Full speed into an icefield
by Ragamuffin Mike
When Ragamuffin Brian and I sat down with the British Titanic Society's Brian Ticehurst we asked him why the ship still held our fascination ninety years after it sank.
Brian concluded that the ship included all stratas of Edwardian society where opulence and poverty were separated on their respective decks. Here was a child abductor, mistresses and hundreds of stories that are still being unravelled. All human life was here and the majority never lived to tell the tale.
The Titanic was a disaster waiting to happen from the first ice warning it received to the ones that it ignored in preference to sending the millionaire's messages to New York:
CAPTAIN TITANIC - WESTBOUND STEAMERS REPORT BERGS GROWLERS AND ICE IN 42 N FROM 49 TO 51 W 12TH APRIL - COMPLIMENTS BARR.
Wireless message from R.M.S. Caronia, Sunday morning, April 14th, 1912.
CAPTAIN SMITH TITANIC - HAVE HAD MODERATE VARIABLE WINDS AND CLEAR FINE WEATHER SINCE LEAVING. GREEK STEAMER ATHENAI REPORTS PASSING ICEBERGS AND LARGE QUANTITIES OF FIELD ICE TODAY IN LAT 41 51 N LONG 49 52 W.
Wireless message from the Baltic, 1.45pm.
Captain Smith passed the Baltic's message to Bruce Ismay when he encountered him sauntering along the deck. He finally retrieved it from the White Star chairman at 7.10pm so that he might make his officers 'aware'.
The Titanic spent her last evening steaming at full pelt which was common practice when amongst the ice in the North Atlantic and Ismay wanted to make New York on time. The conditions that night were far from normal. An unusual dead flat calm and a starry jet black moonless sky. With no waves breaking at the base of the icebergs the lookouts would have their work cut out to spot them.
As Captain Rostron said to a crewmember as the Carpathia steamed to the Titanic's rescue: "In this smooth sea it's no use looking for white surf around the base of the bergs, but you will look for the reflection of starshine in the ice pinnacles. "
Much has been made of the lookouts on the Titanic not having binoculars to hand on the voyage but as experienced sailors would later testify icebergs were often seen first with the naked eye.
TO CAPTAIN ANTILLIAN - 6.30P.M. APPARENT SHIP'S TIME. LATE 42 3 N 49 9 W. THREE LARGE BERGS FIVE MILES TO SOUTHWARD OF US. REGARDS LORD.
Wireless message from Californian to the Antillian.
Junior wireless operator Bride on the Titanic heard the message but did not take it down, he was busy writing up his accounts. Later the Californian contacted the Titanic again to pass on the information about the ice:
"According to the Californian's operator the Titanic man replied that he already had the message and the Californian did not repeat the position. Whether this message was ever brought to the notice of the watch-keeping officers is extremely doubtful."
The Titanic and the Californian by Peter Padfield.
FROM MESABA TO TITANIC - IN LAT 42 N TO 41 25 N LONG 49 W TO 50 30 W SAW MUCH HEAVY PACK ICE AND GREAT NUMBER LARGE ICE-BERGS ALSO FIELD ICE. WEATHER GOOD CLEAR.
"This was received and acknowledged by Phillips on the Titanic soon after 9.30. He was very busy with Cape Race at the time, sending and receiving passenger's messages, and directly he had sent the acknowledgement he continued transmitting them.
The Mesaba's operator heard him sending. He timed the acknowledgement signal, dated it, wrote in the office sent to and initialled it, then noted in his log that he was standing by, waiting for the Titanic's answer. The answer never came.
This message, a vital and very startling one, far more positive in delineation of area, which extended well South of and right across the Titanic's course line, and far more dramatic than any of the previous ones, never reached the bridge. Had it done so it woul dhave told the navigators that the Titanic was already in among the bergs."
The Titanic and the Californian by Peter Padfield.
10.21pm Captain Lord of the steamship Californian had run into an icefield. It was his first time in ice. He pulled the ships telegraph to "Stop", "Full Astern" and "Hard a-port". Captain Lord told his Chief Engineer they would remain stopped till daylight but he was to "Keep main steam handy, in case we start bumping the ice."
After 11pm Captain Lord and his third officer see a ship approaching way off in the distance to the South East. Captain Lord goes to the wireless operator's room, meets Cyril Evans coming along the deck. He points out the ship to Evans and asks what ships he has got on the radio. "Only the Titanic," replies Evans. Lord doesn't believe the ship is the Titanic but tells Evans: "Better tell the Titanic we are stopped surrounded by ice . . ."
"Philips in the big ship, as hard at work still with the passenger's messages through Cape Race. He heard the Californian, which in cmoparison with that station was almost on top of him, come in with a bang, drowing out the fainter signals from Newfoundland.
"KEEP OUT, he signalled, and Evans appreciating the position, closed his station down for the second time that night and went to bed shortly afterwards. He had been up and on long periods of duty since seven o'clock that morning; he was only the operator on board."
The Titanic and the Californian by Peter Padfield.
The time was about 11.35pm. At 11.40pm the Titanic struck the iceberg. The lookouts Fleet and Lee had seen this black mass come out the haze a quarter of a mile ahead of them. Officer Murdoch rang "Stop" then shouted "Hard a-starboard" (which took the ship to the port) and then rang "Full Astern".
In hindsight this action would deal the fatal blow to the Titanic as she careered into the iceberg taking a glancing blow down her starboard side below the waterline. Had Murdoch kept her straight for the iceberg the bow would have been crumpled and many of the crew killed in their quarters.
It wasn't an option, Murdoch was trying to avoid the berg not hit it. Water was pouring through the gash into several of the watertight holds. The reports back to Captain Smith got worse by the minute, finally it was concluded she had less than two hours before she sank by the head.
Aboard the Californian Third Officer Groves attempted to morse the ship he saw suddenly stop but got no response.
Between 12.15 and 12.20 Third Officer Groves was relieved by Second Officer Stone. Groves went to see Evans for a chat in the wireless room. He found him half asleep. Later Evans would recall a hazy conversation about the Titanic. Groves lifted the earphones to his ears to listen into the wireless.
Signals were made audible by a magnetic detector in the wireless apparatus. This was wound by clockwork. The Californian's had wound all the way down. Groves could hear nothing and he wasn't a wireless man.
Between 12.15am and 12.20am senior Marconi operator on the Titanic, Jack Phillips, began to send out the distress call:
"CQD CQD CQD CQD CQD CQD, MGY. STRUCK ICEBERG. COME TO OUR ASSISTANCE AT ONCE. POSITION: LAT. 41.44N; LONG.50.24W"
The controversy between what the Californian saw and the Titanic saw on that night still rages. Leslie Read's exhaustive book The Ship That Stood Still seethes about the Californian's inactivity that night and pours scorn upon the writers who have supported Captain Lord.
The Californian's captain had retired to his cabin but remained fully clothed on his bunk. He was kept posted by 2nd officer Stone and Gibson throughout the period that they saw the eight rockets fired from the mystery ship.
Aboard the Titanic witnesses could see the lights of a ship to the North of them and the first lifeboats away made for the lights. The Californian continued to morse the Titanic and the Titanic it is said continued to morse the Californian. Reade's plausaible arguments put them between eight miles and no more than ten miles apart.
In this moonless but starstruck night neither ship saw each other's morse signals. The Californian saw the rockets but never heard them possibly because of the freezing conditions that night which restricted the sound argues Reade.
I asked Titanic buff Brian Ticehurst a respected figure of the British Titanic Society to comment on the inactivity of the Californian that night. Brian suggested that the officers on the night watch were not the brightest on the block. Thinking about it, perhaps they were somewhat intimidated by their captain. They passed the information up the line and waited for orders.
Captain Lord suggested the Californian continue morsing the mystery ship which appeared to be steaming away. On such a strange night it must have been hard to judge what a ship at eight or ten miles was doing. Only one thing is clear there were rockets in the sky. And white rockets at sea the British enquiry concluded only meant one thing. Help.
It might also be suggested that both Stone and Gibson had never experienced distress signals at sea and sadly misunderstood what was happening. Captain Lord had done his duty by his ship, protected his crew, cargo and passengers by deciding to stop when they encountered the ice field. He had sent out ice warnings and the last fateful warning to the Titanic.
If only one of the Californian's crew had raised Evans from his slumbers they might have used the wireless to raise the mystery ship that was firing rockets and acting strange.
Simply put though, none of us were there in the flesh, we can assume what the Californian and the Titanic saw from their respective positions. We might be able to replicate that jet black night with a smooth calm sea and two ships divided by ice and between eight to ten miles. Hindsight, that night, was not an option.
The Titanic had sealed its own fate by the cavalier disregard to those ice warnings by their Marconi operators. Particularly the last two, from the Maseba at 7.30pm and the Californian after 11pm. Had they paid attention to them they would have seen they were heading straight into an icefield.
At 2.20am the Titanic went nose down to the bottom of the Atlantic, her engines and boilers breaking the ship into three parts, bow, midships and stern. When Dr. Ballard discovered her in the last decade of the twentieth century she was about ten or twelve miles east of her last radioed position. This was pretty close to her position worked out by Boxall taking account of the stars and the ship's steaming times that day.
Various ships were on their way to the rescue from the get go of the first CQD message. The Russian steamship Birma and the Mount Temple from the West and Captain Rostron commanding the S.S. Carpathia. Captain Rostron coming from over 50 miles away in the South East made all steam to reach the Titanic's position.
The Carpathia Captain's call to a member of his crew is the stuff of legends:
"Station yourself here, Mister, and keep a special lookout for lights or flares - and for ice! I will remain on the bridge. In this smooth sea it's no use looking for white surf around the base of the bergs, but you will look for the reflection of starshine in the ice pinnacles. We'll be into the icefield at 3 AM or perhaps earlier." Captain Arthur Rostron
The Carpathia reached the Titanic's position by 4am that morning. They picked up 800 survivors from the lifeboats and collapsable boats of the Titanic.
The Carpathia could see the Californian to the North though it was still dark. Chief Officer Stewart took over from Stone and Gibson at 4am and heard the story of the mystery ship and the rockets. He woke Captain Lord at 4.20am but over an hour and a half passed before Evan's was raised to discover the fateful news of the Titanic's sinking from the Mount Temple.
The Mount Temple had reached the corner of the icefield by 3am and encountered an unidentified schooner coming from the direction of the Titanic CQD position at 2knots.
After six the Californian joined the search for survivors. It was now daybreak and the ice field was clear to see and navigate through. By 9am that morning the Carpathia was headed for New York and the Titanic and the mythology that has surrounded it began.
Brian Ticehurst, of the British Titanic Society suggests that if the Titanic had completed her maiden voyage her trip would not have made much of a stir. And she would be largely forgotten now. Her sister ship the Olympic had already broken the record for crossing the Atlantic and the Titanic would have been just another ship in the line.
Films continue to use poetic licence with the Titanic story. James Cameron's Titanic is full of cockney stokers but the majority of the crew lived and crewed from Southampton. Leonardo DeCaprio's 'Jack Dawson' was a passenger on the liner and is buried in Nova Scotia along with many of those who lost their lives that night.
The earlier A Night To Remember's portrayal of the Californian's captain so angered him that the Merchantile Marine Association took up his defence. Leslie Reade's The Ship That Stood Still an exhaustive and elaborate account of the Titanic's sinking pours scorn on Lord's defenders.
All I can say is that Lord took more care of his passengers, crew and ship that strange night than Captain Smith, Bruce Ismay and the White Star Line did between them. While Bride and Phillips tirelessly worked the millionaire's messages to New York the icefield was coming ever closer.
"And as the smart ship grew
Thomas Hardy, The convergence of the