The SS Californian: The Ship That Watched Titanic Sink.

Updated on March 4, 2018
jasonponic profile image

Recently married on Sept. 8, 2017, Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.

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 we can deduce is 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 spotted from Titanic's bridge 25 minutes later and distress rockets were fired.
  • Officers aboard Californian observed 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. Radio chatter regarding Titanic's SOS signal overwhelmed the airwaves. The news was sent to Captain Lord.
  • At 0530, Captain Lord, now awake, ordered the Californian to Titanic's position. 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

Legacy

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 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 as recent as 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 movies. 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.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Henry Adam 

      2 days ago

      An alternative explanation, and well supported by evidence. Data on sea temperatures were collected hourly by most, if not all, ships crossing by that route. That data is held in Berlin.

      Mirages at sea are common - caused by layers of air at different temperatures having different refractive indices. On the fateful night - no moon, no clouds, just a sky full of stars (remarked on by all). The Titanic had just crossed from the gulf stream (warm, flowing north) into the Humboldt current (cold, flowing south) causing layers of differently dense air, raising the horizon and causing the bergs to be invisible below that horizon. For the same reason, the Californian - the nearest ship, may not have come to the rescue as the Titanic was rendered by optical illusion as to be too small to be the Titanic. A freak accident caused by freak circumstances. No-one to blame, really, including the poor and possibly wrongly vilified (to his grave) captain of the Californian.

    • profile image

      Jim W. 

      3 months ago

      The ice encountered by califonia was field ice, quite different than icebergs.....

    • profile image

      reality checker 

      5 months ago

      Night time on the water is difficult at best. Shapes look different, nothing is as it should be, but nonetheless many on the Californian felt that they should act and Captain Lord over-ruled them. On the water you always err on the side of caution. Capt. Lord could have negotiated the icebergs quicker than Carpathian as he was much closer.

      At the very least he should have started radio communications and in lieu of that if it failed he should have started to make his way toward the Titanic. As the Californian got closer light signal codes would become more visible and he would have the necessary intelligence needed to make the right decision.

      The apparent stubbornness of Capt. Lord and maybe others on the Californian,to make good decisions early on resulted in the bigger tragedy.

      If Californian started toward Titanic itself at a slow rate and hit an iceberg itself probably only causing survivable damage, Capt Lord would have been totally justified in not proceeding farther.

      I tend to think Capt. Lord saw the ice field and was not a brave enough man to try moving toward Titanic so he played dumb just enough to save his own butt. However when Carpthia came barreling onto the scene, he could do nothing else but go toward Titanic as they showed the ice field could be negotiated and from a much greater distance.

      All that being said, I wasn't there and I didn't see how much ice there was and I'm glad I didn't have to make that decision, but I know I would have moved my ship slowly toward Titanic using my light and radio signals until I was sure they did not need help.

      Human nature being what it is, after all disasters retribution is the order of the day. From what we know after repeated investigations I think he got off easy, even though his life and career were destroyed.

    • profile image

      Itsanarchydog 

      5 months ago

      anyone that said that the californian couldn't have saved the titanic because of all the danger, look up the carpathian comes to the titanic rescue they dodge ice bergs and race to get to the titanic while the californian just sat there and watched.

    • profile image

      Sunset 

      6 months ago

      They could've have tried taking action but when they tried warning, they got the rude response to shut up.....so how are they at full blame of negligence

    • profile image

      Californian Not Able to Save Titanic 

      6 months ago

      Anyone who believes that Californian could have saved all of Titanics passengers and crew is very nieve!

      It took the Californian two hours to thread its way through the pack ice the next morning to reach Titanics position. Captain Stanley Lord was first advised of the rockets being fired at 1.10am (Second officer Herbert Stones own testimony at the US enquiry). So Californian would have reached Titanic by 3.10am but Titanic had sunk by 2.20am.

      It was pitch black without moonlight and the most Californian would have been able to do would have been to send its 4 small lifeboats to try to seach for living people in the water. Most people would have been dead by the time Californian got to the disaster scene.

      Regards,

      Ajmal

    • profile image

      Jerry 

      6 months ago

      The iceberg meant nothin to to the titanic, it was it's fatal fire that actually sunk it, the iceberg was a help so it wouldn't capsize.

    • profile image

      Birgit 

      7 months ago

      I think that Californian surely would have reached Titanic in time.. Sure ice bergs all around them but still the Carpathia basically had full speed and they dodged ice bergs to get to Titanic. So in my eyes Californian surely would have reached the Titanic.. Just really sad that Lord ignored it..

    • profile image

      Ama 

      8 months ago

      Quoting... "For the next eighty years, official reexaminations of the evidence including one in 1992 all concluded the same results as the original investigations."

      That speaks volume. (80 years) is a lot of investigations and a lot of evidences, that all yield the same result.

    • profile image

      Weird 

      12 months ago

      So that was ship that turned back around when they thought people on Titanic was having party when they saw flares shooting up at sky they didnt bother by checking on them see if they was allright

    • profile image

      Jeff 

      15 months ago

      So if the SS Californian was surrounded by icebergs 9 to 20 miles away, how did RMS Carpathia manage to make it to Titanic from 50 miles out? Also, the story says the Californian was sunk in 1915 and 1918. It was actually torpedoed in November 1918.

    • profile image

      Jokester Titan 

      15 months ago

      The Californian was surrounded by icebergs and wireless communication was shut off by Titanic's wireless, so there was still NO way for it to hurry and save Titanic.

    • profile image

      Jokester Titan 

      15 months ago

      F.Y.I. The Californian, on the fatal night, was surrounded by icebergs and even if they tried, they wouldn't reach Titanic in time.

      Also Titanic's wireless communicator shut them out so that meant Californian's wireless communicator shut his off and quit for the night. Californian didn't have a chance.

    • profile image

      wedmar80 

      16 months ago

      As to the colors of the rockets fired from Titanic, eyewitnesses on Titanic, made the following verbatim statements from the 1912 inquires:

      QM Robert Hichens: “I did not take no particular notice of the colour, Sir. Some were green, some were red, and some were blue - all kinds of colours - and some white, Sir. I think, if I remember rightly, they were blue.”

      QM Reginald Lee: “No, coloured rockets.” after being asked if they were colored or only white.

      First class passenger Arthur Peuchen: “A good deal like an ordinary skyrocket, going up and breaking, and the different colors flying down.”

      Third Officer Herbert Pitman: “Various colors.” when asked if they were red.

    • profile image

      16 months ago

      I did not know that

    • profile image

      Jonathan Fight 

      19 months ago

      I wonder how close California was situated from Titanic. I think she could have aided Titanic in some way.

    • profile image

      leo 

      19 months ago

      Rockets fired by Titanice were WHITE. Distress Rockets would have been of the colors Red, Blue or Green.

      Lord was OK to have ignored them, thinking they were fired for amusement of passangers.

    • profile image

      Danny Gray 

      22 months 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.

    • profile image

      James Pat 

      2 years 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

    • profile image

      barry kenyon 

      4 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.

    • profile image

      Brad 

      4 years ago

      good story thanks for sharing

    • vibhusatpaul profile image

      Vibhu Satpaul 

      5 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!

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)