Encounter In The Night


During the night of April 14th 1912, Captain E. J. Smith made the conscious decision to transit a region of known ice at full speed, trusting the ability of his of those who stood watch to see and avoid any danger that may lay ahead. It was biting cold and extremely clear, dark, moonless, star studded night with unobstructed views all the way out to the horizon. At the time of the iceberg encounter, only first officer William Murdoch and Lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee were on the lookout for anything that may come in their path. Obviously, Captain Smith’s decision to proceed at full speed ahead knowing that ice lay ahead was based on the assumption that any danger would be spotted in enough time to be avoided. He was fatally wrong.


There have been many attempts to show the encounter between Titanic and the iceberg that occurred at 11:40pm apparent time ship.  Most of these do not take into account the actual seeing conditions that existed, usually showing a much brighter scene than what there really was, and using an artist rendering of a giant iceberg towering well above the vessel.  What we will try to do here is to be as accurate as we can.


To understand what those on watch were faced, we can recreate the scene as the ship approached the unseen danger at over 22 knots. The night sky at the time could be recreated using a planetarium software package for the known position and time (15 April 02:58 GMT) of the encounter. The view we will show will be from the crow's nest spanning a width of 4 points (45°) to either side of dead ahead centered on an azimuth angle of 266° true, the ship's known course heading just before the fatal encounter.  The vertical field in the created viewing frame is taken from 24° above to 24° below the horizon line as seen from the nest.  The view of the sea and sky, excluding the ship’s forecastle, is shown below.



The bright star that can be seen almost directly ahead of the ship at a height of about 12° above the horizon is Procyon, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor, the little dog.  About 27° to the right of Procyon, and about the same height above the horizon, is the red planet Mars.

(There were a number of other bright stars in the sky that night, but they were located outside the field of view that is being presented here. They were the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo the lion in the west-southwest at a height of about 43° above the horizon, the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux in the west-northwest at respective heights of about 27° and 28° above the horizon, and the bright star Capella in the northwest at a height of about 15° above the horizon in the constellation Auriga, the charioteer.)


To make things as realistic as possible I used an actual photo of the forecastle from Titanic's sister ship Olympic that was photographically darkened and adjusted so that the view corresponds to that which would have been seen at night from the crows nest in the chosen vertical field angle of the presented frame. The height of eye from the crow’s nest, which was located on the foremast, was about 90 feet above the waterline, or 40 feet above the level of the ship’s forecastle head, and about 125 feet aft of the vessel's stem head. From the crow’s nest the stem head of the vessel would appear at an angle of about 18° down from the horizon line. This is shown in the diagram below.



For the iceberg, I used an actual photograph of the one taken April 20th from the German steamer Bremen taht matched very closely with descriptions given by several Titanic eyewitnesses, including AB Joseph Scarrott and QM Alfred Olliver, who actually saw the iceberg that Titanic struck at the time of the encounter. This photograph was then photographically darkened accordingly and adjusted in size to match the view from the nest as it approached closer and closer to the ship in the time leading up to the collision.  The peak height of this medium sized iceberg was taken as 70 feet above the waterline. That height is about 20 feet below the level of the lookouts in the crow’s nest. This would place the peak of the berg just slightly higher than the level of the boat deck to match what several eyewitnesses described seeing as it went aft along the ship's starboard side during the encounter.  It should be noted that the iceberg was always below the horizon line as seen from the nest from the very first instance of being spotted, with no background star fields for it to block out.  There was only the black sea as a backdrop.


Aspect angles, both horizontally and vertically, were carefully calculated to render the created scenes as viewed from the crow's nest as accurate as possible. An example of this is shown below for a distance from crow’s nest to iceberg of 500 ft.



The presented fields of view that are shown below are:


Time (sec)

Heading (°true)

Distance (ft)

Ht. of Berg (°)

Dip of Peak (°)

-75 s





-50 s





-23 s





-10 s





-3 s





0 s






where: Time is the number of seconds before first contact, Heading is the ship’s heading in degrees true, Distance is that between crow’s nest and iceberg in feet, Ht. of Berg is the angular height of the iceberg in degrees from base to peak as seen from the nest, and Dip of Peak is the angular distance of the peak of the berg from the horizon line in degrees as seen from the nest.



At 75 seconds before collision, the iceberg, illuminated only by starlight, was about 3000 ft (about ½ nautical mile) ahead of the ship and almost imperceptible to the eye because of its apparent size and dimness.


Within the next 25 seconds, the lookouts were able to make out what appeared to be some dark object ahead.  Lookout Frederick Fleet then struck the lookout bell three times signaling the bridge that some object was seen ahead. When those bells were struck, about 50 seconds before collision, the iceberg was about 2000 ft (about 1/3 nautical mile) ahead of the ship and slightly on the starboard side of dead ahead.



Immediately after striking the lookout bell, Frederick Fleet went to the back of the starboard side of the nest and picked up the loud-speaking telephone and called down to the wheelhouse. Sixth Officer James Moody soon answered the call, and the message: “Iceberg right ahead” was then given by Fleet to Moody after the latter had asked “What do you see?” That information was then conveyed by Moody to First Officer William Murdoch who then gave the order “Hard-astarboard” to QM Robert Hichens who was at the wheel. Murdoch then ran to the engine order telegraphs to ring down orders to the engine room. It is taken that the order to put the wheel hard over came about 30 seconds before the collision, or about 20 seconds after Fleet first struck the lookout bell, an interval that Hichens as well as Fleet described as being about half a minute. It would then have taken Hichens only about 7 to 8 seconds, or thereabouts, to get the wheel all the way over.


In those 27 seconds, from the 3-bell warning to the time the wheel was hard over, the distance to the iceberg would close from 2000 ft down to 1000 ft. By that time, 23 seconds before collision, the ship’s head would have turned only about 2° to the port (a value based on the derived turning characteristics of the vessel) while the vessel itself would still be moving straight ahead.



Thirteen seconds later, just 10 seconds before impact, the distance to the berg as seen from the nest would have closed to 500 ft. By this time, the ship’s head would have turned a total of about 8° from its initial heading.



In the next 7 seconds, the distance to the berg would close to 250 ft while the ship’s head would turn another 6° to port. By this time, the iceberg would be only 125 feet ahead of the stem of the vessel which itself was 125 feet ahead of the foremast where the crow’s nest was located.



Initial underwater contact with the iceberg occurred on the starboard side of the bow just over 3 seconds later.  The ship’s heading would then have reached about 1 1/2 points (17°) to port of its initial value, and a long, grinding sound would begin as seams in the ship’s hull plating would start to open up where steel met ice.



Looking at the ship’s steering compass directly in front of him in the enclosed wheelhouse, QM Robert Hichens would notice that ship’s head had swung about 2 points to port from its initial value before the grinding sound of the allision, which lasted only about 7 seconds, finally ceased.


The animation below, in 7.5-second intervals, shows Titanic's approach on a heading of 266° T toward the fatal iceberg from time that the lookouts struck the 3-bell warning until after the iceberg passed astern of the vessel.  The scale is 250 ft per division, and time was speeded up by a factor of four.



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