Californian to the Rescue!

Let us imagine that Californian is a happy ship, commanded by a brave but not reckless captain, who has the full confidence of his officers. He trusts them also and their advice is always welcome. Now let's send this Californian to the rescue.

I have worked out independently that Californian was not less than ten miles from Titanic. The distance of five miles reported by some does not stand up to critical study.

Captain Lord gave evidence that he had ordered his engineers to have steam ready, in case the ship got too close to ice during the night. They could therefore get underway quite quickly. Records show that he had a crew of 49, including himself. Californian carried six boats, two of which were small craft used for ship's business in harbour. In theory, they could carry 218 people. Californian was a 6,233 GRT ship and could have readily carried all on board Titanic for a few hours until more help arrived. She carried no doctor.

On the basis of the ten mile distance and Californian 's known top speed of thirteen knots, here is a possible best case scenario. Times are Titanic times, from Walter Lord. If the distance were more than ten miles, about 4' 40" would be needed for each mile.

11-00 p.m. April 14. Evans tries to warn Titanic of ice. He neglects to preface his call with MSG for Masters' Service Gram, signifying an important message for the Captain. Phillips tells him to shut up. He does so very literally and by 11-35 p.m. has closed down his radio for the night.

12-45 a.m. April 15. Titanic fires her first rocket. Stone sees it. He is puzzled. Is it a rocket, a meteor (several have been seen) or what? (This is fact from his own testimony, not fancy). In any case, a single rocket does not constitute a distress signal. Rockets fired at regular intervals are needed.

12-55. By now, Titanic has fired a second rocket, Stone has realized he is seeing distress signals and has called Captain Lord and First Officer Stewart to the bridge. They believe his report and send apprentice Gibson to wake Evans and get him to work.

1-00. Evans has heard one of Titanic 's many distress calls. He takes the distress position of 41° 46' N, 50° 14 W to Captain Lord. Lord is puzzled. That position is SSW of where he thinks he is and twenty miles away, beyond the ice field. (He knows the ice field is there, from radio reports). The rockets are seen about SSE and are plainly closer. He asks Evans to seek clarification. (Note that the real Captain Lord, having been advised in the morning of the SOS position, headed SW for it through thick ice. This was in spite of all the pyrotechnics during the night having been seen in the southeast. Did he think Titanic had passed through the ice, only to sink on the other side? Captain Moore of Mount Temple saw at a glance that this was not possible.)

1-05. Evans calls Phillips for more information. Phillips sends Bride to the bridge. Captain Smith comes to the radio room. He tells Phillips to assume that the ship which is in sight of Titanic to the NNW must be Californian, regardless of what the two Captains think their dead reckoning shows. Phillips passes this to Evans.

1-10. Captain Lord is now convinced that Titanic is the ship firing rockets in the SSE. He uses the telegraph to call for half speed ahead and turns cautiously towards Titanic. Titanic continues to fire rockets to guide him.

1-15. Captain Lord orders extra lookouts and rings for full speed ahead. He sends Stewart to organize the preparation of his lifeboats. Others are ordered to prepare to receive survivors.

[ image: Comparison of ships.]
This photo give some idea of the relative sizes of Californian and Titanic. The smaller ship is Accolade II of 6,310 GRT. The cruise liner is Amsterdam of 60,874 GRT. Amsterdam is shorter than Titanic but higher and wider. Now imagine that Amsterdam is sinking on a pitch dark night. (Photo by Author).
2-00. Californian arrives alongside Titanic, five minutes before the last boat is lowered. Titanic is now sinking quickly by the head as water floods in through the various openings in her foredeck, as well as the holes down below. Panic is beginning to spread and people are making for the stern. Captain Lord orders his boats lowered. He orders five men into each boat, four to row and one to steer. This occupies 20, assuming that only the large lifeboats are used. (Californian had only 22 seamen, including Lord and his officers, the carpenter, an ordinary seaman and a deck boy. Lowering and handling the boats would not have been expertly done). The boat crews have orders to beat people off with oars if need be, to prevent capsizing. They keep well away from Titanic, as nobody knows what disturbance will be created when such a large ship sinks. Lord tries to call Captain Smith through a megaphone and tell him that all should swim for his boats, or for the cargo nets now hanging from Californian. Those on Titanic have trouble getting off. For most it is too far to jump. Those nearest the bow are best placed to slip overboard. Some slide down the lifeboat falls. In the five or ten minutes before Titanic sinks chaos reigns and little is achieved. Total darkness falls as Titanic 's lights fail.

2-20. Titanic sinks. Those who can, swim for Californian or her boats.

2-40. Most in the water are now dead or unconscious. (See the United States Search and Rescue Task Force on survival times in near-freezing water and the effects of swimming). Fewer than 200 are in Californian 's boats. Some of those clinging to the nets will make it but many will drop off as the cold gets them. The few crewmen on board, probably mostly firemen and stewards, are divided between hauling people on board and helping those who make it. A few remain at their normal posts for safety. Each boat is fully loaded in perhaps fifteen minutes, the stronger survivors helping the seamen to get others on board. The problem is getting the survivors out of the boats fast enough to give time to pick up a second load. (It took Carpathia's much larger crew over four hours to pick up 712, although this includes time spent picking up thirteen boats and waiting for some boats to arrive).

4-00. The boats return from a final search for survivors. The intense darkness has made the task nearly impossible. They can do no better than Titanic's Fifth Officer Lowe did. They have found a few exceptionally tough ones and have picked up everybody from collapsibles A and B. Carpathia has arrived.

Conclusions. By prompt action, good seamanship and good luck, Californian could have saved several hundred people, perhaps 400 or so. Certainly no more, and some experienced seamen would argue for fewer. The freezing water would have taken the rest. It could be argued that I have allowed too long between the first rocket firing and Californian getting underway, but ten minutes either way matters little. Certainly Captain Lord's best course of action would have been to steam towards the rockets, before using the radio to clarify the situation as he did so. Ultimately this matters little. They needed hours and they had minutes.