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SS Californian

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Last updated by Meril Jeffery John.J

SS CalifornianSS 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. She was later sunk herself, on 9 November 1915, by a German submarine in the Eastern Mediterranean during World War I.


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. She 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 (22 km/h). She 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. She was the largest ship ever built in Dundee.

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

The Californian and her Captain Stanley Lord became notorious for their failure to respond to distress signals sent up by Titanic. It was alleged that officers on the nearby vessel observed the signals but ignored them.

The Californian had left Liverpool carrying a mixed cargo but no passengers on 5 April 1912, bound for Boston. She received several ice warnings and at 6.30 p.m. Lord himself ordered an ice warning sent to the Antillian, this was overheard by the Titanic. Lord did every thing a good Captain should do. He doubled the look out and slowed down. At 10.21 he decided to go no further and ordered the engines stopped. About an hour later Lord saw what he thought was a steamer passing to the south., Third Officer Groves was instructed to raise the ship by lamp but without success. The wireless officer was by now off-duty and therefore did not hear Titanic's distress signals. However it would appear that the rockets sent up by Titanic were observed from the deck of the Californian, however, they were not interpreted as distress rockets and in retrospect, the actions taken in response to them were woefully inadequate.

Captain Lord lost his command shortly after his role in the Titanic incident became known however the Californian resumed her normal service.

The Ship That Watched Titanic Sink:

Vilified forever in the epic tragedy as the 'Ship Who Watched Titanic Sink', the SS Californian remains another unanswered question in this immortal saga.

Captain Stanley Lord's life would never be the same after that night. The American and British Inquiries made in the wake of the sinking both found Lord's actions that night unprofessional and negligible. While no formal charges were ever filed, the broken man's career was over.

Incidentally, the Californian herself disappeared from history during World War I. A fate almost poetic in nature, the ship was sunk in 1918 and has never been found.

The Californian Timeline on April 15, 1912:

What exactly transpired on the decks of the Californian that fateful night will forever be lost to time. What are able to deduce was pieced together from testimony given by Californian's captain and officers during the Inquires.

  • The Californian radioed Titanic at approximately 19:00 hours to warn of an ice field of which the Californian nearly collided with herself. 
  • Captain Stanley Lord ordered the Californian to stop for the night, concluding it was too dangerous to proceed. As he was going off duty, he spotted the Titanic's lights on the horizon about 5 miles away.
  • Californian radioed Titanic again, warning that they had stopped and were surrounded by ice. The radio signal was so strong, it interrupted Titanic's regular communication and its reply was "Shut Up. Shut Up. I am Busy." Californian shut down its wireless at 23:30, Titanic struck the iceberg ten minutes later. 
  • Californian was sited from Titanic's bridge 25 minutes later and distress rockets were fired.
  • Officers aboard Californian spotted several rockets and called down to Captain Lord, who had since gone to bed.
  • Lord suggested the Californian contact the vessel via morse lamp. No effort was ever made to wake the wireless operator. He suggested that the rockets were company signals of some kind. Testimony given during the British Inquiry suggests mix ideas about the rockets they saw. Some of Californian's officers believed there was a more serious nature behind the rockets.
  • At 0200, Titanic appeared to "be leaving the area" after firing a total of eight white rockets. This was reported to Captain Lord who did nothing. Titanic sank at 0220 hours.
  • At 0300, officers of the Californian sited rockets coming from the south. These were from RMS Carpathia who had traveled all night towards Titanic.
  • At 0416, A shift change resulted in Californian's wireless operator to inquire about why a ship had fired rockets earlier.
  • At 0530, Captain Lord, now awake, ordered the Californian to Titanic's postion. But through a twisted, longer, route instead of directly there.
  • Californian arrives alongside Carpathia who just finished collecting all survivors. After Carpathia departs for New York, Californian stays behind to continue the search only to find wreckage.

This map illustrates Californian's close proximity to Titanic that night. Less than 20 nautical miles Northwest of the sinking ship.

The Aftermath

SS Californian arrived in Boston on April 19, 1912 unnoticed as the world had not yet learned of its significance. The American Inquiry, which was launched the same day, learned of Californian's involvement on April 20th when members of her crew, including Captain Lord, leaked stories to the media about seeing the Titanic's distress rockets that night. Lord claimed his ship was thirty miles from the Titanic but other crew claimed it was less than twenty. When reporters pressed Lord, he replied that the exact location was a classified state secret. Lord gave a conflicting story as to why his wireless was offline that night. A result, he claimed, was due to shutting down for the evening. Other details also conflicted with his crew's accounts, including how long the Californian searched for survivors upon arriving at the wrecksite, how many rockets the crew saw and its location relative to Titanic.

It didn't take long for the American Inquiry to subpoena Lord and the Californian crew which they did on April 23, 1912. While the crew's accounts were largely consistant in their recollection, Captain Lord's was conflicting and incomplete. Lord's knowledge of Titanic's rockets made up a large part of Lord's inconsistant testimony. What he told reporters, his American testimony and later in his May 2 British testimony were all different. First he denied ever seeing rockets, then he admitted seeing rockets but from a third ship, not Titanic. He also openly disputed testimony given by the US Navy and other vessels pinning Californian within visual distance of Titanic.

More incriminating evidence, or a suspicious lack thereof, came in the form of Californian's logs. Its scrap log mysteriously disappeared sometime between the night of the disaster and Californian's arrival in Boston. The official log gave no mention of Titanic, a nearby ship, or rockets of any kind.

Both Inquires concluded Californian's postion to be closer than Captain Lord's claim of twenty nautical miles and therefore concluded that the captain failed to act appropriately. The British Inquiry even went so far in saying that Californian could have saved an untold number of additional lives had she responded immediately to Titanic's rockets.


Captain Stanley LordIronically, the Californian's inaction would prompt changes in international maritime law. In 1912, International radio treaties were adopted mandated 24-hour radio duty and later treaties saw the standardization of distress flares and rockets.

The conclusions of both Inquiries officially placed blame on Captain Stanley Lord of the SS Californian for his inaction of the disaster, a verdict that officially ruined both his career and his life. No criminal charges were ever filed against him in either the United States or Britain. The social disgrace however marked Captain Lord in the public's eye as a coward.

Californian's owner, the Leyland Line, fired Captain Lord in August 1912. For the remainder of his life, the disgraced mariner would fight unsuccessfully to clear his name. For the next eighty years, official reexaminations of the evidence including one in 1992 all concluded the same results as the original investigations. Experts, scholars, historians and filmmakers would vilify Captain Lord in all forms of media from books to films. Lord died in 1962 a broken man.

Fate of the SS Californian

The Californian herself existed only for a short time after her commanding officer was dismissed. When World War I broke out in 1914, the ship was pressed into service as a troop transport by the British government. In 1915, German U-Boat, U-35, torpedoed Californian off the coast of Greece. She sank with only one life lost. The wreck has yet to be found.


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