To find details about my new book on the Titanic crew's return to England and the tales they told about their experiences, please look here

"Iceberg, dead ahead!"

(Please click on the thumbnails for larger versions)

Facing into the blasting Arctic wind, and 90 feet above the water, lookouts Fred Fleet and Reginald Lee peered into the night, vigilant for any hazard to navigation. Their ship, the Titanic, was forcing its way through the water at 22.5 knots; the temperature had dropped during the day, ice warnings had been received, and now the fate of the ship relied on the eyes in the crows nest, and that of 1st Officer William Murdoch, some 70 feet behind them on the bridge.
Suddenly, a dark shape loomed up ahead. Fleet reached for the lanyard on the warning bell and gave it three tugs signifying an object directly ahead. Relaying his observation of an iceberg in their path to the bridge, he and Lee waited for the ship to turn, avoiding the collision. It was too late though... a grinding noise coming from deep within the ship signalled the worst...and the world's largest, and safest ship was doomed.

That's the traditional view. What really happened?

What did the iceberg look like?

The iceberg seen from the Prinz Adalbert

There are many candidates for the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the most widely touted one being a berg that is reported to have been seen on April 15th by the steamer Prinz Adalbert. It seems to have a streak running along the base, and it is claimed that this is red paint, scraped from below the waterline of the hapless White Star vessel. Some people doubt this, saying it could be marine growth, exposed to the sun by the relentless melting process afflicting all icebergs. However, all is not as it seems; at noon on April 15th, the Prinz Adalbert was at 42 44 N, 44 56 W. She didn't get anywhere near the Titanic's wrecksite until 8am the next day, when at 41 51 N 49 56 W (some 7 miles north and a little east of the wrecksite), she "met on both sides an icefield of about 4 to 5 nm extension [width?] with large isolated icebergs, counting about 25. Dimension 100 m long height 30-40m. Last ice seen lat 41 37 N and long 50 14 W." The only mention in her "meteorological log" is passing an iceberg at 3.50am at 42 03 N (or 42 13? N), 48 57 W. It would be too dark to photograph this iceberg. Even if the Prinz Adalbert photographed the berg at daylight, the Titanic's iceberg would have drifted about 32 miles further south since midnight on the 14th/15th. It would therefore be out of sight over the horizon to the south. This nails the coffin lid shut on this myth but it is regularly, and frustratingly repeated as fact. An essay discussing this can be found here.

An excellent discussion of a possible candidate can be found here, which points to an iceberg photographed by Stephan Rehorek from the steamship Bremen on April 20th; it matches the "rock of Gibraltar" appearance (see later). However, it cannot be said with any certainty exactly what the iceberg looked like, and even observations made after daybreak the day of the sinking cannot be relied upon, given the large number of bergs in the area. As time elasped, and the iceberg suffered from prolonged periods of melting, congruence between the eyewitness reports on April 14th and later sightings becomes fewer. Certainly, a lot of bergs were reported by passing steamers to be "the" berg, sometimes because of the presence of ice or bodies, sometimes because it looked like a chunk had been calved from it, with collision by the Titanic being cited as the most probable reason.

Did anyone on the Titanic see the shape of the iceberg? Fred Fleet made a series of sketches decades later and we will discuss these in due course. To my knowledge, there are two drawings made.

George Rheims, First Class Passenger

Rheims' iceberg

Rheims testified at the Limitation of Liability hearings in 1913. His story was that he was coming out of a bathroom (lavatory) forward on A deck "...and I felt a slight shock, and I turned to see what had happened and in looking to the right I saw through the window something white; it seemed to pass rapidly; of course at that time I did not know what it was; I now suppose it was an iceberg." He claims to have seen the 'white object' through a window at the starboard end of a little opening or hallway through which passengers go to their staterooms. Rheims sketch of what he saw is included here.

Superficially, this seems to be a convincing story. But, when scrutinised, cracks appear in the story. Rheims did not mention seeing the iceberg in a letter to his wife on April 19th, 1912. Rheims admitted at the hearing that "I lost my memory for about two months; that is, my memory was not as good as it usually was."

Plan of A deck, according to Rheims

Annotated map of A Deck

And, when one analyses the deck plans for A deck of the Titanic, another problem becomes apparent. It was impossible for him to look to his right, down a passageway, and through a window to see an iceberg passing. Even if one looks at the locations of bathrooms and lavatories, there are no suitable windows for him to see. At the very least, he would have had ton have walked down a corridor and turn slightly to see down a companionway. Also, could he see such an object in blackness, from about 40 feet away, from a well lit corridor? It seems doubtful.
(On the plan, Rheims' room is A21; the dark areas in the walls are windows; the only window through which he could see the iceberg had a locker in front of it.)
The fact that destroy's Rheims' sketch as being of the fatal iceberg is that it is a drawing made of one he had seen the following morning. Even he had to admit that he could not be sure it was the same one he had seen from A deck, if he had seen it at all. So, sadly, we must discount the sketch.

Joseph Scarrott, Able Bodied Seaman

The iceberg as sketched by Joseph Scarrott

Joseph Scarrott was on duty that night, and was stationed in the forecastle head, awaiting any orders sent down. He heard the look-outs ring the warning bell, and felt the ship tremble. Pausing only to inform one of his mates in the bathroom at the bottom of a staircase, he rushed out on deck in time to see the iceberg abaft the starboard beam, "not a ship's length away" drifting away. A few days later, Scarrott produced this sketch from memory, noting that it looked like the Rock of Gibraltar, something that he was asked about at the British Inquiry:

The Rock of Gibraltar as seen from Europa Point

Q. You have told us that somewhere on your starboard beam,
within a ship's length of you, was the iceberg. How high was the iceberg as compared with your vessel?
A. I should say about as high as the boat deck; it appeared to be that from the position of it.
Q. What was the shape of this iceberg?
A. Well, it struck me at the time that it resembled the Rock of Gibraltar looking at it from Europa Point. It looked very much the same shape as that, only much smaller.
Q. Like a lion couchant?
A. As you approach Gibraltar - it seemed that shape. The highest point would be on my right, as it appeared to me.

As one can see from the photo of Europa Point, Scarrott's sketch is remarkably similar, apart from the second peak to the far left of the iceberg. This, I would like to posit, is the only firm description of the iceberg that we know of. Soon after arriving back in England, Scarrott was interviewed by an artist for "The Sphere" magazine and his recollections were printed in the May 23rd, 1912 issue. In the interview, he mentioned that the iceberg was severely cracked and ribbed and was glistening from the ship's lights. His description allowed The Sphere's representative to sketch Scarrott's sighting, with the location of the witness denoted by a cross. It would therefore seem that this description is definitive, and with the ship under port helm, the stern would have skewed away from the iceberg, increasing the distance between it and the ship; if so, the Sphere's Sketch should have put the 'berg much further astern. But one valid criticism is that Scarrott had just come up from illuminated decks down below; would he be able to make out details on the iceberg from such a distance and in very dark conditions? Maybe his night vision was unusually keen and adapted faster?

In the sketch, Scarrott had said that the iceberg was not more than 100 yards on the starboard beam; 1st class passenger George Harder testified in America thus, "When I went to the porthole I saw this iceberg go by. The porthole was closed. The iceberg was, I should say, about 50 to 100 feet away. I should say it was about as high as the top deck of the boat. I just got a glimpse of it, and it is hard to tell how high it was." His cabin was on E-deck, almost exactly mid way between the 2nd and 3rd funnels. His description of the distance is roughly in agreement with Scarrott. On the other hand, the iceberg was close enough to some cabins to deposit ice in corridors and through windows and at the stern, QM Rowe said the 'berg wasn't even 10 or 20 feet from the after bridge and that "It was very close to the ship, almost touching it."

How high was the iceberg?

Fred Fleet, a terrible judge of distances and sizes (a peculiar handicap for a look-out man!) seemed only to be to give estimates of dimensions relative to other objects. At the American Inquiry, he said that the iceberg, when first seen, was as large as two tables put together, something that seems ridiculous unless those tables were some distance away... in London he conceded that the berg was indeed small when he saw it. He remarked that the iceberg was a "little" higher than the forecastle head (about 50 feet) but not as high as the crow's nest (about 90 feet). How "little" is "little"? We can't know. This is entirely subjective, and may be clouded by perspective issues, viewing a smaller object from on high. Fleet did not seem to very amenable to volunteering information, or being very lucid during his questioning. In fact, in London, he was very defensive.
Then, we have the recollections of Quartermaster Alfred Olliver. He was working on the compass platform between the second and third funnels when he heard the warning bell strike. He looked up, but of course, saw nothing, and then headed for the bridge, in time to see the pointed top of the iceberg abaft the bridge heading astern.
Like Rheims' statements, we must not immediately absorb Olliver's account. Albeit, he was the only one on the bridge who saw the iceberg, but there are concerns about the quality of his statements. His preceding duties had involving trimming the compass, a task performed with candles, which he stated he was looking at. He then walked along the port side of the boat deck to the bridge, passing a few deck lights, which had forward facing screens to angle the light backwards. His night vision must therefore have been degraded. He then gets on to the bridge to see the iceberg, some 80 or more feet away, and heading away, partially obscured by the starboard bridge wing and bulkheads abaft of the bridge. His testimony has convinced many that the iceberg was slightly higher than the boat deck, a view shared with seaman Scarrott. But is this right?

From Scarrott, we know what the berg looked like perpendicular to the hull, but we do not know its shape parallel to the hull. What if the iceberg had more than one peak and Olliver only saw the aftermost one? This possibility is depicted in the diagram to the right, with an arbitrary iceberg outline superimposed against the hull.

Starboard view of the Titanic

If this is right, then it has consequences for the distance that the lookouts initially saw the iceberg; this shall be discussed presently.

Are there any witnesses on the decks who speak of the iceberg's size? Not many; most were sensibly indoors, asleep and away from the biting cold of the night. Lawrence Beesley felt the sensation of the collision and went on deck, eventually finding himself in the 2nd class smoking room, talking to a few gentlemen absorbed in a game of cards. Beesley wrote, "We asked [the men in the 2nd class smoking room] the height of the berg and some said one hundred feet, others sixty feet: one of them said 'Well, I am accustomed to estimating distances and I put it between eighty and ninety feet.'" Beesley, as far as he remembers, said that none of them had gone out on deck to make any enquiries, so should be suspicious of estimates of height, no matter how authoritative they sound; for instance, many stories and reports routinely exaggerate the height of the Titanic's boat deck above the waterline. Many give its height at between 70 and 80 feet. Few get its exact height (60 feet) right.
One witness who did see the iceberg was Quartermaster Rowe. He was stationed on the poop deck at the stern of the ship and initially mistook the iceberg for a windjammer. He estimated the height of the berg as being 100 feet high. In a letter to Walter Lord in 1955, Rowe confirmed this opinion, before mistakenly saying that the boat deck was "80" feet above the water. What is not important is the actual heights given, but their comparison; what Rowe was saying is that the iceberg was much higher than the boat deck. On the poop deck, he was only 20 feet below the level of the boat deck with the berg advancing towards him. Scarrott was another 10 feet below this, and the iceberg was already in the distance, so perspective may have misled him. Is it possible that the iceberg was much higher than the 60 or so feet derived from Olliver's statement?

What colour was the iceberg?

The stereotypical colour of icebergs is white, but there are exceptions to this rule. 2nd Officer Lightoller introduced the notion of a "blue berg" at the British Inquiry: an iceberg that had 'turned turtle' in the water due to melting and the change of the centre of gravity, exposing the darkened, underwater area to the air. This "blue berg" concept was seemingly produced to try and explain why the iceberg was not seen until much sooner by the lookouts. But the "blue berg" is not necessarily a spurious invention designed to deceive interrogators. At the British Inquiry, Edwin Cannons conceded that he never seen a black berg, and went on to say, "When I was Chief Officer of our "Michigan" I saw an iceberg capsize in the daytime. What appeared prior to the iceberg capsizing as a white glistening mass, after the sea had subsided and the water run off the portion that was then exposed, was apparently dark blue." This was the only one that he had ever seen. Another ship master, Frederick Passow, had never seen a black iceberg, only white ones. The "Daily Sketch" of April 22nd reported that "the Sunderland steamer Portland which saw the Titanic six hour before the disaster [sic?] had encountered a few hours before a black iceberg about twelve feet out of the water." The explanation proferred was that it probably drifted on to the coast line, touched bottom, and then turned turtle and floated again. There is more information on the Portland on my Shipping Pages

(As an aside, Cannons provided one of the truly jaw dropping moments of unintentional hilarity at the British Inquiry, when he said that the phenomenon of ice blink was caused "an effulgence thrown off the berg or ice because the ice absorbs the light of day, and throws it off at night. It would look like a large mass of luminous paint.")

A few seconds' search on the internet will find examples of blue icebergs, but these are invariably light blue in colour, and some are back-lit by sunlight which leads this author to the suspect that they are not truly blue, but only appear that way due to filtering of light. What about a "black" berg? The International Ice Patrol told author Michael Davie c.1985 that they had never seen a black berg. For this august group to deny the existence of such a phenomenon implies that they must be rare indeed. Or non-existent? Even Sir Ernest Shackleton admitted that he had only seen icebergs that "appear[ed]" to be black on two occasions during his, admittedly, limited time on the North Atlantic. For more up-to-date information, I contacted the International Ice Patrol, and they confirmed that blue icebergs were very rare (off hand, their oceanographer Dr.Murphy said that he could only recall one, in the 1950s, but he had never heard of anyone seeing an iceberg that was dark.

So, what colour was the iceberg that mortally wounded the Titanic? Testimony, as usual, conflicts. Quartermaster Olliver saw the top of the iceberg when he entered the bridge. He told senators at the US Hearings that, "it was not white, as I expected to see an iceberg. It was a kind of a dark-blue hue. It was not white." A few things should be borne in mind about Olliver's statement. First of all, he may have been partially blinded by exposure to lamps. Secondly, bear in mind where the iceberg was when he saw it: "Just abaft the bridge." The area where he saw was confined to a small area of the forward end of the starboard boat deck, as there were bulkheads and a bridge wing that impedes one's view. And in that area is a navigational sidelight, coloured green. Lights in public areas, such as the promenade, would be turned off for the night. The only other source of illumination for the iceberg would be caused by whatever curtains and deadlights had been left open just below the level of the bridge. In short, apart from the green light, there would be precious few points of light playing on the iceberg. Green, plus (partially?) destroyed night vision could, I speculate, affect the perceived colour of the iceberg.

Plan of B deck.

Another exponent of the "black berg" was Steward Alfred Crawford. He was also on duty, in the forward section of B deck. Hearing the crash, he went outside and saw a large black object much higher than B deck. His vantage point is noted in the accompanying thumbnail. His observations of a "black" berg can be dismantled in the same way as Olliver's. Crawford saw the berg at the very front of the superstructure, where there was very little light to illuminate an object. Unless one subscribes to Cannons' theory that ice stores light like a huge battery and then expunges itself in the dark, even the whitest of icebergs will appear dark if there is little light to play upon it. We must perhaps be suspicious of Mr.Crawford's observations. He was asked if there was any ice on the deck, and he replied, "I did not go so far forward as that." The iceberg had, in fact, deposited a lot of loose ice on the forward well deck, less than ten feet lower and a few feet forward of where he must have been standing! Crawford would also have had problems acclimatising his eyesight during the transition from a lit interior to a dark exterior.

As noted, Rowe saw the berg pass by very close to his vantage point on the poop deck. He was asked, "Was there anything distinctive about the colour of that iceberg?" and replied, "Not a bit, sir; just like ordinary ice."

It is pertinent to this discussion to note what 4th Officer Boxhall was asked in America:
Q. How did this iceberg look to you? I mean as to colour?
A. White.
Q. Did they all look about the same colour?
A. They looked white to me, in the sunlight.
Q. Was the sun up, then?
A. No; but after the sun got up they looked white.
Q. In the early morning, at the dawn - daybreak?
A. No; at daybreak they looked quite black.

Witnesses to discoloured icebergs on the morning of the 15th are rare (seaman Osman said he saw a "dark" 'berg, "like dirty ice" and 55passenger Woolner spoke of white, blue, mauve and dark grey colours) but any deviation from the expected "white" icebergs may be attributed to lighting effects caused by the rising sun.

But, as we shall soon learn, one does not need to invoke strangely coloured bergs to explain why the fatal wall of ice was not seen until it was too late. Certainly, no one in the morning, either in the lifeboats or on the Carpathia, mentioned a strangely coloured wall of ice in their midst.

What did the lookouts see?

Fortunately, there are a number of free astronomical programmes that can produce a visual representation of the view as seen from any location on the Earth, and at any time. One of these is here. An example of the output can be seen to the right.

Simplified view of the sky, 11.40pm local time 14/4/12

The output has been set to show the stars on a heading of 266o just a few miles north and east of the wrecksite, to allow for drift. To account for the spectacular visibility of the stars, noted by many survivors, the output has been adjusted to display stars of a magnitude less (that is, brighter) than 6.5, which is the visible threshold of the human eye. One can immediately see the number of stars visible from that location in the North Atlantic.

The coloured disks with the astrological symbols represent planets that have risen. They are, from top to bottom. blue - Neptune; red - Mars and grey - Pluto. The first and last of these were too far away to be seen with the naked eye. The large ("bright") star mid way between the left and right borders, and just slightly below the mid-point of the height of Mars is α Procyon.

The green triangle represents just how high an iceberg of height 60 feet would seem to be at a distance of 500 yards (1500 feet), the distance referred to in Lord Mersey's report on the Titanic disaster. This triangle represents the "best case"; that is, looking directly at the iceberg and not down upon it, where it would be obscured, partially or completely by the line of the horizon. One can see that, even if the location of the graph were off by just a few degrees, there would be precious few stars on the horizon to eclipse by the iceberg.
Incidentally, for an iceberg to be seen reaching the altitude of Mars, it would have to be a distance of only 300 feet away.

Geometry of the Earth, the Titanic and the iceberg.

With the aid of a simple Java programme, it is possible to replicate what must have been seen that night, albeit without the complexity of reflected starlight etc. The resultant programme is below, and enables the user to experiment with any number of possible solutions. For instance, the notion that the iceberg would have been seen sooner had the lookouts been closer to the waterline. In the sketch to the right, a lookout at point "A" can see to the horizon at point "B". An iceberg at point "C" (lower than "A") is within the horizon and would not be silhouetted against the stars. But, if you were lower down, at "D", there is a chance of seeing an object as it moved in front of the stars, blotting them out.

To recreate the sky the look-outs would have seen, I have employed a few other utilities: The GIMP, an image editing tool, Sqirlz, to recreate the reflections in the ripple-free water (though I have cheated by not making the water 100% reflective), and the Stellarium, near photo-realistic software of night skies for any point on the Earth. For this latter tool, I have specified maximum visibility and low light pollution to recreate the stunningly clear night.

All of the above software is free.

A few notes about the simulation

Like many computer models, this simple simulation employs the principle of GIGO - Garbage in, Garbage Out. Feed it spurious data, and you'll get gibberish out.
A lot of the data is calculated by comparison of very large values (radius of the earth) compared to small values (distance and heights of the iceberg and observer). This leads to inherent machine inaccuracy manifesting themselves at very low values - and this is something that can't be evaded. However, I am confident that the model works well when replicating the conditions of April 14th; that is, height of the berg 60 feet, observers height 66-90 feet, distance to the berg, some 1500 feet or more. At values drastically different from this, you may get erroneous results. Incidentally, the Earth's deviation from sphericity has not been modelled. Over the short distances we are considering, any deviation is negligible.
The outline of the iceberg is a simple equilateral triangle; likewise, the depiction of the bow is a simple triangle, designed to show how much the bow would obscure the observer's vantage. Due to the way that Java Swing handles its threads, you may need to click on the buttons a few times before you see the outline(s). Obviously, if you place an observer at the prow, you won't see the outline of the bow!
The collision time is 11.40pm exactly. This is local ship's time, and the location of the stars and planets have been calculated based on the ship being a few miles north and quite a few miles east of the wreck site. During the time to get to the collision point, the Earth would have rotated, causing a few stars on the western horizon to set. However, in the time to collision (about 20 minutes), the starscape would not have changed much.
A few other points: the model is accurate in terms of mimicking a human's field of vision.
3 pixels are approximately 1 degree.
There is no zoom-in facility. The look-outs didn't have any binoculars, so why should you?
The "Other viewpoint" option puts one at the same distance from the prow as the crow's nest, but allows the user to specify the height above the water.

Please activate Javascript and download the Java Runtime Environment.

From the vantage point of the crow's nest, we can deduce a few things:
The iceberg, at the start of our simulation, is on the horizon, at 23.11. It would be 0.05 degrees above it and extremely difficult to see.
The berg dips below the horizon at 23.35, at a distance of 11255 feet, or 1.85 miles. It would only be 0.3 degrees in height. A full moon, by comparison, would occupy 0.5 degrees. How large does 0.3 degrees correspond to? It would be equivalent to holding a US Penny (19 mm diameter) at a distance of 12.1 feet; a UK penny has a 20 mm diameter giving the same angular coverage as its US counterpart at 12.6 feet.
If things were relaxed, and we allowed the berg to be 80 feet high, then it would dip below the horizon at 23.38.30, at a distance of 3500 feet. It would be 0.98 degrees in height, and more visible than at 11255 feet.

Or to put it in other terms: If you hold your arm outstretched, and stick your thumb up, it would appear to be roughly the same size as a 60 foot tall iceberg at about 700 feet distance. This is the iceberg as seen 18 seconds from the bows, given the ship's speed. Extrapolating from QM Olliver's timing of about a minute, the distance to berg when first sighted would be 2280 feet, or your thumb at 228 centimetres away, or 2.28 metres (7.6 feet); needless to say, it would appear to be miniscule, almost invisible. One could argue that the lookouts were lucky to see anything at such a distance.
Now imagine that it is night. The sea is flat calm, and there is breaking water at the base of the iceberg to provide a premature warning that ...something... was out there. On the horizon, the berg would be too small to eclipse many stars. Once below the horizon, all one has to rely on is the lack of reflection of starlight in the water, or perhaps the reflection of stars on its bulk, as Captain Rostron of the Carpathia saw on his way to the rescue. It is perhaps difficult for landlubbers to imagine what it would be like, but perhaps readers of this webpage can now appreciate that for the lookouts to be dismissed as "poor" is an unjustifiable claim. Indeed, it is a wonder that the lookouts managed to see anything at all; there were 3 pairs of eyes espying the nearby waters. Were they all defective, or distracted?

There is one point not considered by either inquiry into the disaster: the effect that the biting wind chill would have had on the look-outs eyes and faces. To say it would have been uncomfortable would be a gross understatement, and it would feel as if the temperature would be well below 0oC.

Art Braunschweiger proposes that recent search and scan techniques that have been developed by the US Navy are designed to circumvent a peculiarity in the human visual system; that is, at night, a natural dead spot in the eyes makes seeing objects directly ahead more difficult that seeing it in your peripheral vision. Look-outs are trained to scan particular sectors of the field of vision and then track across, while still holding the binoculars to the eyes.

How far away was the iceberg when it was seen?

In his report of the British Inquiry, Lord Mersey summarised the collision, thus: "From the evidence given it appears that the "Titanic" had turned about two points to port before the collision occurred. From various experiments subsequently made with the s.s. "Olympic," a sister ship to the "Titanic," it was found that travelling at the same rate as the "Titanic," about 37 seconds would be required for the ship to change her course to this extent after the helm had been put hard-a-starboard. In this time the ship would travel about 466 yards, and allowing for the few seconds that would be necessary for the order to be given, it may be assumed that 500 yards was about the distance at which the iceberg was sighted either from the bridge or crow's-nest. That it was quite possible on this night, even with a sharp look-out at the stem head, crow's nest and on the bridge, not to see an iceberg at this distance is shown by the evidence of Captain Rostron, of the 'Carpathia.'" This latter mention refers to a comment made by Rostron; "At a quarter to three I saw what we knew was an iceberg by the light from a star - I saw a streak of light right on the iceberg. We saw it, I cannot say the distance off, but some distance - not very far."

These values (37 seconds, 500 yards and so on) have been repeated in numerous books, such as Walter Lord's "A Night To Remember." Are they accurate?

Where do these values originate? Edward Wilding was asked about this. Wilding, a Marine Architect at Harland and Wolff, the firm who had built the Titanic, told Mersey and the lawyers in London that the Olympic was travelling at about 21.5 knots during the tests, and this corresponded to 74 revolutions of the engines per minute. He mentioned that it took 37 seconds for the head to turn two points (22.5 degrees) and that this was achieved in 1200-1300 feet. At court proceedings of Ryan vs. the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (the White Star Line), Wilding revealed that the Titanic would turn 440 yards (1320 feet) forward and 100 yards [sic- feet?] laterally during a 2 point manoeuvre.

Let us pause to review these numbers. The Titanic was travelling at 75 revolutions, and 21st century researchers tend to assume that the ship was making about 22.5 knots, or a knot faster than Wilding had reported. Even Mersey's report states that the Titanic was making 22 knots. And 1200-1300 feet is actually 400-500 yards. With the Titanic travelling faster than the Olympic was, this distance would be reduced slightly.

Where did "466 yards" come from? Sir Rufus Isaacs, the Attorney-General of the Board of Trade, gave the following monologue:
"Therefore [the Titanic] having turned the two points to port must have taken 37 seconds, and I do not think that I am adding too much or treating [the lookouts] unfairly when I say if you add three seconds for the report of what takes place you get as nearly as you will ever be able to get the time that had elapsed between the report of Fleet and the striking of the iceberg; that is between the sighting of the iceberg and the striking of the iceberg at most 40 seconds must have elapsed. That I think is the position of the discussion on the evidence such as we know it. Now that means this, that the furthest distance at which the iceberg was seen from the vessel was 466 yards - anything from 450 to 500 yards is the extreme distance that you can put it. I say 466 because it is two-thirds of 700 yards which I was assuming she was travelling per minute. Therefore, what we have got established is that this vessel going along at this pace, travelling at this 700 yards a minute, only sees the iceberg at a distance of 466 yards, and that that is not enough..."

700 yards a minute is only 20.7 knots. And an experiment by this author has shown that, from the time of the first ring of the bell to the warning being acknowledged on the bridge with a polite "Thank you" by 6th Officer Murdoch, a time of about 10 seconds would have elapsed, during which the Titanic would have moved forwards (based on 22.5 knots) 380 feet, or nearly 127 yards. And yet Isaacs numbers were accepted, unchallenged by the court. A higher speed would decrease the distance between the iceberg and the Titanic, perhaps by 62 feet if the 37 seconds can be transferred from the Olympic's tests to the Titanic's fatal manoeuvre.

The only mention of ships' distance gleaned during the US Inquiry is provided in the book, "Titanic - End of a dream" by Wyn Craig Wade, where it is described as "less than a mile."

The forward boat deck.

Is there any corroboration for a time between sighting and collision of more than 37 seconds? Certainly, but it was not heard in London. The witness, Quartermaster Olliver only testified in America. His story has already been related, and his walk from the compass tower to the bridge acts as our stopwatch, from three bells to when the iceberg was abeam of the bridge. The distance covered by his walk can be covered at normal human walking speed in about 60 seconds. In Titanic's term at 38 feet per second, this would make the iceberg 2280 feet from the bridge, or 2210 from the crow's nest. This time, and distance can be reduced, if we consider that he may have only seen the very end of the iceberg, as detailed in a sketch above. Sadly, since this is only a hypothesis and we do not know how large the iceberg, we cannot quantify how much this reduction may be.
But it amounts to the fact that, for a 10 second duration of warning bell-to-acknowledgement, the distance from berg to crows nest was only 1900 feet when the ship was in a condition to react to the impending collision.

But there is a conflict with Olliver's account. Fourth Officer Boxhall was just leaving the Officer's Quarters when he heard the three bells. He heard the "hard a starboard" order and was almost on the bridge when the ship struck. How could Boxhall, from a closer location, get to the bridge as the same time as Olliver? The answer finally became clear in an interview with the BBC in 1962. Boxhall was actually in his cabin having a cup of tea; it is understandable that he did not want to divulge this information at the inquiries as this would be seen as gross dereliction of duty for a junior officer even if Murdoch had allowed him to do so: Boxhall was suffering from pleurisy and the officer of the watch may have taken pity on his junior. Incidentally, Boxhall did not see the iceberg passing just feet by him due to him still being dazzled by the lights from the interior of the ship.

Can we decipher any other clues from the testimonies of the witnesses? It is frustrating owing to the high number of deaths. If we take Boxhall's story and reconcile it with his 1912 testimony, we can paint the following picture: coming out of the Officer's quarters, a moment or two later, he felt the slight shock of the impact. A "moment" before this he heard the "hard-a-starboard" order and the telegraphs ringing. Arriving on the bridge, he saw Murdoch operating the control to close the watertight doors. Could Boxhall have heard Murdoch's order and the telegraphs ringing from his quarters?

We know from the operating instructions of the watertight doors that the warning bell was to be rung, and then after waiting for ten seconds, the control to close the doors would be activated; the doors would seal after 25-30 seconds. It is not clear from Olliver's statement if he saw the watertight doors being closed. Are there any other witnesses who can describe the temporal relationship between the closing of the doors and the collision? Many of those in the bowels of the ship perished, and of the few who gave testimony most gave conflcting estimates of time. But there are the recollections of leading fireman Fred Barrett. He heard the bell ring in boiler room 6, and had barely given the order for his underlings to deal with the boilers when the "crash" occurred. Reading his story, Barrett is clear that the word "crash" meant not the time of initial impact, but when the side of the ship opened up spewing green foam into the boiler room. At 22.5 knots, and from his location about 230 feet aft of the bow, the iceberg would have traversed this distance in about 6 seconds.

If Barrett was right, the iceberg was already practically upon the Titanic when the warning bell rung. Boxhall's imprecise - but understandable - use of the word "moment" to indicate time tells us little, other than the order of events. What can be inferred is that Murdoch did not close the watertight doors until the very last second, when he was sure than an impact was likely to occur. But how long was it from the initial sighting to the warning bell being rung? Remember that Boxhall said that he had already felt the impact under his feet. Likely Murdoch felt it too.

A possible timeline can be constructed, if we assume that Olliver arrived at the bridge just after the watertight door control had been activated:
0 sLook-outs contact the bridge
10 sIceberg warning acknowleged
50 sWarning bell rung
60 sWatertight doors closing; Olliver arrives on the bridge

We can presume that the desperate attempts to dodge the iceberg were made between the 10 and 50 second mark. If Olliver's arrival on the bridge was after the watertight door control being activated, then the whole timeline is compressed. But there is reason to suggest that Olliver did see the control activated, but did not see it. Although he admits that he only saw Murdoch "about the lever," Olliver states that he did feel the collision just as he entered the bridge. Boxhall was still on his way to the bridge when the felt the impact and saw the doors closed. Therefore, Boxhall arrived after Olliver. Interestingly, the 40 seconds is close to the 2 points (22.5 degrees) deflection time of 37 seconds that the Olympic recorded during post-disaster tests. Other authors have noted the problems with the testimony and how the Titanic seemed to be turning as soon as look-out Fleet finished on the telephone.

So how far from the Titanic was the iceberg? Olliver's timings suggest a little over 2200 feet. Wilding suggests about 1300 feet. This large discrepancy in the time implies that there is a hidden latency in the time line...or perhaps someone was withholding something at the inquiries? Olliver would have been asked about this in Britain, except that he wasn't called.

A highly recommended paper concerning the movements of the Titanic can be found here

"First sight"


Two sketches made by Fred Fleet for Ed Kamuda of the Titanic Historical Society are reproduced here. As historical documents, they are invaluable. But as a record of what actually happened, they have little value, other than sentimentality. The "First Sight" sketch is obviously wrong as it shows the iceberg on the horizon. This indicates such a long time between sighting and warning that it implies negligence on the parts of the lookouts. Perhaps what Fleet meant to say was that only a portion of it was above the horizon (the red line included by this author)? Even so, this would happen at such a distance from the Titanic (before it drops below the look-outs visible horizon) that it begs the obvious question: why did the lookouts leave it so late? Or, if the lookouts did respond in time (as Louise Patten claims) why did the bridge crew not react until it was too late?
Of course, if the berg was bigger than the oft quoted "60 feet" then some portion of it would be visible against the sky till fairly late.. Then there is the positioning of the iceberg. It is clear off to starboard. Fleet reported that it was "dead ahead."

Taken in isolation, the first sketch has enough features to elicit suspicion. The second sketch, not often referred to, confirms that the diagrams are merely the product of imagination. It shows an iceberg that is far too high, bears no resemblance to Scarrott's sketch, and only approximately reproduced the location of impact.

This author suggests that the pictures by Fleet have only limited evidentiary value.

Did a haze impede the lookout's vision?

Fleet's companion, Reginald Lee, was insistent that there was haze on the horizon, right from the time that they took over the look-out at 10pm:

Q. What sort of a night was it?
A. A clear, starry night overhead, but at the time of the accident there was a haze right ahead.
Q. At the time of the accident a haze right ahead?
A. A haze right ahead - in fact it was extending more or less round the horizon. There was no moon.
Q. Did you notice this haze which you said extended on the horizon when you first came on the look-out, or did it come later?
A. It was not so distinct then - not to be noticed. You did not really notice it then - not on going on watch, but we had all our work cut out to pierce through it just after we started. My mate happened to pass the remark to me. He said, "Well; if we can see through that we will be lucky." That was when we began to notice there was a haze on the water. There was nothing in sight.

When asked about the iceberg, Lee said that, "It was a dark mass that came through that haze and there was no white appearing until it was just close alongside the ship, and that was just a fringe at the top." Asked to clarify by counsel, "It was a dark mass that appeared, you say?" Lee replied, "Through this haze, and as she moved away from it, there was just a white fringe along the top. That was the only white about it, until she passed by, and then you could see she was white; one side of it seemed to be black, and the other side seemed to be white. When I had a look at it going astern it appeared to be white."

Alfred Shiers, a crewman on the Titanic agreed: "It was hazy. When I saw that berg it was hazy. The berg was in a haze." And Charles Stengel, a 1st class passenger made the interesting comment, "We followed a light [Boxhall's green flares] that was to the bow of the boat, which looked like in the winter, in the dead of winter, when the windows are frosted with a light coming through them. It was in a haze."

Fleet told the court in London that the haze "was nothing to talk about" and his colleague's observations were dismissed as a ploy to explain why the iceberg was not seen till so late.

A haze would have provided a means of explaining why no course corrections were attempted till it was so late. But it would also have raised the spectre of negligence, in that the bridge officers allowed the ship to run at full speed into conditions that were visually less than perfect. Before leaving the bridge, Captain Smith had informed his officer of the watch at the time, Lightoller, to call him if situations became doubtful. And yet, nothing had been done. If the lookouts had seen a haze, then they would surely have reported it. Surely?

What did Lee mean by a "haze" (it it even existed)? If so, it would have to have been seen at 10pm, or under 40 miles from the collision point. There is a condition, called "ice blink" that is a lightening of the horizon caused by reflected light off ice illuminating a low cloud base. Captain David G. Brown writes in his highly recommended "The Last Log of the Titanic" that 'ice blink occurs when moonlight or starshine reflects off ice and illuminates low lying moisture in the atmosphere. [The ice blink] was starshine reflected onto wisps of fog created when the ice chilled the surrounding atmosphere to below its dew point. A thin layer of fog likely formed just above the surface of the ice.' A fog would be a possible mechanism, as that night in April 1912, there was no cloud, and mariners who responded on the ships-nostalgia forum have only ever seen ice-blink from clouds. And yet, a phenomenon like "ice blink" was seen, apparently.

Some miles to the north, the tramp steamer Californian was en route to Boston. Captain Stanley Lord would later write in 1959, "At 10.15 p.m. I observed a brightening along the western horizon. After watching this carefully for a few minutes I concluded that it was caused by ice." He ordered his ship stopped. In London, Lord was asked about a haze:
Q. Did you observe between 8 and 10 o'clock that night that there was a haze?
A. No, I did not.
Q. Can you say that there was not?
A. In my opinion there was not.
Lord does not mention the lightened horizon at either of his Inquiry appearances, so we must be cautious that it ever existed in view of the continuing controversy surrounding his ship. Certainly, if he did see such an effect on the horizon, and it can be attributed to the ice field that he was steaming towards and which forced him to stop for the night, it must have been less than a mile away. The Titanic too was heading for the ice field, and from what we know of its layout, the distance at the time of the collision would have been about 6 miles. And yet Lee, albeit from a higher vantage point, had seen it much sooner, and hence much further away than Captain Lord's "sighting."

Sir Ernest Shackleton said this at the British Inquiry: "On a night such as you have described, if there was a big field of ice, the [ice] blink would most certainly be seen very, very clearly. If there was really what we call big fields, miles and miles of ice, then you would see the edge, what we call the water-sky, that is where the ice-field ends."

It goes without saying that a light effect on the horizon would have benefits when sighting icebergs, or any unlit obstructions: they would appear as dark objects silhouetted against a murk of white. The fact that the Titanic did not see the deadly berg till it was less than half a mile away implies that this "light effect" either did not exist or was peculiar to the Californian's latitude. And it seems doubtful that "ice blink" could be seen from such a huge distance. It seems unlikely that a condition known as "loom of the light" (the light is scattered upward by particles of water vapour in the atmosphere extending its visible distance) could account for the blink being observed so far.

Did an optical illusion fool the lookouts?

One possible mirage, mentioned by Captain Brown is "towering". This occurs due to irregular refraction. Light rays curve downward, with the top of the object curving more than the lower ones. The observer will see objects which seem to be lifted up more then they need to be and will be enlarged in the vertical direction. This is one possible mechanism that may explain Fred Fleet's seemingly erroneous sketch of the first sighting of the iceberg.

Other recommended reading

George's Behe's page on iceberg visibility. It should also be noted that, in addition to the impressive catalogue of data collected by George, the US Coast Guard stated in 1999 that on a clear, dark, starlit night, a look-out will not pick up an iceberg at a greater distance than 1/4 mile. Therefore, at 22.5 knots, this would only give about 35 seconds warning.
Samuel Halpern's presentation on the Titanic's manoueverability.

Please click here to go up a level.

Recommended reading: