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Rowe, rockets and the riddle of Titanic time.

Telling Lies About the Titanic: The 'Research' of Senan Molony

The timings of the Titanic's rockets are once again the subject of controversy. Once accepted as starting at 12.45 and going on for an hour (Titanic time), a recent article by Irish Daily Mail journalist and Titanic "researcher" Senan Molony has questioned this, putting the time of the first rocket at 12.25.

One of the main sources of this early time is attributed to the recollections of Quartermaster George Thomas Rowe. He was stationed at the extreme aft end of the ship ,on the poop deck which was predominantly 3rd class territory. His duties were to read the log, from which the ship's traversed distance could be computed, and to assist and passengers who might have fallen overboard. He was a solitary sentinel, pacing up and down, when he felt the extreme vibrations as the Titanic's engines were run astern and saw a glistening white 'windjammer' gliding down the starboard side and disappear astern. This 'windjammer', 'with all sails set,' was, of course, the famous iceberg. It was 11.40pm.

The poop deck, where Rowe saw the iceberg gliding by.

Coagulating the relevant portions of George Rowe's testimony in America and England, we have this: he remained on the After Bridge waiting for orders when, at about 12.25, he noticed a lifeboat in the water; which boat, he was not too sure, but thought it was either 13 or 15. He telephoned the forward bridge and told them of his observation. Surprised, the voice on the other end asked if he was speaking to the third officer. Rowe replied "no" and that he was the Quartermaster. He was told to bring rockets and their detonators to the forward bridge, where he assisted in firing rockets from 12.45 to 1.25.

Rowe's relief, Arthur Bright, told the US Senators at the American Enquiry, "I went out to the after-end of the ship to relieve the man I should have relieved at 12 o'clock, a man by the name of Rowe. We stood there for some moments and did not know exactly what to do, and rang the telephone up to the bridge and asked them what we should do. They told us to bring a box of detonators for them - signals. Each of us took a box to the bridge. When we got up there we were told to fire them - distress signals."

There is no mention of him seeing the boat in the water, and Rowe himself did not apparently tell him of his sighting.

Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall's testimony corroborated this telephone call from Rowe, but with one surprising addition; he received this call after he had sent a rocket up, using the forward bridge's supply of socket signals/rockets.

This has prompted the authors of the Revised Titanic Lifeboat Sequence to comment,

"Quartermaster George Rowe was, unfortunately, not the most forthcoming witness at either Inquiry. After the collision -- and while he was still stationed back on the Titanic's stern docking bridge -- Rowe *had* to have noticed the commotion up on the Boat Deck as the lifeboats were being gotten out and as passengers were coming up from below; strangely, though, he never mentioned having observed these things. If Boxhall's account is accurate (i.e. that he was firing rockets before Rowe phoned the bridge), Rowe did not mention sighting Boxhall's rockets either. Rowe also did not mention having interacted with Quartermaster Bright, the crew member who had helped him carry the reserve rockets from the stern to the bridge, and later, helped Boxhall and him fire them off. Lack of any specific mention of these subjects by Quartermaster Rowe really tells us nothing useful, though, since a lack of such testimony cannot be construed as proof that Rowe had *not* been aware of these things.

Fourth Officer Boxhall also testified that he was sending off rockets right up to the last minute before he left the ship in boat 2. Though it is possible that Quartermasters Rowe and Bright continued to fire rockets after Boxhall left, there is no evidence one way or the other. We do know that the firing of all rockets had stopped before Collapsibles C and D were got out, as Rowe and Bright helped get both boats ready for loading."

The distress rockets were sent up from near lifeboat 1.

Rowe was undoubtedly mistaken about seeing boat 13 or 15 in the water. These were amongst the last lowered from the Titanic, and were situated at the extreme aft end of the boat deck. Testimony by other witnesses places the lowering of 13 and 15 much later on during the sinking. What Rowe saw, despite his insistent communication with Leslie Harrison in 1963 and Ed Kamuda of the Titanic Historical Society (then the Titanic Enthusiasts of America) that same year and in 1968. Rowe was sure it was no.13 in these letters. Interestingly, in another letter, he would say that no rocket was fired until he took them from the poop to the forward bridge.

From his perch at the back of the Titanic, Rowe would have been unable to see boat 13. It would have been eclipsed by boat 15 just behind it, and between 13 and Rowe's line of sight. Furthermore, Rowe did not notice the boat till it was in the water; how then could he have been sure from which station the boat originated? It is now accepted that boat 7 was the first to evacuate the doomed leviathan; this boat was some 370 feet forward of boat 13.

Were Titanic's, or Rowe's clocks set back?

During the 8-12 watch on the Titanic, her clocks were due to be set back 23 minutes; in the next watch, the clocks were again due to be altered by 24 minutes to compensate for westward progress to New York.

But were they?

The speed of the Titanic was approximately 22.5 knots when the collision occurred. At 5.50pm, the Titanic changed her course at the so-called "Corner" so that she would be heading almost due west on a course to America. This turn seems to have taken place slightly later than planned, putting her slightly to the south and west of "The Corner", possibly at 41 57'N 47 01'W. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch re-appraissal of the Californian evidence placed the collision at 41 47'N 49 55'W, which is probably correct to within a mile or two (we cannot be sure since we know little about the drift that existed that night). The distance between these two points is 129.9 nautical miles. The total time that the Titanic would have steamed is 5 hour 50 minutes, 6 hours 13 minutes (with a 23 minute time retardation) or 6 hours 37 minutes (with a full 47 minute retardation). Only the first of these gives a plausible speed value of 22.27 knots, indicating that the clocks were not set back between 8 and 11.40pm. The clocks do not seem to have been set back after this either; 3rd Officer Pitman remarked that they had "something else to think about" (!)

True. By midnight, the Titanic wasn't going anywhere - except straight to the bottom. The shipboard routine was now not so "routine." Why bother with the trivia of changing the ships course to compensate for a journey that wasn't now going to conclude?

In his 1963 communication with Leslie Harrison, via an intermediate in Southampton, Rowe confirmed that he did not set his watch back. Indeed, he even noted that he "did not think of or about a watch." Sceptically, one may ask how Rowe could be certain about such a small, trivial event that would have occupied only a few seconds? Without any further evidence, we must accept Rowe's comment that his watch was coincident with ship's time.

What about a time difference between Rowe and Bright, his relief? Bright would have started his watch at 12.00 ship's time. Before retiring to bed, or perhaps when he woke, his watch would have been set back 23 minutes to allow his own watch to be the same as ship's time. Rowe, having no reason to set his watch back, would have been on duty till 12.23. Rowe would later tell Kamuda that his watch should have ended at "12.22", close enough to the anticipated 12.23am time. He would also say that no relief had turned up.

Was Bright late? His own account, reproduced above, says "I went out to the after-end of the ship to relieve the man I should have relieved at 12 o'clock" - that is, 12 o'clock by his own watch. To provide more evidence for this, we need to go back through the testimonies of the witnesses in London, New York and Washington D.C.

Bright told Senator William Alden Smith that he was awakened by Walter Wynn, another Quartermaster. Wynn told Bright, who had slept through the collision, that the Titanic was sinking. Bright awoke, dressed and headed towards the poop.

Wynn told Lord Mersey's court in London how he found out about the collision:

Q.Did you immediately go on deck when you were wakened?
- I went up on the forewell deck and asked what was the matter. I saw a lot of men passengers there, and I saw the ice on the deck, and they pointed it out to me: "Look at that" they said. "We have just struck an iceberg." Then I went down below and woke my two mates up, and then I dressed and walked on the bridge to await orders from the Captain.

His two mates were Perkis (who, strangely, recalled being woken by the ship's Carpenter who had sounded the damage bulkheads; however Perkis may have been awoken by Wynn when he went back down to fecth his knife, which would put his timings even later) and Bright. The interesting part of Wynn's statement is of seeing "a lot of men passengers." He saw them on the forward well deck, a 3rd class area. When the ship struck, a few male crewmembers appeared on this deck, some of whom saw the iceberg disappearing aft down the starboard side. There would have been little reason for male passengers to go out on deck, and indeed, there is no record of any having been seen at this time. Fireman Alfred Shiers returned to the forewell deck many minutes after the iceberg struck, and saw no passengers, only members of the crew. Able bodied seaman John Poingdestre tells a different story.

Emerging from the forecastle, Poingdestre was too late to see the iceberg. Retiring back inside, he encounters the Carpenter who said the ship was making water and that he should get up to the boats. This was 10 minutes after the fatal strike, Poingdestre estimates. After a few more minutes had elapsed, the boatswain piped for all hands to go to the boat deck, which Poigndestre did. He helped to clear away some 10 boats for lowering, before returning to his quarters deep in the ganglia on the Titanic to fetch his rubber boats. By now, some 30 to 45 minutes had passed. Poingdestre's account of the Boatswain's call, between 10 and 20 minutes after the strike, is well confirmed by other witnesses. At least 10 minutes to prepare 10 boats would be approximate only; although it may take about 15 minutes to fully prepare a lifeboat, from stripping back the covers to being swung out and lowered level with the deck, we don't know what Poingdestre did at each boat. He may have unlaced the canvas covers, coiled the ropes, or helped to swing a boat out. Board of Trade documents on the new Welin davits, preserved at the UK National Archives, show that the boats could be hoisted off the chocks and lowered level with the deck in under two minutes. Photographs at Queenstown on April 11th show that the lifeboats had been swung outboard to allow more room for promenading passengers. Thus, the amount of time to swing them slightly further out and lower them would have been well under two minutes. Poigndestre's estimate of "10 minutes" may be about right.

While there, a wooden bulkhead collapsed, flooding his room and forcing his departure.

Others had the same idea. We return to the British Inquiry:

Now, on your way from your quarters up to the boat deck would you go near where the third class passengers could get out from their quarters up to the deck?
- Yes, they were already out.

How do you know that?
I passed them on the forewell deck on the port side.

How do you know they were out? - You say you passed them; what do you mean by that?
Well, I saw them with my own eyes, with their own baggage on the deck.

Did you see them coming up?
They were already there.

Was there a large number of them there?

And when you say "there" what do you mean precisely by that?
On the port side of the well deck, outside, from under the forecastle.

As you passed, I suppose it was a short time?
Well, it was directly I came out of the forecastle.

You saw them gathered there?

Were they gathered on the well deck or did he see them on the boat deck?
Gathered on the well deck, my Lord, port side.

It is difficult to tell numbers on a dark night?
There may have been 50 or there may have been 100, I could not say.

Were they not only gathered, but were they remaining there?

Stopping there?

You say you saw a great number about when you were going down on the well deck?
When I was coming up from the well deck.

That would be about three quarters of an hour after the collision?

Did you see people come up?

Were they up at the time?
They were up when I came up from the forecastle.

It is clear from this account that Poingdestre saw the fleeing passengers when he left the forecastle, not when he arrived. If we take the area of the forward well deck, and remove the space occupied by the two cargo holds and cargo cranes, we get 4000 square feet. A crowd of 50 to 100 people, congregated on the port side of the deck would have been an unforgettable throng through which to fight! This would have been the same people that Wynn met. And, if the third class men only started coming up from below at 12.10, at the earliest, and Wynn was yet to wake up Bright, then this puts Rowe's relief's arrival at the stern well after this. On a retarded clock, 12.10 would be 12.33 (actual, uncorrected time), consistent with Rowe's comment that his relief had not arrived when he was due. And Bright had seen Rowe telephone the bridge regarding the boat he had seen off the starboard beam. This must have been after 12.33am! There seems to be corroboration from lookout Reginald Lee, who was asked if there were many passengers about the front "of the boat [i.e. the Titanic] when he came down" from the crowsnest at the end of his watch at midnight. Lee's answer was a simple "no." Fireman Alfred Shiers was on deck "4 or 5 minutes" after the collision. A few minutes later, and after seeing water coming through hatch no.1, and taking an injured comrade to the doctor's cabin, he was on the well deck again. He saw no passengers, only crew. This would have been close to midnight.

Let us briefly consider this. For argument's sake, let us consider that Poigndestre saw the large number of male passengers at about 12.15am (30 minutes is his minimum estimate for returning to his quarters, and five minutes to get his boots). Wynn would therefore have worken Bright sometime after this, perhaps resulting in Rowe's relief being a little late. Now, many of Rowe's time estimates seem to be amiss. The only trustworthy ones are the 11.40 collision time, and, in this author's opinion, the 12.22/23 time he should have been relieved (otherwise how would he know that Bright was late?) How Rowe got the other time so late is no so easy to explain...if he did get them wrong that is.

The foreward well deck of the Titanic, scene of the mass congregation of passengers.

Bright would have arrived at the poop some time after 12.15am, or even later if Poigndestre's "45 minutes" is correct. It would then have been between 12.25am, and he would indeed be "late." But if we compare Rowe's comments about his tardy companion, it is clear that he was keeping uncorrected Titanic time. He did not set his watch back, or he would have said that he would have been replaced at the stern at 12.02am (or thereabouts). Rowe did not add a caveat to his comments. He did not say "I should have been replaced at midnight, which would be about 12.23 ship's time." An alternative explanation is that he didn't look at his watch at all, as he said. There were no ship's clocks on the poop. If he did set his own clock back at some point, the issue of time becomes even more confusing; Rowe later assisted firing rockets until he was ordered to help prepare Collapsible Boat C for lowering. He says this was at 1.25am. If this was by his own watch, and he had set it back, this would then have been 1.48am actual ship's time.

Rowe's evidence, rather than helping to solve the mystery of time on the ship, only serves to bewilder it further.

Returning to Poigndestre and his "many male passengers," one may ask; what of 3rd class passenger Daniel Buckley, stationed in a compartment near the bow? He was sure that he was woken up shortly after the iceberg strike, and arose from his bed to find water coming into his cabin. He was on the foreward well deck within minutes, along with his other cabin-mates. How come Lee et al. did not see Buckley and the others so early after 11.40? This will be dealt with in a future article.

What of Rowe's other statements? He was sure, in his letters, that the first lifeboat did not launch until 1.00am. He must have been mistaken about this. But he did confirm that the steam discharge from the funnels had ceased by the time the rockets were fired, and that he had seen rockets fired while on the poop. His comments about the steam having concluded when the first detonators were sent aloft is consistent with an account by 2nd class passenger Lawrence Beesley. In his book, his attention was drawn to the sound of a hissing roar and a rush of light from the forward deck. He would not have heard the exhaust of the rocket if steam was still being pumped into the frigid night air with a deafening blast, as accounts say.

George Rowe in 1956

In a 1956 BBC interview, Rowe commented, "After [the collision] it got a bit quiet except for the blowing off of steam and [I] heard nothing or seen nothing until I saw a lifeboat lowered from the starboard side. I reported it to the bridge, asked them if they knew there was a boat being lowered. They said they did and wondered who I was."

What can be said about Rowe's comment that he helped to fire rockets until about 1.25? First of all, the use of the word "about" implies that he estimated the time. Perhaps he was too busy to look at his watch? But let us consider further. In 1968, Rowe wrote to Kamuda and told him that he fired "the 7th and last rocket to leave the Titanic." A few years before, Rowe had written about the box of rockets that he had taken to the bridge; "I couldn't say off hand if there were other boxes, but I knew I had this one by the time I arrived on the bridge, there was seven (7) rockets fired ... " No mention of Bright or his box of rockets! Also, did Rowe mean that he fired 6, as Boxhall had fired the first one? We do not know. But Rowe implies that he arrived on the bridge at 1.10am. If he fired a rocket every 5 or 6 minutes, as Captain Smith is reputed to have done, then his rocket firings would have gone on, by Rowe's estimation, until 1.46am at the latest. We must be charitable and say that Rowe's estimation of times are wildly inaccurate, unless he happened to glance at a convenient watch or clock.

Bob Hichens was by the wheel

After walking along the deck for about 10 minutes, according to his missive to Leslie Harrison, Rowe arrived on the bridge with his box of rockets. Bob Hichens was standing by the wheel. 10 minutes may be an overestimate. The boat deck was about 500 feet long, and would have taken just under two minutes to walk along.

This causes problems. Hichens was supposed to be on duty until 12 midnight, and he told investigators that he was relieved at the wheel by his relief, Perkis, at 12.23. But by whose clock? Hichens did not know if the Titanic's clocks had been set back or not. How do we reconcile these? Had Hichens set his clock back once his own watch had finished? A possible solution is here:

Titanic and Rowe time Hichens time Notes
12.25 approx 12.02 approx Rowe telephones bridge; fetches rockets and starts walk to the bridge
12.35 approx 12.12 approx Rowe arrives on the bridge
12.47 approx 12.23 approx Hichens relieved of duty.

This seems plausible, but would not one of the bridge officers have remarked to Perkis that he was very late to attend to the wheel? Possibly they did not care anymore! Perkis' testimony is not very illuminating. Having been told by the Carpenter that he had better turn out as the ship had struck something, Perkis took no notice and "stayed [in his bunk] until I though it was time to turn out to relieve the deck at 12 o'clock," before going on deck. He does not mention Hichens at all. If there was a laissez-faire about the times of crew relief, it may not have been widespread. Lookout Lee and his counterpart, Fred Fleet, were relieved, by their own recollections, twenty minutes after seeing the iceberg, which was at 11.40. Hence their watch changed exactly at 12.00 midnight - and not 12.23.

Or was Rowe mistaken in seeing Hichens at the wheel? Apart from one or two mistakes, his recollections remained practically the same for 56 years.

We now turn to another actor in our drama: 4th Officer Boxhall. His timeline consists of; providing the Marconi wireless officers with the "famous" (and wrong) position of 41 46'N 50 14'W. He then fires a rocket, and receives Rowe's telephone call. The transmission of the position was first heard at 10.35pm (New York Time) by both the SS Carpathia and the ground station at Cape Race. Interestingly, a minute later, the SS Ypiranga hears "can hear nothing for noise of steam." Allowing for a slight garbling of times, this indicates that the ending of the steam discharge and firing rockets occurred at practically the same time. The timing of the SOS location could be used to find out the local time at which rockets were sent up ... if one knew the time difference with New York Time. And therein lies the trouble.

No-one quite knows the difference between local sip's time and the time in New York. 2nd Officer Lightoller told the US Inquiry that the time of sinking (2.20am) compared to Greenwich Meantime would be 5.47am, or 1 hour 33 minutes ahead of New York. He also said that, "The clocks are set at midnight, but that is for the approximate noon position of the following day. Therefore Sunday noon the clocks will be accurate."

The second statement is correct. The first one isn't. A 10.35pm New York Time SOS call would be 12.08 am on the Titanic; far too early. The first call from the Titanic would be 11.58am, 18 minutes after the collision. 1 hour 33 minutes corresponds to a longitude of 51 45'W. This is 80 miles to the west of the Titanic wrecksite, or about 67 miles from Boxhall's SOS position. If Lightoller thought this related to a noontime longitude, he was wrong. It is fortunate for him that he gave this bogus data in front of the nautical ignoramus of Senator Smith, and not the more technically qualified court of Lord Mersey.

Is there a way of working out where the Titanic would have been at noon on April 14th and 15th, 1912? Knowing the course from 5.50pm (S 86 W), the speed (22.5 knots approx) and the total time steamed, we can work out the longitude on April 15th at 12.00pm.

From 5.50pm 14/4/12 to 12.00pm 15/4/12 is 18 hours 10 minutes, gives 56 3'W. This is 1 hour 16 minutes ahead of New York.
An addition 47 minutes of steaming, corresponding to the clock retardation, would give a longitude of 56 25'W, or 1 hour 14 minutes ahead of New York.

These obviously can't be right. They would place the times of transmissions of the SOS and CQD calls too early on the Titanic. But what about midday on April 14th? We can answer this only approximately. Before 5.50pm, the Titanic was not on a "rhumb", or linear course, but on a Great Circle course. This is a course that changes its headings regularly, following the circumference of a circle due to the curvature of the Earth, so that to he far east, the Titanic would be heading more-or-less west, but as one approaches the latitude of New York, the heading of the ship is more south-west.

This can be demonstrated very ably in the following sketch:

Above: The Titanic's route after turning towards New York at about 5.50pm on April 14th: (A) indicates the sinking location, (B) the SOS location, (C) is the longitude for a 1 hour 33 minute difference with New York, (D) would have been the Titanic's approximate noontime location at noon on April 15th. A planned, but unperformed, 47 minute clock retardation during the 8pm-4am 14th April/15th April watches would give position (E). Point (C) is nowhere near the noontime positions!

Can we work out the actual time difference that the Titanic had at the time of the collision? We know the approximate location and time of 'The Corner'. 5th Officer Lowe said in Washington that the course beforehand was '60 33 west', which makes no sense. He probably meant 'south 60 33 west'. Extrapolating 5 hours and 50 minutes on this course at a speed of 22.5 knots gives us a longitude of 44 25'. This gives a time difference with New York of about 2 hour 2 minutes. The noon time longitude is closer to 2 hours than 1 hours. The surviving Wirless Operator, Harold Bride, testified in America that the Titanic/New York time difference was about two hours. A problem is that his testimonies sound as if Captain Smith ordered the distress call to be sent "immediately"; soon after Bride was roused from bed, which was at about midnight. If so, this would hint that the time difference would be 10.25pm (the first distress call being received) and 12.00am = 1 hour 35 minutes. Perhaps a hint as to why this may be wrong can be found in Bride's April 18th, when the Carpathia docked in New York. According to this account, which includes details missing from his later stories, Bride says that Captain Smith had ordered an inspection and wanted the distress call to be sent, but not until he gave permission to do so. Ten minutes later, Bride estimates, the Captain pokes his head around the door of the wireless cabin and orders the call to be sent. But even this has problems. The "inspection" was probably the one done by the Carpenter, as he sounded the holds for water. But this was almost certainly completed within 10 or so minutes, or 11.50pm-12.00am. The main point of this is that there was a latency, not reported at the inquiries, between Bride awakening and the first CQD call transmitted.

So, applying this to the SOS messages, we find that Boxhall's position had been sent by about 12.37am on the Titanic. This would be about the time that the first rocket was sent up. It seems silly to suggest that a large gap existed between Boxhall providing the wireless men with a corrected position, and them actually transmitting it. Why bother send out a "wrong" location if a better one existed? Both wireless men obviously wanted to be rescued and it makes no sense for them to send erroneous information that would have jeopardised their survival. They would have transmitted a better location immediately.

But what about observers not on the Titanic? An Officer by the name of Herbert Stone was watching a strange vessel not so far away, sending up rockets. He observed the first one at 12.45. We can't be 100% sure of the time difference between his ship, the Californian and the Titanic, but many assume that the two ships kept the same time and that Stone was watching the Titanic. If that is so, the first rocket was sent up nearly 10 minutes before Stone saw the first of his. But did Stone miss the first of the rockets? We know that he was so unobservant as a supposed watch officer that he missed seeing a strange yellow funnelled steamer at 4.00am that morning until the Chief Officer came on deck and pointed it out. And if the recollections of uncalled Californian witnesses is anything to go by, one of them went up to the Californian's flying bridge and told Stone of the rockets. Had it not been for this, he may have missed even more - perhaps, flippantly, all of them!

Conclusions and comments

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