therefore taken the liberty of retouching the above photo in order to eliminate brightly-lit areas of the model (e.g. the brightly-lit bridge, the illuminated funnels etc.) which were dark in real life and which would have been unobservable at any great distance from the real ship. The retouched photo -- in black and white and showing only the ship's lights -- appears below.
The reader has undoubtedly already noticed that -- when viewed from almost directly ahead -- the lights of the Titanic are not nearly as numerous and noticeable as they are when the ship is viewed from broadside. We have just reached the crux of the matter, because THAT is the very reason why the Californian's Second Officer Stone and Apprentice Gibson (neither of whom came on duty until midnight) did not recognize the brightly-lit passenger vessel that was clearly visible to Third Officer Groves up until 11:40 p.m. -- at which time she 'shut out' her broadside lights while trying to avoid a collision with the iceberg that lay directly in her path.
Up until now we have been looking at closeup views of the Titanic as she would have appeared at night. It must be remembered, though, that Third Officer Groves and Apprentice Gibson both estimated that the ship which stopped within sight of the Californian might have been as far away as seven miles. Although the present author does not have an accurate way to represent the apparent size of the Titanic as she would have appeared at a distance of seven miles, it nevertheless lies within his power to reduce the size of the above photograph so as to give a *rough approximation* of how the Titanic would have looked (from broadside as well as from head-on) at a distance of *several* miles (although almost certainly less than Groves' and Gibson's maximum estimate of seven miles.).
The reader might well be startled by how puny and insignificant the Titanic looks when viewed from bow-on at a distance of several miles in the dark of night. However, this is the *very* reason why the Californian's Second Officer Stone and Apprentice Gibson found it impossible to grasp the idea that the white rockets being fired by their (supposed) poorly-lit "tramp steamer" were actually distress rockets being fired by the largest ship in the world -- a brand new passenger vessel that was making a desperate plea for assistance from anyone who might be near enough to see.
Before we conclude our discussion, however, one final point still needs to be made.
The reader has undoubtedly noticed that the present monograph has thus far made no mention of Captain Lord's own description of the so-called 'mystery ship' that was visible from the Californian's bridge. There is an excellent reason for this omission -- a reason made clear in the following excerpt from the author's unpublished manuscript about the Californian incident:
Captain Lord claimed that, between 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., the ship that was approaching the Californian merely displayed a masthead light, a green starboard sidelight and a few deck lights -- which suggests that the vessel was a small, poorly-lit steamer. Lord testified that he stood on deck watching this steamer until 11:30 p.m. In an affidavit written several days later Lord added: "At 11:30 p.m. I noticed that the other steamer was stopped about five miles off, also that the Third Officer was morsing him. I continued watching and noticed that she didn't reply.
"At 11:45 p.m. I went to the bridge, casually noticed the other vessel, and commented to the Third Officer that she had stopped and wouldn't reply to our morse signals. He answered in the affirmative."
In a similar vein, Captain Lord told the British Inquiry that he was "up and down off the bridge till 12 o'clock"; indeed, these statements tend to give one the impression that the Californian's captain was actively engaged in monitoring the appearance of the unknown vessel that was steadily approaching his ship and which eventually stopped a few miles away.
Third Officer Groves' testimony decisively refutes the above impression, however. Groves testified that Captain Lord was on the bridge only once between 10:35 p.m. and midnight -- and that Lord's single bridge appearance occurred only after Groves went down and spoke to the captain personally.
When Third Officer Groves had first reported for bridge duty at 8 p.m. that evening, Captain Lord had left him with orders to let him know if he saw any steamers approaching. At 11:30 p.m., therefore, Groves obeyed these orders and went down to the lower bridge in search of the captain. However, instead of finding Captain Lord actively engaged in observing the approaching steamer (as Lord's affidavit and testimony would have us believe), Groves instead found his captain behind closed doors in the chart room. (Although one Lordite account says that Lord had "just returned" to the chartroom, there is no evidence to support this contention.)
After knocking at the chartroom door, Groves entered and told the captain that there was a steamer approaching the Californian, coming up on her starboard quarter.
"Can you make anything out of her lights?" asked Captain Lord.
"Yes," replied Groves. "She is evidently a passenger steamer coming up on us." He added that he could see the vessel's deck lights.
"The only passenger steamer near us is the Titanic," observed Captain Lord. Then, referring to the approaching steamer, Lord said, "Call her up on the Morse lamp and see if you can get any reply." Groves immediately left the chartroom to obey.
It is obvious that Groves' report about the approaching passenger steamer caught Captain Lord completely by surprise. If Lord had indeed "just returned" to the chartroom a moment before Groves arrived there at 11:30 p.m., he would have been fully aware of the appearance of the approaching passenger liner and would not have been forced to ask Groves what she looked like. Indeed, Captain Lord's reaction to Groves' report suggests that Lord had not given any thought to the approaching steamer since he spoke about it with the ship's Marconi operator at 11 p.m. It follows that Third Officer Groves' unambiguous observation of a big passenger steamer showing a bright glare of lights must be regarded as considerably more trustworthy than Captain Lord's own claim that the approaching steamer was a small vessel showing few lights.
In short, there is no compelling reason for historians to believe that the Titanic and the Californian did not have a clear, unobstructed view of each other during the wee hours of April 15, 1912.
The author would like to express his grateful thanks to Beverly Crowder for her outstanding efforts to obtain carefully composed, properly-exposed photographs of her internally-lit model of the Titanic. It was Beverly's beautiful photo of her Titanic model (which appears at the beginning of this monograph) that spurred me to make a comparative study of the real Titanic's actual nighttime appearance when viewed from various angles and distances. Indeed, this monograph could not have been written without Beverly's kind assistance in the photographic department, and I would like her to know how grateful I am to her for her kindness.
Thanks, Bev! :-)