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The Californian's "Mystery Ship"

Apart from the faint, unresponsive lights of the ship seen 5 miles away to the south, Second Officer Herbert Stone's watch on the bridge of the SS Californian had been entirely uneventful for 45 minutes. But now something strange had happened. A white flash had attracted his attention. It seemed to be in the direction of the other steamer. What was it, he wondered? A shooting star? Whatever, it might be a portent of something different, something ...eventful during this quiet, cold night.

Two enquiries, two petitions and (half of) a re-appraissal of the recollections of the people involved pointed to the stricken Titanic being the ship under patient observation by Stone, and the rockets being signals of distress, for which no adequate response from the Californian was proferred.

Stone insisted that the ship he saw was a tramp steamer, similar to the Californian; that the rockets he saw were low-lying, reaching no more than half the height of the ship's mastlight; and that the other ship steamed off and disappeared after 2.00am. This couldn't have been a more distinct contrast to the Titanic, the world's largest ship, approximately twice the size of the Califorian, and which was immobile, firing distress rockets that went up well above the height of her masts and funnels and was 21 miles to the south if the navigational data collated then and over subsequent decades was to be believed.

It is not the intention of this author to drag the reader through a tedious, long-winded analysis of Stone's testimony in London, and then emphasize the contradictions. Let us limit ourselves to Stone's observations of the other ship, her movements and her rockets.

Let us start with a typical compass rose showing the points of the compass:

Before we commence this discussion, it must be noted that many of the issues debated here are simply illustrative; but they can prove a simple point very well. More on that presently.

On the compass rose, the red circle indicates the bearing at which Stone first saw the other ship; south-east. The first rocket was fired at 12.45am. By 1.50am, the other ship was faintly visible, at a bearing of SWxW, probably at a distance of 8 miles (the yellow circle); the red and yellow circles are placed at proportionate distances ffrom the centre of the rose, denoting the Californian herself. The simplest route between the two circles is the purple line, for a ship heading west through south.

When did the other ship start to move? Stone's evidence was not clear. In London, the following exchange occurred:
Was the steamer altering her bearing to your vessel during that period of time?
(Stone):Yes, from the time I saw the first rocket.
The first of the eight that you have told us of?
(Stone): The second - excepting the first flash, which I was not sure about.

So, was it the first or second rocket that marked the commencement of movement? It does not matter in this discussion; what is important is that Stone initially thought the rockets came from beyond the other ship, though he later recanted and agreed that they must have come from the vessel that he was patiently scrutinising.

Can we simulate what Stone had seen? Crudely speaking, yes we can, but with caveats.

If Stone did see a tramp steamer, then what did it look like? What was its size? Being night, we do not know. But we can use the Californian herself as a template for the visual appearance of a typical tramp steamer. The only difference is that Stone's tramp had only one mastlight.

For simplicity, we shall assume that the rockets commenced firing at 12.45am, and that at this time, the other ship started to move.

A very simple straight-line route between the 12.45 and 1.50am positions can be assumed; this puts the other ship broadside to the Californian. There is some debate about this as Stone claimed to see neither the ship's green nor red light (which would be possible for a ship side-on), he saw the stern light, which would only be visible through a narrow range of angles from directly behind the other ship. However, Stone did note in an affidavit that the other ship "showed us her stern light and her masthead's glow was just visible." Geometrically, it would be impossible for a ship to show both her stern and mast light at the same time.

This gives us the following animation:

To re-run the animation, please refresh the page

We know from simple trigonometry that rockets fired from the Titanic 21 miles away and ascending at least 600 feet above the deck would attain an angle with the horizon of 0.29 degrees, from an observer on the Californian. This would be well above the other 'tramp steamer.' Could Stone have missed seeing them? Unlikely; Apprentice Gibson who was to join Stone after 5 rockets had been observed, and he saw the rescue ship Carpathia's rockets fired from further away and from a lower base than the Titanic's. When asked about the Carpathia's rockets at the London Inquiry, Stone admitted seeing these lights, but didn't think they were rockets. This is too difficult to credit; the timings would be too much of a coincidence.

For the sake of simplicity, I have synchronised the Titanic and the 'low lying' rocket firings. This is purely illustrative. Also illustrative is the contentious, and coincidental placing of the Californian - Mystery Ship - Titanic in a straight line that so many authors have claimed. And many authors have argued that the rockets came from the Titanic, and the Titanic alone; they only seemed to come from the other ship by virtue of this straight-line relationship. Any movement by any vessel would destroy this linear rlationship.

To re-run the animation, please refresh the page

If this is the case, then how do we account for Stone's insistence that the other ship was moving? The rockets should have remained in situ as the other ship moved off. Stone had no answer to this when interrogated in London.

The first of the animations on this page is a scaled diorama depicting what would have been seen; to see exactly how the images would have been seen, you would need to view the animation from a distance of 4.7 feet assuming that the Californian image is 2 centimetres in length (as it is on my monitor). This would correctly scale all the other elements, too.

To show the full motion of the other ship from 12.45 till after 2.00am would result in an unfeasibly large vista; therefore, I have reduced the size of the diagram to show only the first 8 degrees from south-east to south 37 degrees east. Using an average speed of the other ship calculated from the compass rose, and a purely illustrative rate of rocket firing of 5 minutes, the animation depicts four rocket firings: at 12.45am, the Titanic's and the 'low lying' rockets are seen. Then, five minutes later, and with the ship having moved 8 degrees to the west, two more rockets are seen.

So, this begs the question: why did not Stone see the Titanic's rockets, ascending much higher than the other ship's deck lights? Low lying rockets would definitely not be associated with these higher rockets. And if Stone's observations about the rockets were wrong, what else was he wrong about?

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