The SS Californian

Although the Carpathia was the ship that heard Titanic's distress call and was the ship that came to her aid, there was another ship in the area. It was someplace between five and ten miles away, just at the horizon. It could be seen from the Titanic. It was the SS Californian, a small Leyland Line ship bound for Boston. It had stopped for the night on the edge of a huge icepack. Its master, Captain Stanley Lord, was a prudent man who did not believe in risking his ship unnecessarily. And picking his way through an icepack at night was not, in the Captain's opinion, the act of a prudent man.

For ninety years, people have wondered why this ship, which could perhaps have saved every soul left aboard Titanic, never moved. Defenders of the ship and its captain have suggested that the ship was never in the area in the first place, that the other ship in the area was not the Titanic, that both the Californian and the Titanic each saw a mystery third ship somewhere between their relative locations, and that even if it was the Titanic that the Californian saw that night, there was no possibility that she could offer any help. The facts point to a different conclusion.

At about 11:00 on that fateful Sunday night, about the time Titanic was coming into the area, the deck officer of the Californian noticed a large ship, ablaze with light, steaming up over the horizon. He asked his radio operator what other ships were in the area. The radio operator replied that only the Titanic was anywhere nearby. The officer assumed that this was what he was seeing.

Captain Lord

At about 11:40, the exact moment that Titanic was maneuvering violently to avoid the iceberg, the officer saw the other ship seem to change course suddenly and, according to the officer, put a high side out of the water. The Titanic at this time was taking on a list to port. Captain Lord, who had gone to bed for the night, was notified. He ordered his deck officer to signal the ship by Morse. This officer did, but got no reply that he could make out. He was ordered to try again. He got the same result. The Captain went back to sleep.

Later, when Titanic was firing eight white distress rockets at approximately five-minute intervals, the deck officer and several crewman saw a total of eight white rockets bursting over the horizon near where the other ship appeared to be. The Captain was notified of the first; he was notified again after the fifth; and he was notified after a while that the ship had stopped firing rockets and appeared lower in the water, as if she were steaming away. The Captain was notified one more time about the behavior of the strange ship that was visible from deck. At about 2:20 a.m. on the morning of April 15, 1912, Captain Lord was told that the strange ship had disappeared.

During the whole time it took for the Titanic to steam close, hit the iceberg, signal for help, and finally sink, Captain Stanley Lord slept on. He did not come up on deck; he did not rush to her aid; he did not even do the one thing that might yet have saved the doomed souls aboard Titanic: he did not even wake his sleeping radio operator to find out what was going on. Perhaps he didn't want to know. If he had known, he would have had to do something, something to risk his ship. And no prudent man would want to do that.

The SS Californian lies off Cape Matapan, near the coast of Greece, having been torpedoed by a German submarine in November 1915. She had been on a voyage between Saloniki and Marseilles, operating as a troopship. A French patrol boat took her in tow, but around 1:00 in the afternoon, the line parted. A second torpedo struck the Californian, and she sank within the hour.

Ironically, as with so much of the Californian's story, there is discrepancy even here. Leslie Harrison says the Californian was torpedoed on November 11, 1915 at 7:45 in the morning, and sank a few hours later (p 155, "A Titanic Myth," 1st ed). Leslie Reade, citing the Ministry of Defense report, says it happened on November 9 (p. 266).

I understand from some that a shipwreck lies off the coast of Aruba, West Indies, in the Caribbean Sea, which the locals identify as "the Californian." This must undoubtedly be a different ship, though perhaps with the same name; the loss of the Californian as described above, and captained by one William Masters, who had succeeded Lord as her master in 1912, is documented in a report given to the Ministry of Defense, 1915.