It is April 14, some years back, and the ocean cargo ship Californian has almost completed her journey from Liverpool, England to Boston Harbor. After a hard journey, the crew sleeps peacefully as the Californian rocks rhythmically for the night. It is near midnight, as Second Officer Herbert Stone bounds up the Californian’s steps to report for watch duty on the bridge.
Reporting for duty, Stone finds his apprentice seaman—Charles Grove—glued to a pair of binoculars, starring motionless toward the black horizon. Grove has spotted a ship in the distance … just 9 miles out. While some details of the ship are obscure, the ship is close enough that Grove can make out the ship’s masthead, cabin lights, and the glare of white lights on her afterdeck—a freighter by all appearance.
Stone asks Grove to try to communicate by means of the Californian’s bright signal lamp—similar to what I would call an airport spot light or search light. Grove flashes a bright beacon signal, but no answer from the steamer.
“Will that be all, sir?” Grove asks. Stone nods, and Grove leaves to make a note in his log.
Now Second Officer Stone is alone on the bridge. Glancing idly over the peaceful waves, the boat on the horizon catches his eye.
Grove returns to the bridge and Stone requests further communication attempts through the signal lamp. Grove employs the beacon signal once more, but still no reply from the steamer.
Lifting the binoculars to his eyes once more, Stone observes three flashes like fireworks in the sky, but now his attention is drawn to the steamer’s cabin lights. They seem to be disappearing, as though the steamer were sailing away. The movement is easily dismissed as routine sailing as the steamer makes its way through the night sea. By 2:40 a.m., the steamer’s lights vanish into the night.
Neither the second officer nor his apprentice interpret the white flashes as cause for alarm. The event is dismissed by all as curious, but nothing more than a slight oddity. After all, the steamer had never replied to the Californian’s repeated messages sent through their bright beacon lamp.
But things are often not as they seem. For the officers of the Californian had—unbeknownst to any of them—been front row for an unimaginable drama. You see, the steamer they had been watching had launched its rocket flares into the night sky as distress signals, and the Californian—only nine miles away—might have easily rushed to her aid, but the crew on the Californian never interpreted the flares as an emergency signal.
In addition to the flares, the steamer was sending out distress calls by their radio. And the Californian was well within the range of those messages… but her radio operator was asleep. After all, the Californian’s officers believed that a hard working crew needs its rest. So the Californian’s fledging radio operator—fresh from training school—was fast asleep in his cabin. And that night the ship’s second officer and his apprentice, from their vantage point on the bridge, watched the sinking of the Titanic, and didn’t even know it.
Let’s all watch our horizons for signals.