Anybody who has read the Titanic story knows the tale of the rescue ship Carpathia. Book after book has told us how she raced 58 miles to the rescue, dodging icebergs and pushing her engines beyond their limits to reach 17½ knots. Even recent authors, who should know better, keep repeating the story without considering the facts. I believe that they are perpetuating a fiction, which should have been exposed as soon as Dr Ballard revealed the position of the wreck of Titanic. I have also developed a theory which neatly explains one of the many Titanic mysteries, namely Carpathia's remarkably early sighting of the flares fired by Fourth Officer Boxhall in lifeboat 2.
Let's get one thing straight. The courage and seamanship of Captain Arthur Rostron and his crew are beyond doubt. The planning and forethought which Rostron displayed were exceptional. He was all that British seaman were popularly supposed to be and had everyone involved that night been of his calibre, there would have been no wreck. Rostron was to become Commodore of the Cunard Line and was knighted for his service at sea. His Second Officer, James Bisset, achieved the same distinctions. Regrettably, the heroic status immediately granted to him ensured that his account of his rescue mission was accepted at face value in 1912 and for long after. The dissenting voice of Captain Moore of Mount Temple, who knew that Titanic's SOS position was wrong, was ignored. Heroes are not given the third degree.
Let us turn to the plotting chart and Traverse Table and look at the story objectively in the light of modern knowledge.
For convenience, I have used the modern compass notation. Times are ship's time on Carpathia.
Rostron received the SOS position as the famous, but incorrect, 41° 46' N, 50° 14' W. He then hastily worked out a dead reckoning position for Carpathia. This was calculated at about 12-35 a.m., by which time Rostron had been without a fix since around 7-30 p.m., when he would have fixed his position within a mile by a set of star sights. (This was the usual practice of conscientious navigators, which Rostron certainly was.) His dead reckoning position was therefore subject to the accuracy of the steering, his estimation of the ship's speed and the influence of wind and currents over a period of five hours. After considering these factors, Rostron decided that he was 58 miles from Titanic and that his course to her was 308° True. By Traverse Table, I calculate his supposed position as 41° 10' N, 49° 12' W. Rostron ordered full speed ahead.
What was this speed? In April, 1912, Rostron told the US enquiry merely that, "I went full speed, all we could." By June he was telling the British enquiry of the famous 17½ knots. Bisset later wrote that they went at 16 knots. Modern naval architects have calculated that Carpathia could not do these speeds. Given her size and hull form, her engines simply did not have the required power, no matter how hard the stokers stoked. Once their maximum steam pressure was reached, no further power could be gained. Carpathia's official top speed was 14 knots, her engines were about nine years old and a top of 15 knots might have been possible. Indeed, Wireless Operator Harold Cottam told the US Senate enquiry that, during the rescue mission, Captain Rostron ordered him to tell Titanic that Carpathia was coming at "a good 15 knots, maybe 16".
Rostron's unlikely final estimate of his speed is due to his genuine belief that between 12-35 a.m. and 4-00 a.m. he covered 58 miles in 3 hours, 25 minutes. This is an average speed of 17 knots. Allowing for slowing down at the end and for the fact that the top speed attained on a passage is generally a little more than the average, a maximum of 17½ would have seemed possible. Not only the speed, but Rostron's times, were worked out to fit the 58 mile run. Being based on incorrect assumptions, his times and speeds must also be incorrect.
We now know that the wreck lay much nearer to Carpathia than Rostron believed. If Rostron's estimated position was correct, Titanic sank only 47 miles away. The wreck site could have been reached in 3hr 25 min at only 13.7 knots. Not only was the distance wrong, but the bearing was also wrong. The correct course to the wreck from Rostron's estimated position was 315° True. His planned course of 308° True would have passed some 5 miles southwest of the wreck at the closest, yet Rostron found the lifeboats with remarkable accuracy. How was this happy result achieved?
The first hint that something was wrong with Rostron's navigation came at 2-40 a.m. when Rostron said he sighted a flare fired by Fourth Officer Boxhall in lifeboat 2. Rostron also said that this was five minutes before the first iceberg was sighted. We know that this boat was quite close to the wreck. When reached by Carpathia, it had been in the water for a little over two hours and Boxhall testified that he had not attempted to row toward the light visible in the northwest. There is also testimony that when Carpathia reached him, Boxhall called out, "We have only one seaman and can't work very well!" Rostron had already noted that, "he was not under full control of this boat". Boxhall was probably no more than a mile or so south of the wreck, having drifted on the southerly current. Lifeboat 2 was the most southerly of the boats and was the first picked up.
How Rostron saw Boxhall's flare so early has seemed a mystery. By his timing, he was still 1hr 20min away, or 20 miles at 15 knots. Bisset made the distance 25 miles. Even if Boxhall stood on a thwart in the boat and held the flare aloft, it would only have been visible to Rostron from about 11 miles. (From the Extreme Range Table, height of eye 50', as per Bisset). Of course, Boxhall could have been closer. There is no reason why Boxhall should have fired a flare just as the Extreme Range was reached. Several attempts have been made to explain this problem. None are really convincing.
Walter Lord put the sighting down to the exceptionally clear night, but a clear night does not change the curvature of the earth. Bisset wrote that Boxhall must have fired rockets, which went up 500', but there is no evidence for this from Boxhall or anyone else. Leslie Reade says Boxhall was firing Roman candles, which would have been seen at nearly 20 miles, but I can find no evidence for this. The flares were low enough for Lightoller, a little way off on collapsible B, to think they were fired by a distant ship. He would not have made this mistake with Roman candles, which shot coloured balls up to 100 feet (30 metres) high. Also, White Star Line's identification signal included two green flares, not Roman candles. Boxhall described his flares as "pyrotechnic lights", in other words flares, much as we know them today. Finally there is our old friend and standby, abnormal refraction. I personally have seen lights at amazing distances with its aid, but I don't think it should be invoked to explain every difficulty when a simpler explanation exists.
I propose that this early sighting is explained quite simply. Rostron, in collecting his thoughts and preparing his evidence for the US Senate hearings, made a simple and very understandable error. It stemmed from his attempts to work out times consistent with the 58 mile distance. He had estimated that he would take about four hours to reach the SOS position and would have been keeping track of the elapsed time, at least in his head. At 2 hrs 40 mins into the passage, he sighted the flare. This was at 3-15 a.m., but in writing his account up later he recorded the time as 2-40 a.m. If this is what he did, things now fall neatly into place.
The time of 3-15 a.m. agrees with the testimony of Mr Howard Chapin, a passenger on Carpathia, who timed the flare as "after three". In an affidavit, sent to Senator Smith, Mrs Mahala Douglas, a passenger in Boxhall's boat, said that Captain Rostron told her that he first saw the flare from ten miles away. This would have been on board Carpathia, before Rostron started the task of reconciling his times with the supposed distance run. By 3-15 a.m. Carpathia had covered as much as 40 miles at 15 knots. No more than 8 to 10 miles were left and Boxhall's flare was within range. The last 8 to 10 miles therefore took 45 minutes, an average of not more than 13.3 knots. This agrees with Rostron's own statement that the engines were stopped at 4-00 a.m., a little short of Boxhall's boat. The 45 minutes also includes time spent avoiding several icebergs and, according to Second Officer Bisset, some time spent at half speed ahead. It also fits Rostron's own estimate that Carpathia would be in the ice at about 3-00 a.m.
The rockets fired by Carpathia provide more evidence that the time from sighting the flare to reaching Boxhall's boat was under an hour. Rostron, having sighted the flare, ordered rockets fired at 15 minute intervals, commencing, according to him, at 2-45 a.m. By his timing, the last leg took 1 hour 20 mins and there was time to fire at least five rockets, all visible for as much as 25 miles. (See Bisset). By my corrected timing, the first rocket was fired at 3-20 a.m. On Californian the first of three rockets was seen at around 3-20 a.m. I suggest that is because there was only time to fire three.
My timing is also consistent with evidence that some of those in the lifeboats could hear Carpathia's rockets by about 3-30 a.m. This means that by then she was little more than 5 miles off. No rockets were seen before 3-30 a.m. by those in the boats. Had rockets been fired from 2-45 a.m., four would have been fired by 3-30 a.m. They all would have been well within sight.
Just as important as the distance off, is the direction of the flare. It was seen about 6° off the port bow and this is quite impossible if Rostron was on the course he had worked out. To be on the port bow, with Rostron on his planned course, Boxhall would have to have been around 6 miles southwest of the wreck at least. As we have seen, he could barely manage the boat at all, let alone row 6 miles southwest for no reason. I must conclude that Rostron, like everybody else on that famous night, was not where he thought he was. He was actually sailing on a course of 308° True, but was on a line about 5 or 6 miles northeast of the one planned. By good luck, this was just what was needed to reach the boats.
In passing, it might be observed that Boxhall's flares may well have saved many lives. Had they not warned Rostron of the presence of the boats, Carpathia would probably have arrived among them at full speed. Rostron, after all, thought he was ten miles further away than he was. His rescue attempt may have ended with the running down or capsizing of some of the boats.
Exactly how far Rostron sailed and his true starting position are not easily determined. One thing is known. He did not proceed in a series of wild zigzags, dodging icebergs on either hand, as vividly described by Lord, Harrison and others. Rostron testified that about six icebergs were seen and "several" of these required him to change course. By my reckoning, the icebergs were met only in the last 45 minutes of the passage. For nearly two and threequarter hours he was free to go flat out on his course. There is some conflict between the evidence of Rostron and Bisset on the speed. Rostron claimed that speed was never reduced but Bisset said that on at least two occasions it was. The difference is probably immaterial, as Bisset never said that the speed was reduced to a crawl for a long time. If we take a possible speed of 15 knots for 3hr 25 min, we get a distance of 51.1 miles. Allowing for Bisset's brief slowing down, and the small extra distance added through dodging icebergs, I conclude that Carpathia really covered less than 50 miles. Her starting point was about 41° 12' N, 49° 4' W, from which the wreck bears 308°: True. This is about 6 miles from Rostron's estimated position. Perhaps Carpathia was influenced by the North Atlantic Drift and was further along her course than Rostron thought.
In the absence of Carpathia's log it is not possible to deduce her original course. It can be said that she was well south of the great circle course to her destination, Gibraltar. It seems likely that the prudent Captain Rostron had steered a rhumb line course from New York to pass south of all known ice. He would have changed to the great circle course once sure he was safe. It is possible that by the time of the SOS he had done so and was steering a little north of east or about 85° True on the first segment of the great circle.
An alternative is that Rostron started from a point about one to two miles WSW of where I have placed his starting point and was set a little to the NE during the three and a half hours it took to reach the boats. There is quite a bit of evidence that a ENE current of well under one knot was found away from the icefield. The whole episode took place close to the northern limits of the North Atlantic drift. Wreckage and bodies went nearly NE in the days after the wreck. Mount Temple finished her run to the east of the SOS position. This is evidence for an east to northeast going current coming into play somewhere south of the icefield .
The reality? A run of less than 50 miles at perhaps as much as 15 knots on a course of 308° True, with a few course changes to avoid icebergs during the last 45 minutes, plus a lucky navigational error, which cancelled out Boxhall's incorrect SOS position. Maybe a current set Carpathia slightly towards the boats.
Perhaps Captains Smith and Rostron got what they deserved. The careless and overconfident Smith hit an iceberg. The meticulous Rostron found the lifeboats and lasting honour. Fate is not always unjust.