Titanic and the Mystery Ship

Titanic and the Mystery Ship

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by Senan Moloney

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What fascinates most people are the conspiracy theories that abound about her. Was she switched for her damaged sister Olympic, did Captain Smith really ignore the ice warnings that flooded into her wireless room, or was there some fabled treasure on board when she went down? Perhaps one of the most enduring tales of Titanic is the mystery ship, the fabled vessel seen


What fascinates most people are the conspiracy theories that abound about her. Was she switched for her damaged sister Olympic, did Captain Smith really ignore the ice warnings that flooded into her wireless room, or was there some fabled treasure on board when she went down? Perhaps one of the most enduring tales of Titanic is the mystery ship, the fabled vessel seen in the distance that could have saved all her passengers from freezing or drowning. But what was the mystery ship, and was she the Californian, a cargo/passenger ship that according to her captain was stuck in ice over the horizon. At the enquiry into the sinking, Captain Lord of the Californian was castigated and blamed for the loss of life on Titanic, but for ninety years, there has been proof that his ship could not have been the mystery ship.

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Titanic And the Mystery Ship

By Senan Molony

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Senan Molony
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-6757-3



The story begins with the Californian. Bound for Boston on the evening of Sunday 14 April 1912, she had been following the course of the liner Parisian and knew from wireless warnings that field ice lay ahead in her path. Californian's captain, Stanley Lord, had seen three icebergs to his southward that early evening and passed this intelligence by wireless to other shipping – including Titanic.

At 10.20 p.m. that night, Captain Lord spotted an icefield ahead and ordered his helm hard over, reversing engines. He came to a stop one minute later, with the Californian's head (bow) pointing northeast. Her bow had obviously been pointing due west, until she took avoiding action to escape the ice and ended up 'heading about northeast true' (Lord, US p.732). A current was operating that night which would gradually bring her bow around clockwise to point due east and eventually to point due south over some hours.

For now, all that needs to be known is that the Californian was stopped. She was to remain stationary, drifting absolutely imperceptibly (the current was half a knot per hour) for the whole of that fateful night ...


Unimpeachable evidence that the Californian was at a standstill comes from her courtesy message to the Titanic, transmitted at 11 p.m. that night, which began 'Say Old Man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice' and which was coldly rebuffed by the Titanic's senior operator Jack Phillips. Californian had no reason to lie about being at a standstill, and this message was transmitted before Titanic struck her iceberg.

The following evidence was given by the Californian's captain, Stanley Lord, to the British Inquiry, in response to question number 6701:

Later on did you have to stop on account of ice? — I had to stop and reverse engines.

6702. Would you tell us what time that was? — 10.21 p.m.

6713. Until? — 6 o'clock next morning. 5.15 a.m. we moved the engines for a few minutes and then we stopped on account of the news we received, and waited 'til 6 o'clock.

There is no suggestion that the Californian engaged her engines at any time that night. The British Board of Trade took depositions from all of her crew on their return at Liverpool and none suggested any navigation by the Californian from 10.21 p.m. to 6 a.m., when she began to move, in response to the dreadful news of the Titanic sinking, which she had just received by wireless.

Her original intention was to wait for morning before attempting to negotiate the ice barrier confronting her. A number of Californian crew witnesses called to the official inquiries testified to the point that their vessel was stopped that night. They included the apprentice officer, James Gibson:

7422. When you came on duty at midnight, did you find that your ship had stopped? — Yes.

7423. We have been told she stopped some time before half-past ten? — Yes.

Second Officer Herbert Stone also came on duty at midnight:

7809. Did you find the ship stopped and surrounded by ice? — Yes.

Third Officer Charles Victor Groves, who was on duty until midnight, when relieved by Stone, also answered questions:

8116. And we know your steamer stopped because she got among the ice? — Yes.

8117. At 10.26 was it? — Yes, at 10.26 ...

Chief Officer George Frederick Stewart was also called:

8572. Did you go on duty at 4 a.m.? — Yes.

8575. Did you find that your ship was stopped? — Yes.

And Wireless Operator Cyril Evans gave the following answers:

8976. We know she did [stop], about 10.25, your ship's time? — Yes.

8977. Did you go on deck when you found the ship had stopped? — Yes.

8978. I think you found the Captain and the Chief Engineer discussing the matter? — Yes.

Captain Lord and W/O Evans also gave evidence in the US Inquiry, similarly claiming that the Californian was stationary that night.

Californian witnesses are unanimous in this regard. Absolutely no-one makes any suggestion to the contrary. This is important, as we shall see in due course.

Meanwhile it should be borne in mind that the 11 p.m. wireless warning to the Titanic – 'we are stopped and surrounded by ice' – independently confirms the Californian's immobility, and does so in advance of Titanic's collision. The evidence indicates that the Leyland liner SS Californian was stopped all night. To suggest otherwise is to suspect a mass conspiracy to deceive by every single man aboard Californian, when in fact her witnesses would tell very different stories in relation to their individual sightings that night.

There was no 'agreed story', except on one very salient fact: the Californian was immobile. This is a single important certainty on a night of myriad uncertainties.



The ship seen by the Titanic in her throes of distress became known as the 'mystery ship'. She is the vessel charged by Titanic survivors with not going to their assistance at a time when the Titanic must have been brilliantly visible to the stranger and was both flashing Morse lamps and firing rockets to summon assistance.

The first thing to be said about the mystery ship, however, is that she was not discernible before the Titanic had her emergency, nor when she had completed her failed attempt to evade the iceberg, and had come to rest. Thus the mystery ship was initially not seen by Titanic, and this is a point worthy of particular and careful note.

It was the duty of the Titanic's lookouts to report anything they saw. This might seem obvious but it needs to be reinforced. Frederick Fleet (one of the lookouts when she struck the iceberg and for up to forty-five minutes afterwards) stated that 'We are only up there to report anything we see' (US Inquiry, p.318). Senator Smith (Chairman of the US Inquiry) pursued this statement, pressing Fleet on the issue:

Smith: But you are expected to see – and report – anything in the path of the ship, are you not?

Fleet: Anything we see – a ship, or anything.

Smith: Anything you see?

Fleet: Yes; anything we see.

Fred Fleet and Reginald Lee, the other lookout, did not see another ship or light on the horizon before, during, or after the collision until their shift was relieved at 12.23 a.m. They were serving an extended watch because the Titanic's clocks were due to be put back that night.

If the Californian was the Titanic's mystery ship, it ought to have been seen by Fleet and Lee, as the Californian was stationary, and had been for over an hour at this point. Fleet was adamant, however:

Senator Smith: Were there lights of any other vessels in sight when you came down from the crow's nest?

Fleet: There was NO lights AT ALL when we was up in the crow's nest. This is after we was down and on the boats; then I seen the light.

Fleet was pressed on this point at the British Inquiry too. Here is his emphatic denial:

17429. Did you see this light on the port bow before you left the crow's nest? — No, it must have been about 1 o'clock.

17430. Did you observe it before you left the Titanic?

17430a. [The Commissioner] He says he saw it at 1 o'clock. [To the Witness]: When did you leave the Titanic, at what time?

Fleet: I think I got into the water in the boat about 1 o'clock.

17431. And it was about that time that you saw this light? — Or just a little before it; about that time.

Reg Lee, Fleet's lookout colleague in the crow's nest, did not see a light either while on duty:

2419. Before half-past eleven on that watch had you reported anything at all, do you remember? — There was nothing to be reported.

Yet Captain Lord of the Californian stated this:

7118/9. How far do you think your [masthead] lights would be observable by another ship? — I suppose the masthead lights you would see 7 or 8 miles. 8 miles I should think.

7120. Suppose the Titanic was 7 or 8 miles from you between 11.30 and 12 o'clock, would those on her bridge have been able to see your lights? — Easily.

Captain Lord said the officers on the Titanic's bridge ought 'easily' to have seen lights if the Californian had indeed been 7 and 8 miles away. If it would have been an easy task on the bridge, how much easier would it have been from the lofty crow's nest, where the lookouts were stationed? The crow's nest was about 20ft higher than the bridge (question 2616) in order to give the lookouts just such an advantage over the bridge in surveying the full sweep of sea and sky.

It should be noted here that the limit of the visible horizon on this night would have been of the order of 10 to 12 miles – possibly more, since it was a spectacularly clear night.

Consider what the Titanic's senior surviving officer, Second Officer Charles Lightoller, testified about lookout abilities on clear nights:

14309. The [lookout] man may, on a clear night, see the reflection of [a] light before it comes above the horizon. It may be the loom of the light and you see it sometimes sixty miles away.

If the mystery ship soon to be seen by the Titanic was the Californian, let us re-state then, that she, the Californian, was absolutely stationary. And if the Californian was the mystery ship, and stationary, then she should have been seen in advance of the collision by Fleet and Lee, the lookouts.

But she was not seen.

The lookouts, if indeed the Californian was to be the mystery ship, should have seen her as a light on the horizon long before the collision with the 'berg. Titanic observers, when they finally noticed the mystery ship, put her at an average distance of 5 miles. Less than halfway to the horizon!

If this light had always been stationary, only to be subsequently seen at 5 miles, and if the Titanic's visible horizon was always a minimum of 10 miles (as it assuredly was), then at a pre-crash speed of 22 knots, the Titanic ought to have seen the light prior to impact for up to fifteen minutes! This is simple maths.

But no such light was seen. Not before impact, and not for a considerable time thereafter. Remember, it was the lookouts' duty to report lights all over the horizon. 'Anything we see', was the phrase Fleet used to describe their responsibilities. Before the impact, he and Lee had been 'looking all over the place, all around' (US, p.322). After the Titanic struck, it would have been particularly important for them to scan the 360 degree horizon. For a light! They should have been looking for precisely that: another ship. And they stayed on duty, diligently looking out, after the collision (US, p.319):

Fleet: I kept staring ahead again.

Senator Smith: You remained in the crow's nest?

Fleet: I remained in the crow's nest until I got relief.

They were relieved at 12.23 a.m., almost three-quarters of an hour after the collision at 11.40 p.m. And they had seen no light.



At last we come to the mystery ship, not previously seen, which now approached the Titanic, in the words of a senior surviving witness, Titanic Fourth Officer Joseph Groves Boxhall. Boxhall was the officer who watched this vessel, initially through binoculars, as she came ever closer to the stricken Titanic. He was adamant until his death that the ship he saw had ventured towards the RMS Titanic until the visitor next turned and stopped. This is what he stated at the US Inquiry (p.236):

Senator Smith: Were the two masthead lights the first lights that you could see?

Boxhall: The first lights.

Sen. Smith: And what other lights?

Boxhall: And then, as she got closer, she showed her side light, her red light.

Sen. Smith: So you were quite sure she was coming in your direction?

Boxhall: Quite sure.

Elsewhere in the inquiry, Boxhall declares (US Inquiry, p. 235):

Boxhall: I saw his masthead lights and I saw his side light.

Sen. Smith: In what direction?

Boxhall: Almost ahead of us.

And later, he offers more details (US Inquiry, p.910) :

Boxhall: She was headed toward us, meeting us.

Senator Fletcher: Was she a little toward your port bow?

Boxhall: Just about half a point off our port bow.

And, from the British Inquiry:

Boxhall: I submitted the [SOS] position to the Captain first, and he told me to take it to the Marconi room.

15392. And then you saw this light which you say looked like a masthead light? — Yes, it was two masthead lights of a steamer.

15393. Could you see it distinctly with the naked eye? — No, I could see the light with the naked eye, but I could not define what it was; but by the aid of a pair of glasses I found it was the two masthead lights of a vessel, probably about half a point on the port bow, and in the position she would be showing her red if it were visible, but she was too far off then.

15394. Could you see how far off she was? — No, I could not see, but I had sent in the meantime for some rockets ... I was sending rockets off and watching this steamer. Between the time of sending the rockets off and watching the steamer approach us I was making myself generally useful ...

Boxhall was sure that the mystery ship was 'approaching', 'coming', 'meeting us', getting closer, 'headed toward' Titanic. The Californian was stationary. The mystery ship was not. When did he see her first?

The evidence shows that it was after he had reckoned a revised SOS position (41° 46' N, 50° 14' W), a wireless position that was transmitted and heard by other ships, at what the British Inquiry decided was 12.25 a.m. Titanic time. Boxhall gave the following responses:

15388. Before I saw this light I went to the chart-room and worked out the ships position.

15389. Is that the position we have been given already – 41° 46' N, 50° 14' W? — That is right [Boxhall had earlier estimated a position of 41° 44' N, 50° 24' W, which the Titanic had been sending out from 12.15 a.m., until this position was revised ten minutes later].

Boxhall had first discerned a ship some time after revising the distress position at 12.25 a.m. It is likely therefore that the far-off light was not seen before 12.30 a.m., since lookouts Fleet and Lee had descended from the crow's nest, their shift having ended at 12.23 a.m. with nothing seen.

It is important to emphasise that there was no light seen for three-quarters of an hour between the time of impact, 11.40 p.m., and at least 12.23 a.m., when Fleet and Lee left the crow's nest.

Crew duty watches were due to change at this time, with a plan to put back Titanic's time to midnight once 12.23 a.m. was reached. The clocks were to go back forty-seven minutes that night and it was to be done in two stages – twenty-three minutes and twenty-four minutes, at the end of elongated midnight and 4 a.m. watches. This was to allow for Titanic's noon to be approximately correct as the vessel steamed ever westward.

The following is from the US Inquiry (p.460), when Quartermaster Robert Hichens was called:

Senator Smith: You left the wheelhouse that Sunday night at?

Hichens (interposing): Twenty-three minutes past 12.

Sen. Smith: Your watch had not expired?

Hichens: My watch had expired; yes.

Senator Smith also questioned Fleet on the issue:

Sen. Smith: How long a watch did you have?

Fleet: Two hours; but the time was going to be put back that watch.

Sen. Smith: The time was to be set back?

Fleet: Yes, sir.

Sen. Smith: Did that alter your time?

Fleet: We were to get about 2 hours and 20 minutes. (On watch from 10 p.m. to 12.23 a.m.)

Meanwhile Lee, Fleet's crow's nest colleague, would testify that he left the crow's nest at 12 a.m. – which time it was indeed, by the changed clock (see US Inquiry, p.317).

Boxhall, we know, first saw the mystery ship at half a point off the port bow, virtually straight in front of the ship and the lookout cage or crow's nest. Yet it was only the relief lookouts who took over from 12.23 a.m. who later reported the remote light, said Fleet.

So, what does half a point off the port bow mean? There are thirty-two points on a compass, that is, eight in each quadrant, a quadrant being the area delineated by, for example, west and north. To understand 'half a point off the port bow,' imagine a place halfway between 11 and 12 on a clock face – effectively the position of the hour hand when the time is at 11.30. 'One point' is actually closer to 12, or the bow of a ship, than this. And half a point is closer again. It is the compass equivalent of just one minute to midnight on a clockface, therefore representing just a tiny amount off the port bow.

This mystery ship will eventually move from 'half a point' to two points and more off the port bow when further observed, which is indicative of movement, since the Titanic has stopped after impact, although she may drift slowly thereafter. Furthermore, this strange ship has come from being non-existent before 12.23 a.m., to being close enough for a single light to be spotted by Boxhall, then closer still, so that two masthead lights are discernible, until finally being so close that a port-side red light is discernible along with all other lights .


Excerpted from Titanic And the Mystery Ship by Senan Molony. Copyright © 2011 Senan Molony. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Titanic & The Mystery Ship 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although it can be a little dry at times this is far outweighed by the information in it. Much of the information is from witness testimony from both inquiries. It does a great job explaining how the Californian could not have been the ship seen by Titanic passengers and crew that night. Great read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago