SS Californian

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The SS Californian.
Career ( United Kingdom) Red Ensign (UK)
Name: SS Californian
Namesake: California, a US state.
Owner: Leyland Line Flag.pngLeyland Line
Route: Atlantic Ocean crossings
Builder: Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Company, Dundee, Scotland
Launched: 26 November 1901
Maiden voyage: 31 January 1902
Fate: Sunk by German U-boat, 9 November 1915, 61 miles (98 km) southwest of Cape Matapan, Greece
General characteristics
Type: Steamship
Displacement: 6,223 tons (5,645 tonnes)
Length: 447 feet (136 m) LOA
Beam: 53 feet (16 m)
Propulsion: 1 × Triple expansion steam engine
2 × double-ended boilers
Speed: 12.0 knots (22.2 km/h; 13.8 mph)
Complement: 47 passengers
Crew: 55 Officers and crew

SS Californian was a Leyland Line steamship that is best known for the controversy surrounding her location during the sinking of the RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912.


Californian was a British steamship owned by the Leyland Line, part of J.P.Morgan's International Mercantile Marine Co., and was constructed by the Caledon Shipbuilding & Engineering Company in Dundee, Scotland. Californian measured 6,223 tons, was 447 feet (136 m) long, 53 feet (16 m) at her beam, and had an average full speed of 12 knots (22km/h). The ship had a triple expansion steam engine which was powered by two doubled-ended boilers, and was primarily designed to transport cotton, but also had the capacity of carrying 47 passengers and 55 crew members.

Californian was launched on 26 November 1901 and completed her sea trials on 23 January 1902. From 31 January 1902 to 3 March 1902, Californian made her maiden voyage from Dundee, Scotland to New Orleans, Louisiana in the United States.

Sinking of Titanic

Stanley Lord, who had commanded Californian since 1911, was the captain of the ship when she left London, England on 5 April 1912 on her way to Boston, Massachusetts. She was not carrying any passengers on this voyage.

Wireless operator Cyril Evans

On Sunday 14 April at 19:00 Californian's only wireless operator, Cyril Evans, reported three large icebergs fifteen miles (24 km) north of the course the White Star Line passenger ship Titanic was heading. Titanic's wireless operator Harold Bride intercepted the warning and delivered it to the ship's bridge. Later that evening while travelling south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Californian encountered a large ice field. At 22:21 Captain Lord decided to stop the ship and wait until morning to proceed further.

Just before 23:00, after Californian had stopped, lights of another ship came into view on the horizon off Californian's starboard side. To Lord, Second Officer Herbert Stone, and deck apprentice James Gibson, the ship looked like a tramp steamer, similar in size to Californian. Third Officer C.V. Groves, who was on deck with Lord, thought the lights made the ship look like a passenger liner. Captain Lord asked wireless operator Evans which ships were nearby; Evans responded that Titanic was the only ship he was aware of in the vicinity. Lord remarked "That isn't the Titanic;" but instructed Evans to tell Titanic anyway that they were stopped by ice.

Titanic's on-duty wireless operator, Jack Phillips, was busy working off a substantial backlog of personal messages with the wireless station at Cape Race, Newfoundland, 800 miles (1,300 km) away, at the time. When Evans sent the message that they were stopped and surrounded by ice, the relative proximity made Californians signal loud in Phillips' headphones (both radio operators were using spark gap wireless sets whose signals bled across the spectrum and were impossible to tune out). As Evans attempted to transmit his ice message, Phillips was unable to hear a separate, prior message he had been in the process of receiving from Cape Race, and an exasperated Phillips rebuked Evans with: "Shut up, Shut up, I’m working Cape Race." Evans listened for a little while longer, and at 23:30 he turned off the wireless and went to bed. Ten minutes later Titanic hit an iceberg and sent out her first distress call 35 minutes later.

Captain Stanley Lord

At 23:30 Lord asked Third Officer Groves to try to signal the ship on the horizon, which he estimated to be 4-5 miles (8 km) away and stopped, with a Morse lamp. The vessel never appeared to respond. Slightly after midnight Second Officer Herbert Stone took watch from Groves, while Lord went to rest in the chartroom. Stone also tried signalling the ship with the Morse lamp, also without success. Around 00:45 on 15 April Stone saw a white flash appear in the direction of the "smallish" steamer. First he thought it was a shooting star, until he saw another one. He saw five rockets before being joined by the apprentice. He called down the speaking tube to Captain Lord at 01:15, but it is unclear how many he told the Captain about. Lord said he was told of one rocket and asked if it had been a company signal. Stone said he didn’t know. Lord told Stone to tell him if anything about the ship changed and to keep signaling the ship with the Morse lamp.

At the British inquiry following the Titanic disaster, Stone and apprentice Gibson admitted to snippets of the conversation that they had had during their watch that night. "A ship is not going to fire rockets at sea for nothing," Stone said, and also, "Look at her now; she looks very queer out of the water; her lights look queer." Gibson observed, "She looks rather to have a big side out of the water" and he agreed that "everything was not all right with her;" that it was "a case of some kind of distress."

By 02:00 the ship appeared to be leaving the area. A few minutes later Crewman James Gibson, who maintained there was "nothing at all" about her to resemble a passenger steamer, informed Captain Lord that the ship had left and that eight white rockets were seen. Lord, who had been asleep and later had no recollection of the visit, asked whether they were sure of the colour, Gibson said yes and left. Around 03:30 Stone and Gibson, still sharing the middle watch, spotted more rockets to the south. They did not see the ship that was firing them, but at about this same time, the rescue ship Carpathia was racing up from the southeast, firing rockets to let the Titanic know that help was on the way.

Lord woke up later that morning at 04:30 and went out on deck to decide how to proceed past the ice. At 05:15 Chief Officer George F. Stewart told Lord that he saw to southward a yellow-funnel ship, which could not have been the red-funnel RMS Carpathia, where Stone had told him a ship had been firing rockets. Stewart was concerned that it might need assistance, although Stone insisted this was another steamer, having a different number of masthead lights, compared to the one he and the apprentice had been looking at having steamed away earlier. Lord told Stewart to go wake Cyril Evans and ask him to inquire about the rockets. Stewart woke Evans at 05:30 who then turned on the wireless and found out that Titanic had sunk overnight. Stewart took the news to Captain Lord who immediately calculated the distance between the two ships, estimated it was 19 1/2 miles (31 km) away and began steaming towards Titanic's last reported position. Californian arrived next to the Cunard Line steamship, RMS Carpathia around 08:30. Carpathia was just finishing picking up the last of Titanic's survivors. After communication between the two ships, Carpathia left the area leaving Californian to search for any other survivors, but only finding scattered wreckage and empty lifeboats.


As public knowledge grew of the Titanic disaster, questions soon arose on how the disaster occurred, as well as if and how it could have been prevented. Some of these questions related to the proximity of the Californian, and whether she could have reached the sinking Titanic in time to save many, if not all, of her passengers and crew. The United States Senate began an inquiry into the disaster on 19 April, the day Californian arrived in Boston.

On 26 April Captain Lord, Cyril Evans and crewman Ernest Gill testified in the U.S. Senate's investigation. None of the officers who were on duty the night Titanic sank testified. The Independent British Inquiry, ordered, but not run by the British Board of Trade, which began on 2 May, would prove more thorough. The Board of Trade questioned those crew members who testified for the American inquiry, as well as Charles Groves, James Gibson, George F. Stewart, and Herbert Stone.

Not all of the crew testimonies matched. Most notably, Captain Lord said he was not told that the mystery ship had disappeared, contradicting testimony from James Gibson who said he reported it and that Lord had acknowledged him.

Also during the inquiries, survivors of Titanic recalled seeing the lights of another ship that was spotted after Titanic had hit the iceberg. To Titanic's Fourth Officer Boxhall the ship appeared to be off the bow of Titanic, five miles (8 km) away and heading in Titanic's direction. Just like Californian's officers, Boxhall attempted signaling the ship with a Morse lamp, but received no response. He had Titanic's signal rockets brought to the bridge to try to signal the ship; he had them launched into the sky periodically starting at around 00:50 until he left the ship in command of a lifeboat. The other ship never seemed to respond.

Titanic's Captain Edward Smith felt the ship was close enough that he ordered the first lifeboats launched on the port side to row over to the ship, drop off the passengers and come back to Titanic for more. The lights of the ship were seen from Titanic's lifeboats throughout the night; one lifeboat rowed towards them, but never seemed to get any closer.

Captain Lord testified he did not believe the ship that he had seen from the Californian could be Titanic. He said the ship he saw was too small to be Titanic, and that the two ships were too far apart to be visible to each other. C. Robertson Dunlop, who represented Californian's owners and officers at the British investigation, suggested several ships that did not have wireless on board that were thought to be in the area at the time, that could have been between the Californian and Titanic. However Crewman Ernest Gil said he believed the other ship big enough to be an ocean liner, and Third Officer Groves said he believed it was a passenger ship because it appeared brightly illuminated, and that the deck lights appeared to go out around 23:40.

Both the American and British inquires found that Californian must have been closer than 19 ½ miles (31 km) and that both ships were visible from the other. Both inquires concluded that Captain Lord failed to provide proper assistance to Titanic and the British Inquiry further concluded that had Californian responded to Titanic's rockets and gone to assist, that it "...might have saved many if not all of the lives that were lost."

Numerous preventative safety measures were enacted in the months and years following the disaster. Twenty–nine nations ratified the Radio Act of 1912, which required 24–hour radio watch on all ships in case of an emergency. The first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea formed a treaty that also required 24–hour radio monitoring and standardized the use of distress rockets.

Petitions presented to the UK Government in 1965 and 1968 by the MMSA (Mercantile Marine Service Association), a union to which Captain Lord belonged, failed to reverse the findings of the original inquiries.

In 1992, the British Government's Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) concluded its "Reappraisal of Evidence Relating to the SS Californian." The conclusions of the MAIB report were those of Deputy Chief Inspector, James De Coverly who concluded:

“What is significant, however, is that no ship was seen by Titanic until well after the collision… watch was maintained with officers on the bridge and seamen in the crow’s nest, and with their ship in grave danger the lookout for another vessel which could come to their help must have been most anxious and keen.

“It is in my view inconceivable that Californian or any other ship was within the visible horizon of Titanic during that period; it equally follows that Titanic cannot have been within Californian’s horizon."

De Coverly believed Titanic would not have been seen, but if it were, it was by super refraction. He wrote: ”In sum, I do not consider that a definite answer to the question ‘was Titanic seen?’ can be given; but if she was, then it was only because of the phenomenon of super-refraction, for she was well beyond the ordinary visible horizon.

More probably, in my view, the ship seen by Californian was another, unidentified, vessel.”

However, the original investigator of the 1992 re-appraisal was a Captain Barnett, and he is referred to in the final report as the "Inspector." He had originally concluded "that Titanic was seen by Californian and indeed kept under observation from 23:00 or soon after on 14 April until she sank," and that "he bases this view on the evidence from Captain Lord and the two watch officers." It was after Barnett's original report was submitted that Capt de Coverly was given the task of further examination.

Both investigators, Barnett and de Coverly, concluded that Titanic's rockets had been seen and that Officer Stone and Captain Lord had not responded appropriately to signals of distress.

The co-authors of the MAIB report reflected in their closing paragraph that "neither Captain Lord's supporters nor his critics will be entirely satisfied with this report but while it does not purport to answer all of the questions which have been raised, it does attempt to distinguish the essential circumstances and set out reasoned and realistic interpretations." Captain Lord's chief defender and union attorney, Leslie Harrison, who had led the fight to have the Californian incident re-examined by the British government, called the dual conclusions of the report "an admission of failure to achieve the purpose of the re-appraisal." Internally, however, the working files of the MAIB reveal that both authors of the report agreed that the Titanic and the Californian were in sight of each other; the contradictory conclusions can be attributed to the writing of the report being delegated to a junior member of the branch, possibly due to the high workload of the MAIB at the time. This could explain some of the inept research, such as references to the Samson being the mystery ship seen by the Titanic (despite this being debunked in the 1960s), the US Coast Guard existing in 1912 (it didn't) and bizarre conclusions regarding the nature of ocean currents in the vicinity of the Titanic wrecksite.

The findings of the MAIB remain the official position of the British Government, as reflected in replies to Parliamentary Questions in the years since.

World War I

Californian continued normal service until World War I when the British government took control of the ship. The ship was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on 9 November 1915, 61 miles (98 km) southwest of Cape Matapan, Greece with the loss of one life. Her wreck has never been found.


  • Lee, Paul The Indifferent Stranger electronic book, 2008
  • Eaton, John P. and Haas, Charles A. Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy (2nd ed.) W. W. Norton & Company, 1995
  • Lord, Walter The Night Lives On Morrow and Company, 1986
  • Lynch, Donald and Marschall, Ken Titanic: An Illustrated History Hyperion, 1995
  • Molony, Senan Titanic and the Mystery Ship Tempus Publishing, 2006
  • Padfield, Peter The Titanic and the Californian The John Day Company, 1965

External links

ca:SS Californian de:Californian (Schiff) es:SS Californian fr:SS Californian (1902) it:Californian pl:SS Californian fi:SS Californian