The Rappahannock Warning

It is often stated, on the basis of events reported by Walter Lord and others, that Titanic received advance warning of the icefield that lay in her path from the Furness Withy ship, Rappahannock.

The story exists in two forms. In one, Rappahannock, eastward bound from Halifax for London, encounters Titanic at 10-30 p.m. on the night of April 14th and warns her of ice by Morse lamp. The warning is acknowledged by Titanic. Soon after, Titanic hits the iceberg.

In the alternative version, Rappahannock meets Titanic at 10-30 p.m. on the night of April 13th, and gives a similar warning.

In both versions Rappahannock has been damaged by the ice. Some writers, including Geoffrey Marcus, quote the actual message allegedly sent as, "Have just passed through heavy field ice and several icebergs." Titanic replies, "Message received. Thanks. Good night."

Neither version seems entirely convincing. If the incident took place on the night of April 14th, just over one hour before the collision, we have to assume that First Officer Murdoch was guilty of extraordinary negligence in the face of such a specific warning. Furthermore, we are asked to believe that not one of the survivors saw this dramatic incident, or, if they did, they concealed their knowledge ever after.

The other version makes no sense if we take "have just passed" to refer to an incident that occurred within an hour or two of the meeting. At 10-30 p.m. on April 13th Titanic was over 550 miles from the icefield. That represents about two day's steaming for Rappahannock

The answer to these riddles is to be found in the performance of Rappahannock, her sailing and arrival dates and in two newspaper reports fifty years apart.

Rappahannock was built in 1893 and measured 3,884 GRT. Her service speed was 13 knots. In round figures, she could therefore cover some 300 miles per day. She sailed from Halifax on April 9th and arrived at Gravesend, at the entrance to the River Thames, on April 19th. Both dates are to be found in the shipping column of The Times. It is not possible to reconstruct her voyage precisely, but the time taken is consistent with her known performance. Her time for the voyage suggests that any damage was not serious, as she was not slowed down to any extent. It should also be noted that she did not stop at the first port she came to, but completed her planned voyage.

Turning to the two newspaper accounts, we find the first in The New York Times of April 27th 1912.


The Rappahannock Passed Through the One the Titanic Struck

Special cable to The New York Times

London April 26 — The steamship Rappahannock, from Halifax, belonging to the Furness Line, which it is practically certain was the last to see the Titanic before the disaster, arrived at London yesterday. It was late Saturday night, April 13, according to Chief Officer Smith, that the Rappahannock, running out of a heavy rain squall, found herself abeam of the Titanic, which, with all her lights glowing, made a splendid picture as she passed.

"She was traveling at about twenty-one knots," said Mr Smith, "and soon disappeared into the darkness. We had come through the ice field, which the Titanic struck later on. It stretched some hundred miles northward. It had come thus far south a month before the usual time, and we could not escape it, but ran into it, suffering considerable damage. Our rudder was twisted and our bows dented and other injuries were inflicted on us by the ice.

"I saw some packs of a thousand square feet in the area, and the ice was bunched together and heaped up in some cases. This is, in all probability, the pack which the Titanic struck. The ice was three or four feet above the surface of the sea and twenty-odd feet thick.

"It is astonishing to me that Capt. Smith should have struck the pack if he sighted it in time. Of course, he may have taken it to be slob ice, which is soft, and through which it would be safe to run even at twenty-one knots; but the ice we encountered was not slob ice, and when we sighted it we went dead slow. The Titanic, if she scraped one of those ice packs, would have had the bottom practically ripped out of her going at the speed she was.

"What I cannot understand, and what most seafaring men wonder at, is why it should have been necessary for the Titanic on a clear night to strike an ice pack at all. I may say that we did not see any icebergs during the voyage."

In this version there is no warning and the date is given as April 13th. The rain squall is quite possible, as Captain Lord of Californian reported rain in the early hours of April 14th. The date of arrival is incorrect. Note that Mr Smith is reported merely as Chief Officer.

There is nothing sensational in the report and it is understandable that neither Senator Smith nor Lord Mersey saw fit to investigate the matter, even if they were aware of it. In any case, the officers of Rappahannock were beyond Smith's control.

The second version is in the form of a letter to The Daily Telegraph, a British paper. It was published on April 7th 1962, when the 50th anniversary of the disaster was approaching.


Sir — I see that another attempt is being made to vindicate the conduct of the late Capt. Lord of the Californian at the time of the Titanic disaster.

Capt. Lord was properly censured by the Court of Inquiry held at the time. Nothing can alter the known facts of the case, and the lessons to be learned from such a tragedy should not be forgotten.

Perhaps I know as much about this matter as anyone. I was in command of the steamer Rappahannock, a Furness Withy liner, at the time and had been in the North Atlantic trade for years.

The Rappahannock had just passed through very heavy ice pack just previous to passing the Titanic, and we had sustained severe damage to the rudder. I personally signaled this information to the Titanic, and they acknowledged my message.

The weather at the time was fine, sea calm, and visibility good. Icebergs that we had passed should have been seen and avoided.

The Californian saw the distress signals of the Titanic and should have proceeded at once to ascertain the reason for them.

The master took no action whatever and simply *thought* that they came from another vessel which eventually proceeded on her way.

The master of the Titanic, who must have been aware of the amount of water the ship was making, did not bring home the seriousness of the situation to the passengers, who were naturally content to remain where they were, in a warm, well lit ship without a list.

If proper action had been taken to abandon ship, and the Californian had been standing by with boats lowered ready to assist with that operation, the true situation would have been brought home to the passengers and the greater part of 1,500 lives would have been saved.

Even if one life can be saved in the future, profiting by the lessons learned from the avoidable loss of life, it is surely worthwhile taking heed of them.

Yours faithfully

Albert E Smith

Extra Master Steam & Sail

Easton, Suffolk

Albert Smith has now become Master of Rappahannock, no specific time or date is given and no precise wording of the warning is given. The rain squall has disappeared and the weather is fine, with a calm sea and good visibility. Note also that in the 1912 account Smith says that Rappahannock had sighted no icebergs. By 1962 he is referring to "icebergs that we had passed".  Rappahannock had "just passed" through the ice "just previous" to meeting Titanic. The reader is likely to make the obvious assumption that the event took place on April 14th.

Some time after the 1962 letter was published, Geoffrey Marcus contacted Albert Smith while working on his book, The Maiden Voyage. Smith must have been aged about 80 at that time. In an interview, Smith added the time of 10-30 p.m. and the wording of the warning. He claimed that he was acting as captain of Rappahannock at the time because the usual master was sick. Acting either on information from Smith, or assuming the date from the wording of Smith's letter, Marcus reported the incident in his book as occurring on April 14th. Marcus included the text of the messages and the time. By the time the book was published in 1969, Smith was dead and could not be challenged. (See The Maiden Voyage)

In 1986, Walter Lord published The Night Lives On. He combined the two versions. The ships meet on April 13th, as in the 1912 New York Times version, but now there is a Morsed warning as in 1962. Lord was very familiar with The New York Times accounts of the disaster.

In 1987 Eaton and Haas published Titanic: Destination Disaster. They put the episode on the night of April 14th and included the warning and reply, though without the texts.

From these books the story spread further but basic research was not done. If we examine Rappahannock's voyage, it immediately becomes apparent that Smith's 1962 version of events is not credible. By the night of April 14th, Rappahannock must have been at least 1,500 miles from Halifax, having been underway for more than five days. The collision took place only about 600 miles from Halifax.

The 1912 version of events remains feasible, if we assume that Rappahannock steamed to the general area of the "corner" at 42° N 47° W and thence by great circle towards Britain. In that case she may well have met Titanic some 400 to 500 miles roughly NE of the corner. At that point, the warning as reported by Smith makes no sense, for Rappahannock was by then nearly two day's steaming from the icefield. Even this scenario is open to the objection that Rappahannock should have followed the great circle track for eastward-bound ships, which began at 41°N 47°W.

During the investigation into the disaster conducted by Lord Mersey, an extensive search was made for ships that might have been in the area of the collision on the night of April 14th 1912. A letter was received from the owners of Rappahannock stating that no Furness Withy ships were involved.

Given the navigational evidence and the time elapsed between the two accounts, it appears safe to categorise Albert Smith's 1962 story as an old sailor's yarn.