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Iceberg Visibility: Yes and No. . . .

It has long been the belief of some researchers that visibility on the night of the Titanic disaster was so hindered by the intense mid-Atlantic darkness that the Titanic's lookouts did not have a prayer of seeing the fatal iceberg until it was too late to avoid a collision. On the face of it, this belief seems to have merit, since researchers who are familiar with the Titanic's speed, turning rate etc. are pretty much agreed that the iceberg which sank the Titanic did not become visible to the ship's lookouts until it had closed to within half a mile of the ship's bows -- by which time a collision of some kind was unavoidable.

Standard textbooks published up to half a century after the disaster pretty much reinforced the belief that it was *impossible* for the Titanic's lookouts to have seen icebergs from a distance greater than that which they had actually achieved -- i.e. less than half a mile. This is demonstrated by the following sampling of pertinent statements taken from succeeding editions of a standard maritime navigation manual:

"American Practical Navigator," Bowditch. Hydrographic Office, Washington. 1926

On a clear, dark starlight night, an iceberg is rarely discernible at a greater distance than a quarter of a mile.

"American Practical Navigator," Bowditch. Hydrographic Office, Washington. 1938

On a clear, dark starlight night, an iceberg is rarely discernible at a greater distance than a quarter of a mile.

"American Practical Navigator," Bowditch. Hydrographic Office, Washington. 1958:

On a clear, dark night an iceberg will seldom be picked up visually at a distance greater than one-fourth of a mile...."

Surprisingly, however, the belief that icebergs would have been invisible to the Titanic's lookouts much beyond the range of a quarter of a mile does not seem to be true.

Sometime after the 1958 edition of Bowditch was published, the venerable maritime manual's iceberg visibility entry was subjected to a drastic revision in order to make it conform to the reality of actual conditions of visibility at sea:

"American Practical Navigator," Bowditch. Hydrographic Office, Washington. 1995:

On clear, dark nights icebergs may be seen at a distance of from 1 to 3 miles, appearing either as white or black objects....

The revised edition of Bowditch makes it clear that, on the night of April 14, 1912, icebergs *should* have been visible to the Titanic's lookouts at a distance far in excess of a mere quarter of a mile. The Carpathia's Captain Rostron confirms that this hypothesis was in fact true; indeed, Rostron's precise iceberg observations are crucial to our understanding of this subject, since he made his observations "on location" on the night of the disaster itself.

Let us listen to Captain Rostron's testimony at the British Inquiry:

Captain Rostron's testimony confirms the accuracy of the revised information contained in the most recent editions of Bowditch -- i.e. that icebergs can be seen on dark nights at distances far in excess of a mere quarter of a mile.

That being the case, however, the reader is undoubtedly asking himself "Why didn't the Titanic's lookouts see the fatal berg at a distance great enough to permit the collision to be avoided?"

The answer to this question is fairly straightforward: since no two icebergs are identical in appearance, an individual berg's height, physical shape and color all have an important bearing on its actual visibility on a dark night.

Once again, Captain Rostron's personal experiences confirm the truth of the above statement, since Rostron gave additional testimony concerning one final iceberg that he himself was the first to sight:

Captain Rostron was then queried more closely as to why this particular iceberg was not seen by the Carpathia's lookouts until it had already closed to within a quarter mile of the ship.

The above information makes it pretty clear that -- even on a dark night -- icebergs can nevertheless be seen at distances of up to two miles from a shipboard observer. However, it is also pretty clear that an isolated iceberg with quirky physical characteristics (height, color, shape etc.) can sometimes avoid being seen by a ship's lookouts until that berg has moved far closer to a vessel than its more visible - but more distant -- neighbors.

It is this writer's opinion that, on the night of April 14, 1912, it was the *excellent* visibility (rather than *reduced* visibility) that was one of the primary causes of the Titanic disaster. The Titanic's officers were apparently so utterly confident of their ability to see icebergs at great distances that they maintained the Titanic's high speed in the mistaken belief that they would have plenty of time to alter course and avoid any berg that might appear directly in the path of the ship.

Researchers who have read the present author's book, "Titanic: Safety, Speed and Sacrifice" are already familiar with the evidence which suggests that the Titanic's lookouts may have sighted and reported three separate, distant icebergs that passed by the Titanic during the half-hour that preceded her encounter with the *fatal* iceberg at 11:40 p.m. The present author can't help but wonder if the sighting of these three 'early' icebergs at a considerable distance from the Titanic might have contributed to the overconfidence that was exhibited by the Titanic's officers that night. After all, if the lookouts were able to see three passing icebergs at distances of up to two miles from the ship, the Titanic's officers would have had no reason to believe that the lookouts could not see *all* icebergs at ranges of up to two miles -- which would have given the officers plenty of time and distance in which to alter the Titanic's course in order to avoid a potential collision.

Sadly, the Titanic's officers were mistaken in their belief that the night's crystal clear visibility would insure that their speeding vessel would be kept safe from all harm.


Acknowledgements: The author would like to express his grateful thanks to John Hemmert, Captain Lewis Collins and Captain David Brown for providing quotations from the various editions of Bowditch.

Thanks, guys!

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