What did the sinking Titanic look like? Could those on Californian be excused for not realizing what was going on? My views are based on personal experience, eyewitness accounts and Norie's Nautical Tables.
Films, drawings and even computer animations give little idea of the reality of a dark night at sea. For me, the most misleading feature of James Cameron's movie was the fact that it was far too brightly lit. Cameron's Atlantic existed only in his imagination. I have had some experience of moonless nights at sea, far from city lights and I assert that most people today have no conception of the darkness and the impossibility of seeing even nearby white objects. I have shared anchorages with white yachts on moonless nights. Once their lights are out, their hulls are invisible at 100 metres. Surf breaking on rocks the same distance away is heard but not seen. It needs to be understood that unless a ship's hull is visible against the sky, nothing can be seen except its lights and these are open to all kinds of misinterpretations. The tale of Titanic and Californian must be viewed in this light, or lack thereof.
Titanic had steered 266° T before the collision. At the last moment she came to about 244° T, then swung to starboard in a successful attempt to keep the stern clear. She then went slowly ahead for an unknown time and came to rest heading roughly north. She needed around half a mile to stop at the very least and may have gone rather more. The most important officers and engineers did not survive and those underlings who did were not in full agreement. Presumably Captain Smith headed north because the way was clear and there was room to stop in safety. Was he testing the propellers for damage, in case the ship could continue? There is no proof that he had sighted Californian and was making an attempt to reach her. All this is fully covered in Reade's The Ship That Stood Still and there is yet more evidence.
I have independently verified the heading from evidence given by Quartermaster Rowe. At about 1-00 a.m. he sighted what he thought was a light on the starboard quarter. Captain Smith told him it was a planet and he saw with the aid of binoculars that the skipper was right. Using an astronomical program, I recreated the night of April 14/15, 1912. Only one bright planet was to be seen. This was Jupiter and its position was such that if it was seen on the starboard quarter, Titanic was headed north or somewhat north-east.
A further indication of Titanic's heading is the present orientation of the wreck. The bow lies 22 arc seconds north of the stern and a little to the east. This surely indicates their relative positions when the ship sank. Some theorists have written about the wreckage not dropping vertically, but the presence of small but heavy objects, such as the safes, between the main parts of the hull suggests that everything went almost straight down. The bow evidently travelled forwards a little, due to its shape. It certainly did not change places with the stern.
Californian had stopped for the night in a position roughly NNW of Titanic. Her claimed position was 42° 05' N, 50° 07' W. As explained elsewhere, subsequent events show this to be wildly out. The known position of the wreck makes all previous theorizing invalid. Her position had not been fixed by a round of star sights since at least 4-30 a.m. on the morning of April 14th, if Captain Lord bothered then. As a result, her longitude was certainly out by several miles and her latitude may have been also wrong. A particularly good witness is James Bisset of Carpathia, who saw the stationary Californian an estimated ten miles to the north of Carpathia when she reached the lifeboats on April 15th. Titanic was therefore pointing roughly at Californian, showing her a much foreshortened view of her port side. This has important consequences, as, had she been beam on, it would have been much easier for those on Californian to work out what they were seeing.
I have worked out the following, using Titanic's dimensions. I have ignored the possibility that an iceberg may have been directly between the two ships, further confusing the issue, as that is pure speculation. Her rockets, made by The Cotton Powder Co. Ltd, reached a height of 600 to 800 feet, according to Lloyd's Calendar. I have used a height of 700' (213 metres). The figure does not matter much, as the limiting factor with rockets is more their brightness than their theoretical extreme range. Titanic's bridge and sidelights were about 18 metres (60 ft) above the waterline. The height of Californian 's bridge was around 12 metres (39') but a metre either way makes little odds. For those not used to minutes of arc, which I am about to use, the full moon is about 32' in diameter.
As seen from Californian at a distance of five miles, the rockets reach up to 1° 20' above the horizon. All Titanic's hull and lights are within the horizon. Her steaming light is 17' above her waterline. At the worst, with her bow pointing at Californian, her beam subtends 11'. It is possible that her hull can be seen through glasses as a dark shape against the sky, subtending about 11' x 7' when head on. Possibly her sidelight can be seen, though its required range was only two miles. Her Morse lamp, mounted on top of her bridge, is easily readable.
At this distance, and I am very used to seeing ships at a known distance of five or six miles, it seems to me that the situation would be so obvious that Second Officer Stone and Apprentice Gibson would have had no doubt of the need to raise their Chief Officer and Captain and if necessary drag them to the bridge.
A further reason for dismissing the five mile distance is that this is within the visible range of the flares later burned in boat 2 by Fourth Officer Boxhall. These flares were never seen from Californian.
The position is not so plain if we go back to ten miles.
The rockets are now a little less than 40' above the horizon, which is now between Titanic and Californian. They are one quarter as bright, under the inverse square law. Only the upper decks of Titanic are above the horizon. Her beam covers 5' and it is unlikely that anything other than some ill-defined light can be seen. Her sidelight is just above the horizon, but is too faint to be seen. Her Morse lamp is outside its range, though just clear of the horizon. There is a possibility that abnormal refraction is distorting the view and the binoculars of the period are not very helpful, not having coated lenses or other later refinements.
The situation is now open to misunderstanding. The huge ship may look like a small, poorly lit tramp, a few miles off. The rockets may appear to be coming from beyond the lights. Judging the distance off of lights at sea is notoriously hard. Only the radio can clarify matters and nobody cares enough to turn it on.
From Californian, ten miles away, Titanic's appearance would have been so vague as to prevent her being plainly visible and easily identified, but let one thing be made plain. Whatever the doubts, nothing will take away the rockets seen from Californian and nothing will excuse the inaction of Captain Lord and his officers. Once the rockets were seen their duty was plain. They should have steamed towards them, confirming the situation by radio if possible. They did neither and did not even react promptly to Carpathia's rockets. What did they think was going on? Guy Fawkes Night?