The SS Californian, infamously known as the “Ship Who Watched the Titanic Sink,” is one of the greatest mysteries of the timeless tragedy.
After that fateful night, the life of Captain Stanley Lord, the Captain of the SS Californian, will never be the same. Both the American and British Inquiries that followed the sinking concluded that Lord’s behavior that night was unprofessional and inconsequential. Although no official charges were ever brought against the guy, the court of public opinion destroyed his career and life.
And ironically, the SS Californian vanished from record books shortly after her demise. The ship went down during World War I and has never been located, a destiny that seems almost poetic.
What Was the SS Californian Doing the Night the Titanic Sank?
Whatever happened on the Californian’s decks that night will be forgotten by the sands of time. What we know was gleaned from the captain and officers of the Californian who testified during the Official Inquiries and provided the only ever-created first-hand account of the disaster.
Part of the Californian’s cotton cargo was destroyed by a storm when she was in London on March 30, 1912. With Stanley Lord at the helm since 27 March 1911, the Californian set sail from Liverpool, England, towards Boston, Massachusetts, on 5 April 1912.
On this particular trip, she had no passengers. George Stewart (second in command or chief officer), Herbert Stone (second officer), Charles Groves (third officer), and James Gibson (apprentice) were with Lord on the navigation bridge.
Things went well during the first week of the trip across. After seeing three enormous icebergs five miles to the south on Sunday, April 14 at 18:30 ship’s time, the Californian’s lone radio operator, Cyril Furmstone Evans (born 1892 in Croydon, Surrey, United Kingdom), notified the nearest ships, as was customary.
One of them was The Antillian. The Titanic’s radio operator, Harold Bride, also got the alert and sent it to the bridge a few minutes later.
At 22:20 ship’s time, the Californian ran into a massive ice field, prompting Captain Lord to order a delay until dawn. He left the bridge, uncertain whether the light he saw in the east was a ship’s light or a rising star. Lord then proceeded to the engineer quarters, where he spoke with the chief and informed him of his intentions to halt.
At that moment, they saw the lights of an incoming ship and continued their conversation inside. When Lord inquired whether there were any ships nearby, Evans replied, “just the Titanic.” Lord ordered Evans to relay the news that the Californian had stalled and been encircled by ice. Lord instructed Evans to sound the alarm on all nearby ships, and Evans complied.
On board the Titanic, Jack Phillips, the ship’s on-duty wireless operator, was clearing a backlog of passengers’ inane communications with the radio station in Cape Race, Newfoundland, located 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away. Because of how close the two ships were, the Titanic crew could hear Evans’ report that the SS Californian had halted and been encircled by ice.
This interference with Phillips’ transmission from Cape Race prompted him to reprimand Evans “Get quiet! I can’t talk right now since I’m working the Cape Race “. Philips never forwarded the information about the ice field to the bridge. However, in his defense, Evans had not prefixed the message with the initials “MSG,” which stood for Master Service Gram, as was standard for all transmissions destined for the bridge.
Evans turned off his radios and went to bed shortly after that, believing that he had fulfilled his job despite Philips’ abrupt rejection of the message. The Titanic struck an iceberg at 23:40, an hour and ten minutes after the Californian delivered the message. Shortly after midnight, she issued her first distress call.
Charles Groves, the Californian’s third officer, testified to the British inquiry that he saw another ship’s lights appear 10 or 12 miles distant, 3.5 points above the starboard beam of the Californian at 23:10 ship’s time. At around 23:30, Groves went downstairs to notify Lord. The latter proposed that the ship be contacted by Morse light, which was done, but no reply was observed.
Groves could tell she was a significant passenger liner by the number of illuminated decks. The ship ultimately looked as though she had come to a halt and extinguished its deck lights at 23:40. That is when Titanic stopped her engines. Groves recounted at the British investigation that the boat he saw might have disguised her deck lights by turning two points to port.
Officer Stone relieved Groves on duty shortly after midnight. He estimated that he also saw the ship at around five miles distance, and he testified this in court. He even attempted to use the Morse light to communicate with her but to no avail. Apprentice officer James Gibson, who had been handling the Morse signaling, said that at 00:55, Stone informed him he had witnessed five rockets in the sky over the neighboring ship.
Stone said he told Captain Lord, and Lord questioned whether the rockets had been a corporate signal, but Stone did not know. Lord and Stone both testified that Stone stated these were not distress signals. Lord instructed Stone to signal the ship with the Morse light and inform him of any changes, but he did not provide instructions for making radio contact with the vessel.
Gibson said that Stone had voiced his anxiety about the situation: “A ship is not going to fire rockets at sea for nothing,” Stone had stated.
According to Gibson, “Her lights are all wonky, and she looks strange out of the water. She seems rather have a huge side out of the water,” and he concurred that “all was not all right with her” and that this was “a case of some type of distress.”
However, Stone repeatedly testified under increasingly incredulous questioning by the British investigation that he did not consider at the time that the rockets might have been distress signals and that the thought did not come to him until he learned that the Titanic had sunk.
At 02:00, it seemed like the ship had finally left. Gibson alerted Captain Lord of this a few minutes later, along with the fact that eight white rockets had been seen. Lord questioned his certainty, asking whether he was sure about the color of the rockets. Gibson concurred and departed.
As the clock struck at 2:20 a.m., the Titanic went down. Still on middle watch together at 03:40, Stone and Gibson observed rockets to the south. While the Californian’s crew could not see the ship that was shooting the rockets, the RMS Carpathia was rapidly approaching from the southeast, also firing rockets to alert the survivors of the sunken ship that help was coming.
It was just after 4:00 that Chief Officer George F. Stewart took over for Stone. He saw a brightly illuminated, four-masted steamer with a single funnel approaching from the south. This was the Carpathia.
At 04:30, Captain Lord got up and walked outside to the deck to assess the situation and figure out how to get through the ice to the west. Stewart was sent to awaken Evans and see what had become of the ship they had spotted to the south.
The following day, they found out from the Frankfurt that the Titanic had gone down. Lord gave the command to set sail. The Californian headed west before slowly making her way through the ice field and then turning south. At 6:00, the SS Mount Temple saw the Californian steaming from the north. At around 08:30, the Californian sailed by the Carpathia to the east before turning and heading northeast toward the rescue ship.
The Carpathia was picking up the last of the survivors from the Titanic as the Californian sailed in. After talking things over with the Californian, Carpathia sailed away, leaving the Californian to look for anybody else who may have survived. The Californian proceeded to America, having found nothing except scattered debris, empty lifeboats, and bodies.
Lord and Evans, among other crucial crew members, were called to testify in the American inquiry shortly after their arrival. Evans was a witness for the British investigation into the disaster as well. Like many others who saw the event firsthand, the media gave him substantial money for his account, but he dismissed it.
The Aftermath of the Sinking
After news of the Titanic tragedy spread, many people wanted to know what happened and whether or not it might have been avoided.
The day the Californian landed in Boston without a hitch on April 19, 1912, the United States Senate began its investigation into the disaster of the RMS Titanic. At first, no one knew who the Californian was or her role in the Titanic catastrophe. On April 22nd, investigators learned that a vessel close to the Titanic hadn’t responded to the distress signals. The details about the ship were a mystery.
The next day, a tiny New England publication called The Clinton Daily Item published a stunning report saying that the Californian had rejected assistance to the Titanic.
The article originated with Californian carpenter James McGregor, who claimed to have seen the Titanic’s lights and distress rockets from close range. The Boston American published a report on the same day as The Clinton Daily, with similar details, based on information provided by Ernest Gill, the assistant engineer on the Californian.
Similarly, Captain Lord supplied inconsistent statements to several publications in the Boston region. Lord said that his ship was 30 miles from the Titanic in a Boston Traveler piece published on April 19 but only 20 miles in a Boston Post article published on April 24.
Third Officer Grove indicated that the rescue search was called off at 10:40 a.m., unlike what Lord told the Boston Globe, who reported that the ship had spent three hours sailing about the crash scene attempting to help. The night of the disaster, when reporters inquired about Lord’s whereabouts, he refused to answer, claiming that such details were “state secrets.”
Following the media reports on the 23rd, the U.S. Senate probe filed a summons for many crew members of the Californian, including Gill and Lord. Several of Gill’s assertions were restated throughout his testimony. Lord’s word was inconsistent and constantly shifting. He illustrated this by describing three distinct conditions of ice.
After initially telling newspapers in Boston that his ship had not seen any rockets, he later admitted that he was aware of them. Still, he insisted that the rockets were not distress rockets and that they had been fired not from Titanic but from a tiny steamship, the so-called “third ship” of the night.
Nonetheless, the evidence of U.S. Navy Captain J. Knapp, a member of the Navy Hydrographer’s Office, made it plain that Titanic and Californian were in sight of one other and that no other vessel had been in the region.
The Crew of SS Californian is in Trouble
The legitimacy of the so-called “scrap log” of Californian wood was also questioned. After each day’s events have been recorded, the captain will review and approve the log for inclusion in the official register. Leyland Line and White Star Line’s parent company, International Mercantile Marine Co., had a daily policy of burning scrap logs.
Official records did not note the presence of a ship or any rockets. Stone was not questioned about the details of his bridge watch between midnight and 4:00 on 15 April, nor was he asked to recollect the notes he had recorded in the scrap journal.
British Formal Investigation Court proceedings formally started on May 2. Once again, Lord’s evidence was inconsistent, shifting, and evasive. On the other hand, the Carpathia’s Captain Arthur Rostron provided consistent and straightforward testimony throughout all investigations. The British Inquiry required Rostron to corroborate an affidavit he had previously submitted to the American Inquiry.
His affidavit included the following confirmations: “At about 4:20 in the morning, it was completely bright outside. By 5 o’clock, the sky was bright enough to provide a full view of the horizon. Then, to the north, somewhere between seven and eight miles away, we saw two steamships. They were both non-native East Coasters, not from the Golden State.”
The Californian crew members, including Captain Lord, provided contradictory testimony throughout the investigation. Contrary to James Gibson’s statement, whom Lord denied knowing about the neighboring ship’s disappearance, Lord said he had not been informed of its disappearance.
During the investigations, several of the survivors of the Titanic said they had seen another ship’s lights after the disaster. Fourth Officer Boxhall, aboard the Titanic, estimated that the other boat was five miles (eight kilometers) distant and moving in her direction.
Boxhall used a Morse light to contact the ship, much as the Californian’s officers did, but he heard nothing back. When questioned before the US inquiry, Frederick Fleet, the lookout of the Titanic, who was in the crow’s nest when the iceberg was seen and stayed there for another forty minutes, said that he did not see the lights of another ship. After leaving the ship in a lifeboat, he claimed he saw a light.
When the first lifeboats were launched from the port side, Captain Edward Smith (of the Titanic) thought the mystery ship was near enough to tell the crew to unload the passengers, then return to the Titanic to pick up more. One lifeboat rowed towards the ship, but it never seemed to come any closer, and survivors said they could see the other ship’s lights all night long.
The American and British investigations concluded that the Californian could not have been more than a little closer than the 19.5 miles (31.4 km) indicated by Captain Lord, given that both ships could see one other. When Carpathia arrived at the crash scene, a ship to the north was visible; this ship was eventually recognized as the Californian.
Both investigations found that Captain Lord was at fault for not rescuing the Titanic’s survivors; the British Inquiry found that more people from the Titanic might have helped by reacting to the ship’s rockets and rushing to aid, which “… would have saved many if not all of the victims who were lost.”
After the catastrophe, several new safety regulations were put into effect. According to the Radio Act of 1912, all U.S. ships were obliged to have a radio operator on duty at all times. Distress rockets and 24-hour radio monitoring were established under the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.
The Second Investigation on the SS Californian
Despite many complaints about his behavior, no legal charges were ever made against Captain Lord. Therefore, he was not able to challenge the results of the investigation. Captain Lord, upset by the depiction of him in the 1955 novel A Night to Remember by Walter Lord (no relation) and the 1958 film of the same name, sought a re-hearing of the investigation into his ship.
The MMSA, to which Captain Lord belonged as an employee, petitioned the UK government to reevaluate the issue in 1965 and 1968, but to no avail. But when Ballard’s expedition rediscovered the Titanic wreck in 1985, it was determined to be 13 miles from its stated position (the location acknowledged by both inquiries). The Board of Trade ordered a re-examination.
The British government’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) completed its reexamining of the evidence in 1992. In his conclusion, Deputy Chief Inspector James de Coverly stated: “What’s important, however, is that the Titanic didn’t see any ships until after the sinking. Officers on the bridge and sailors in the crow’s nest kept watch as best they could, and with their ship in such peril, they must have been alert for any other ships that could be able to aid.
“It is implausible that the Californian or any other ship was inside the Titanic’s observable horizon at that time; conversely, the Titanic could not have been within the Californian’s horizon.” It was later determined that “most probable, in my judgment, the ship observed by Californian was another, unnamed vessel,” according to the report.
Captain Barnett, the original investigator of the 1992 reappraisal, came to a different conclusion than de Coverly: “that the Titanic was seen by the Californian and indeed kept under observation from 23:00 or soon after on 14 April until she sank” (based on the testimony of Captain Lord and the two watch officers, Mr. Grove and Mr. Stone).
Chief Inspector de Coverly researched more after receiving Barnett’s first report. Barnett and de Coverly had independently determined that the rockets from the Titanic had been seen and that Stone and Lord had not reacted adequately to calls for help.
According to the MAIB’s investigation from 1992, Captain Lord and his crew “fallen well short of what was required.”
Even if “appropriate action had been taken,” the study acknowledges, “the Californian could not have arrived until long after the disaster. In addition, it was said that, upon learning of the Titanic’s predicament, Lord twice sailed his vessel through an ice field to aid in the hunt for survivors.
Leslie Harrison, the union attorney and chief defender of Captain Lord, who spearheaded the effort to re-examine the California incident by the British government, criticized the report for having two conflicting conclusions, calling it “an admission of failure to achieve the purpose of the reappraisal.”
The MAIB’s 1992 study was out a few months after their 1989 Marchioness tragedy report, which was also met with controversy.
Concerns were raised about the MAIB’s evidence-gathering, procedures, and conclusions as a result of this study.
Paul Lee said Captain Lord “either couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt to a different scenario.”
Although Lord had halted his ship upon reaching ice, the British investigation still determined that the Californian “could have rescued many, if not all, of the lost people” had it acted upon the rockets and pushed through the ice.
The final report from the U.S. Senate investigation was equally scathing of Lord’s inactivity, writing that “such behavior, whether stemming from apathy or extreme negligence, is highly abhorrent, and lays upon the commander the Californian a significant responsibility.”
In a speech to the U.S. Senate inquiry, Senator William Alden Smith said, “the failure of Capt. Lord, to arouse the wireless operator on his ship, who could have easily ascertained the name of the vessel in distress and reached her in time to avert loss of life, places a tremendous responsibility upon this officer from which it will be tough for him to escape.”
The fault of Stanley Lord, as author Daniel Allen Butler put it, “was not that he may have disregarded the Titanic’s rockets, but that he ignored someone’s cry for help.”
Some have argued that the Californian could have done very little to stop the tragedy from happening or at least to lessen the number of casualties. It has been claimed that unions supporting Captain Lord successfully shaped official investigations’ findings before they were released to the public.
It would have taken a miracle for Captain Lord to bring his ship to the Titanic and effect a rescue in such a short time, as noted by Williams and Kamps in Titanic and the Californian: “Bearing distance in mind, and recalling that a mere fifty-five minutes had elapsed from the time Captain Lord was first informed about the rockets to the moment the Titanic slipped beneath the waves.”
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Further Scientific Explanations
The contrast in air temperature between the warmer seas of the Atlantic Ocean and the calmer waters of the Labrador Current is thought to have caused a cold-water mirage, or superior mirage, and therefore led to the Californian’s inactivity, as suggested by Titanic historian Tim Maltin.
According to Maltin, this would lead to an effect known as “superior refraction,” which would superimpose, extend, and distort the look of the sea’s edge and raise pictures of things. For this reason, Captain Lord mistook the Titanic’s Morse light for a smoky oil lamp atop the mast of a much smaller ship. Maltin’s idea, if verified, would provide a further explanation for why the Titanic’s lookouts missed the iceberg.
For the remainder of his life, Cyril Evans worked for Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company and its successors (including the Eastern Telegraph Company and Cable & Wireless; he ended his career as Cable & Wireless’ manager on the West Indian Island of St. Lucia). He also served in the navy throughout both World Wars, first in North Africa and later in Italy, where he oversaw mobile communications for the British Army.
He settled down to start a family after his marriage. Evans was played by Geoffrey Bayldon in the film A Night to Remember.
What Happened to the SS Californian?
Later, the Californian suffered extensive damage to the hull and her cargo on July 2, 1913, when a fire broke out in her holds. 3 and 4.
The Californian remained on regular commercial duty until the start of World War I, when the British government seized her. She transferred supplies and personnel for the Allies bogged down in the Battle of Gallipoli.
She was torpedoed by the German submarine SM U-34 on November 9, 1915, while traveling between Salonica and Marseilles. At around 7:45 a.m., while being towed by a French patrol boat, she was attacked again by SM U-35 and sunk in 10-13,000 feet of water about 60 miles (50 mi; 100 km) south-southwest of Cape Matapan, Greece, killing one (fireman Richard John Harding) and wounded two.
The wreck of the Californian has yet to be located. Less than a year and a half later, the sister ship to the Titanic, the HMHS Britannic, would also be lost by a mine less than 200 miles (170 mi; 320 km) from where the Californian had gone down.
In Recent Popular Culture
The 2012 BBC TV drama SOS – The Titanic Inquiry investigates the Californian’s possible role in the Titanic’s demise. The play recounts the events of the original British Inquiry into the Titanic disaster, which used the available information at the time to determine whether or not the Californian was close enough to the ship to attempt a rescue.
The 2016 novel The Midnight Watch by David Dyer explores the Titanic tragedy from the perspective of the crew of the Californian. The story follows a fictitious American reporter trying to get the truth about what occurred aboard the Californian on that fatal night.
Next, from conspiracies to sightings of ghosts and other paranormal entities, read about the Entire History of the Pearl Harbor Attacks. And if you’re interested in true crime, a detailed article on The Amityville Horror would quench your thirst!
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