Shipping & Shipbuilding News - 15 April 2007 - The Brightest Maritime Daily

Sunday Feature: 95 Years on - the ss CALIFORNIAN Incident
The loss of TITANIC created a debate that has raged ever since, and probably will do so for ever...

It happened 95 years ago today, prior to two world wars, long before television, indeed, long before 'talking pictures'. It was an era as different to today as you can imagine. There were many more crowned heads of Europe then, and servants lived downstairs in every town, and children were dressed like mini versions of their elders and told to shut up (and even more astonishing, they generally did!). It was a world quite unlike our present day's in nearly every respect.

Yet this event has even the most modern child's attention when it is spoken of. It's story and the effects of its happening endure, and will always endure, so long as humans remain human.

The event is of course the sinking of the TITANIC. No other ship in history has spawned so many books, films, tv documentaries or legends. Nor so many arguments or discussions. Topics that have sprung from the disaster include discussions on class, the hubris and folly of man, the dread of sea and the night. Even conspiracy theories have grown out of the TITANIC's clash with the iceberg in the freezing North Atlantic. But of those I will pass no comment.

What other ship too could claim such long-running and passionate hold on the imagination of generation after generation of men, women and children. Well, there is one other name that can turn on heated debate, and has spawned not only books and websites, but also a re-examination of history by no less august a body than the UK's Marine Accident Investigation Branch.

In 1992 the MAIB published a report called "RMS Titanic Reappraisal of Evidence relating to SS Californian". This followed years of, sometimes bitter, arguments over the actions, or inactions, of Captain Stanley Lord, master of the ss CALIFORNIAN.

The CALIFORNIAN was in the area of the Atlantic where TITANIC struck the iceberg just before midnight of the 14th April, and she was there right up until she received a wireless message from fleet sister VIRGINIAN about 05:20 next morning that a ship had sank, and a little later that it was TITANIC. Thereafter CALIFORNIAN made haste to the area indicated to join rescue efforts.

Without getting into too much detail, the 1912 inquiry held that ss CALIFORNIAN had seen TITANIC and her rockets she sent up after striking the 'berg and had deliberately not gone to her rescue. This meant that Capt Lord was responsible for neglecting to assist a ship. Although no action was taken against him (indeed he secured further employment thereafter as a master) he always maintained his innocence and requested that an inquiry into his ship's actions be held. This was refused.

In the 'fifties a book by a man named Walter Lord (coincidence, no relation!) came out called "A Night To Remember" and a film was made from it. The allegations about "the CALIFORNIAN incident" were reinforced, that the ship had been steaming towards the stricken TITANIC and then turned away again. This prompted Capt Lord to plea again for the case to be re-examined and his case was taken up by others. Chief amongst them was Leslie Harrison, General Secretary of the Mercantile Marine Service Association. Two attempts at an inquiry were rejected.

Captain Lord died in 1962, at a great age I may add, and up till the last he wished for his name to be cleared. Even after his death his supporters, including Mr Harrison, sought to show that he had acted honourably. But there were those who took the opposite view and backed the findings of the 1912 inquiry with arguments and counter arguments.

The debate raged on until 1985 when Dr Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute led an expedition which discovered the wreck of TITANIC and found that her position was some 13 miles from that which was accepted by the 1912 inquiry. This led to renewed calls for the Inquiry to be re-opened and in 1990 the MAIB was was instructed by Cecil Parkinson, then the Secretary of State for Transport, to make a re-appraisal.

In 1992 the report was published and it concluded that the CALIFORNIAN did not see the TITANIC but did see the rockets. The distance between the two was much greater than the original belief of the 1912 inquiry and that if CALIFORNIAN had been in the vicinity, this ship would have been noticed by desperate lookouts on the TITANIC itself, but no evidence was there to suppose anyone on TITANIC had seen CALIFORNIAN. Further that although a vessel was seen by CALIFORNIAN, it was not the TITANIC, but a third vessel.

The report's author did however agree that the CALIFORNIAN had seen TITANIC's rockets and should have acted on those. When the Captain was informed by voice pipe that these rockets had been seen it was alleged he was drunk in his cabin. The 1992 report's author refutes this entirely, and other suggestions that cast Capt Lord in a bad light. Indeed he goes on to show that when later Capt Lord was informed of the TITANIC's position and that she had been sunk, he took his vessel not once, but twice through the ice packs to attempt rescues. As the author said, not the actions of a coward.

Be that as it may, the 1992 report satisfied nobody. In fact, the author admits to the fact that it would not. Still to this day arguments rage, and possibly in a rage, in books and TV and, nowadays, on the internet. It is unlikely anyone will ever be satisfied with any arguments that disagree with their position, and so another thread that unwinds from the sorry tragedy of that night in 1912 will continue to wind its way through history and discourse. Indeed with the passage of time it may become a permanent line of demarcation between those who support Capt Lord and those who are adamant that ss CALIFORNIAN acted disgracefully.

So how to sum up the case for or against the actions of Capt Lord? I do not believe we can. The dark hours of April 12th held terrors enough in the cold, cruel Atlantic, with its currents and ice to chill the heart of the most courageous. We can continue to ask questions... Would any captain risk his vessel and his human charges to investigate anything he was unsure of? How much did Capt Lord need to know that TITANIC was there and in danger? Was it enough before ss VIRGINIAN wired him? And did his subsequent actions show he would have acted, or that he acted because he then had no choice? These are however, imponderables. And what we know will never be greater than what we already know. All of the players of 1912 who could tell us have Crossed the Bar. As has Capt Lord's chief supporter.

We in the 21st Century have no business to pass judgement, and we will never know anything either way for sure. We can speculate, but that is all. I leave you with the final paragraph of the 1992 report.

Neither party will be entirely satisfied with this Report, but while it does not purport to answer all the questions which have been raised it does attempt to distinguish the essential circumstances and set out reasoned and realistic interpretations. It is for others if they wish to go further into speculation; it is to be hoped that they will do so rationally and with some regard to the simple fact that there are no villains in this story: just human beings with human characteristics.


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