A Night Not Clearly Remembered

I thought it interesting to subject the accounts of witnesses to some scrutiny, using an astronomical program to recreate the night of April 14/15th 1912. As in other areas, there are discrepancies between the stories and the verifiable facts.

One thing everybody got right, except the unreliable Violet Jessop. The night was virtually moonless, the moon then being well into its last quarter. Sunset at the sinking position was at 18h 40min, local time, which is why Boxhall had fixed the ship's position by star sights taken at 19h 30min (ship's time). Star sights must be taken when it is dark enough to see the stars, but bright enough to see the horizon. So far, so good.

Now look at some witnesses in A Night to Remember.

Baker Joughin. "It was four o'clock when he saw what he thought was wreckage in the first light of day". Sunrise was at 5-20 a.m. local time, an hour and twenty minutes away, and Lord says Joughin's watch was in his pocket. In -1° C water and darkness he pulls out his (waterproof?) watch and reads the time? Credible? Actually about as credible as the rest of Joughin's quite uncorroborated tale.

Lawrence Beesley. "The shadows of night lingered in the west -- Lawrence Beesley remembered watching the Morning Star shine long after the others had faded. Near the horizon a thin pale crescent moon appeared." Venus rose in the east, 41 minutes before the sun. The moon was close to Venus and rose 44 minutes before the sun. It was close to the end of its last quarter and only .051 of its disc was visible. Venus would have been visible for as much as 30 minutes and during that time was less than 7° above the horizon. The moon was noticeable only because it was close to Venus. Beesley was on board Carpathia for virtually all the time that Venus was visible, so perhaps he was gratefully contemplating the dawn that he came so close to never seeing.

Fireman Fred Barrett. "A new moon! Turn your money over, boys!" Fireman Barrett and Lord have forgotten that the new moon appears at sunset and in the west. The old moon was seen at sunrise and in the east. The error is possibly copied from Logan Marshall, who seems to have inspired some of the minor details in A Night to Remember.

Quartermaster Rowe. According to Walter Lord, some time after 1-00 a.m. Rowe told Captain Smith that he could see a light on the starboard quarter. Captain Smith said it was a planet and handed Rowe his binoculars so he could see for himself. The only planet visible was Jupiter, which was nearly 20° above the horizon and bearing 145° T. Nobody of Rowe's intelligence would have mistaken Jupiter for a ship’s light in those circumstances. To complicate the story, I was told privately by Rowe's grandson that he maintained that the light he saw came from a ship sailing away from Titanic and that it was right on the horizon. The magnitude 1.2 star Pollux, which set at about 2-10 a.m. on a bearing of 309° comes close to fitting this description, but the bearing does not agree with Titanic's known heading, which was roughly north. Capella, described below, comes closer, but it did not set until after Titanic sank. Rowe was not your average quartermaster. He later earned a British Empire Medal for services to marine engineering, but his story seems an enigma.

I am not saying that Lord and his witnesses rank with Hans Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, but I think we have here instances where people have embroidered the facts a little. Perhaps, like Pooh Bah, they intended to add "corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." Like Pitti-Sing, I think we have "corroborative fiddlesticks!"

A number of the ships' officers involved mentioned the possibility of mistaking stars for ships' lights that night. Some of those in the lifeboats, among them Steward Etches, were not certain whether the light towards which they rowed was a ship or a star. During the relevant time only one bright star was close to the horizon. This was Capella, a magnitude 0.2 star. At 1-00 a.m. local time, Capella was 5° above the horizon and bearing 332° or roughly in the direction of Californian. It slowly neared the horizon and by 2-00 a.m. was close to it and descending on a line nearly parallel to it. Capella set at 2-30 a.m. and could easily have been taken for a ship's light, especially after 2-00 a.m. Its bearing changed about 15° by the time it set, but this might not have been noticed by disoriented people in small boats without compasses. All this is very speculative but it would explain the fact that the rowers had no sense of getting nearer to their goal.

I can see no room for stars or planets confusing those on Californian. At 1-00 a.m. Jupiter and Antares bore 145° and 152° respectively, which was roughly the direction in which Titanic lay from Californian. However, both were already 18° above the horizon and moving higher. Both were objects familiar to any ship's officer, as they are both commonly used in celestial navigation.