The SS Californian: The Ship That Watched Titanic Sink.

The SS Californian
The SS Californian

Vilified forever in the epic tragedy as the 'Ship Who Watched Titanic Sink', the SS Californian remains another unanswered question in this immortal saga.

Captain Stanley Lord's life would never be the same after that night. The American and British Inquiries made in the wake of the sinking both found Lord's actions that night unprofessional and negligible. While no formal charges were ever filed, the broken man's career was over.

Incidentally, the Californian herself disappeared from history during World War I. A fate almost poetic in nature, the ship was sunk in 1918 and has never been found.

The Californian Timeline on April 15, 1912.

What exactly transpired on the decks of the Californian that fateful night will forever be lost to time. What are able to deduce was pieced together from testimony given by Californian's captain and officers during the Inquires.

  • The Californian radioed Titanic at approximately 19:00 hours to warn of an ice field of which the Californian nearly collided with herself.

  • Captain Stanley Lord ordered the Californian to stop for the night, concluding it was too dangerous to proceed. As he was going off duty, he spotted the Titanic's lights on the horizon about 5 miles away.

  • Californian radioed Titanic again, warning that they had stopped and were surrounded by ice. The radio signal was so strong, it interrupted Titanic's regular communication and its reply was "Shut Up. Shut Up. I am Busy." Californian shut down its wireless at 23:30, Titanic struck the iceberg ten minutes later.

  • Californian was sited from Titanic's bridge 25 minutes later and distress rockets were fired.
  • Officers aboard Californian spotted several rockets and called down to Captain Lord, who had since gone to bed.

  • Lord suggested the Californian contact the vessel via morse lamp. No effort was ever made to wake the wireless operator. He suggested that the rockets were company signals of some kind. Testimony given during the British Inquiry suggests mix ideas about the rockets they saw. Some of Californian's officers believed there was a more serious nature behind the rockets.
  • At 0200, Titanic appeared to "be leaving the area" after firing a total of eight white rockets. This was reported to Captain Lord who did nothing. Titanic sank at 0220 hours.
  • At 0300, officers of the Californian sited rockets coming from the south. These were from RMS Carpathia who had traveled all night towards Titanic.
  • At 0416, A shift change resulted in Californian's wireless operator to inquire about why a ship had fired rockets earlier.
  • At 0530, Captain Lord, now awake, ordered the Californian to Titanic's postion. But through a twisted, longer, route instead of directly there.
  • Californian arrives alongside Carpathia who just finished collecting all survivors. After Carpathia departs for New York, Californian stays behind to continue the search only to find wreckage.

This map illustrates Californian's close proximity to Titanic that night. Less than 20 nautical miles Northwest of the sinking ship.
This map illustrates Californian's close proximity to Titanic that night. Less than 20 nautical miles Northwest of the sinking ship. | Source

The Aftermath

SS Californian arrived in Boston on April 19, 1912 unnoticed as the world had not yet learned of its significance. The American Inquiry, which was launched the same day, learned of Californian's involvement on April 20th when members of her crew, including Captain Lord, leaked stories to the media about seeing the Titanic's distress rockets that night. Lord claimed his ship was thirty miles from the Titanic but other crew claimed it was less than twenty. When reporters pressed Lord, he replied that the exact location was a classified state secret. Lord gave a conflicting story as to why his wireless was offline that night. A result, he claimed, was due to shutting down for the evening. Other details also conflicted with his crew's accounts, including how long the Californian searched for survivors upon arriving at the wrecksite, how many rockets the crew saw and its location relative to Titanic.

It didn't take long for the American Inquiry to subpoena Lord and the Californian crew which they did on April 23, 1912. While the crew's accounts were largely consistent in their recollection, Captain Lord's was conflicting and incomplete. Lord's knowledge of Titanic's rockets made up a large part of Lord's inconsistent testimony. What he told reporters, his American testimony and later in his May 2 British testimony were all different. First he denied ever seeing rockets, then he admitted seeing rockets but from a third ship, not Titanic. He also openly disputed testimony given by the US Navy and other vessels pinning Californian within visual distance of Titanic.

More incriminating evidence, or a suspicious lack thereof, came in the form of Californian's logs. Its scrap log mysteriously disappeared sometime between the night of the disaster and Californian's arrival in Boston. The official log gave no mention of Titanic, a nearby ship, or rockets of any kind.

Both Inquires concluded Californian's postion to be closer than Captain Lord's claim of twenty nautical miles and therefore concluded that the captain failed to act appropriately. The British Inquiry even went so far in saying that Californian could have saved an untold number of additional lives had she responded immediately to Titanic's rockets.

Captain Stanley Lord
Captain Stanley Lord


Ironically, the Californian's inaction would prompt changes in international maritime law. In 1912, International radio treaties were adopted mandated 24-hour radio duty and later treaties saw the standardization of distress flares and rockets.

The conclusions of both Inquiries officially placed blame on Captain Stanley Lord of the SS Californian for his inaction of the disaster, a verdict that officially ruined both his career and his life. No criminal charges were ever filed against him in either the United States or Britain. The social disgrace however marked Captain Lord in the public's eye as a coward.

Californian's owner, the Leyland Line, fired Captain Lord in August 1912. For the remainder of his life, the disgraced mariner would fight unsuccessfully to clear his name. For the next eighty years, official reexaminations of the evidence including one in 1992 all concluded the same results as the original investigations. Experts, scholars, historians and filmmakers would vilify Captain Lord in all forms of media from books to films. Lord died in 1962 a broken man.

Fate of the SS Californian

The Californian herself existed only for a short time after her commanding officer was dismissed. When World War I broke out in 1914, the ship was pressed into service as a troop transport by the British government. In 1915, German U-Boat, U-35, torpedoed Californian off the coast of Greece. She sank with only one life lost. The wreck has yet to be found.

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Comments 5 comments

vibhusatpaul profile image

vibhusatpaul 3 years ago from New Delhi

Like Bermuda triangle,aliens and UFO, Titanic is a mystery which lures everyone from al over the world. I wasn't aware of this side of the story, thanks for sharing mate!

Brad 2 years ago

good story thanks for sharing

barry kenyon 2 years ago

Is it really as simple as that? As always with this controversy, the answer is "Perhaps"! Several witnesses from Titanic claimed there was colour in the rockets (the Californian saw only white ones). And several others stated that the ship seen from the Titanic was moving (the Californian was stopped all night). The finding of the Titanic wreck does not support the view the two ships were five miles apart. Incidentally Lord's career was not ruined as claimed above. He was dismissed from the Leyland Line following Lord Mersey's 1912 official inquiry, but was appointed as captain with another company until he retired in the late 1920s because of ill-health.

James Pat 4 months ago

Herbert Stone; second in command is the one that saw the rockets; when he told Lord about them, Lord asked if they were distress rockets; Stone said no. They then saw more rockets; they were white. Another crewman though said Stone told him he was worried it was a distress call but he told Lord it wasnt. Also there is no volume on the messages; because it was the first voyage, passengers were obsessed to send out messages to people to say they were doing it on the first voyage. Titanic's radio man was listening to messages and sending them out as fast as he could so he told Californians operator to shut up. He waited for any response after telling them about the ice and heard nothing. He went to sleep and 5 minutes later Titanic hit the iceberg. Lord got all of the blame when he should have got some; but Herbert Stone is the guy that got a pass and he seems to be more of a villin in this

Danny Gray 12 days ago

for one thing, i'm a big titanic fanatic, at approximately 9 miles away sat the Titanic's fate off the Californians port bow. they had seen the same amount of rockets shout from the titanic, exactly 8. there ain't no doubt in my mind it was. so Lord got every thing the damn bastard deserved yet still not enough. had Lord directed his ship in the direction of the Titanic, more if not all of her passengers would have been saved. Lord doesn't even deserve to be called captain, nor allowed near any shipping lines ever again.

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