by Samuel Halpern
Copyright © 2010 Samuel Halpern, all rights reserved.

The Cunard Liner Carpathia steamed out of New York harbor on Thursday, April 11, 1912, bound for the Mediterranean with 740 passengers who were looking forward to seeing the sunny ports of Gibraltar, Genoa, Naples, Trieste and Fiume. Coincidently on the same day, the new White Star Liner Titanic steamed out of Queenstown harbor after picking up the last of her 1316 passengers bound for New York. Little did anyone know it at the time, but neither ship was to reach their respective end points of their promising voyages.

At 2:20 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), Titanic took departure off the Daunt’s Rock light vessel, about 7½ miles outside Queenstown harbor, marking the official start of her westbound maiden voyage crossing of the Atlantic ocean. At about 2:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST), Caparthia took departure off the Ambrose Channel light vessel, about 19 miles from the Statue of Liberty outside New York harbor, marking the official start of her eastbound crossing of the Atlantic ocean.

Fig. 1 – Routes Across the Atlantic of Four Ships: Titanic, Carpathia, Californian and Mount Temple


At 10:35 p.m. EST on Sunday night, April 14, 1912, Carpathia’s 21 year old wireless operator Harold Cottam returned to his wireless cabin after reporting the day’s communications to the bridge. He sat down and called up Titanic to ask them if they were aware that there were a batch of messages that came through from Cape Cod for them. What he got back in reply was, “Struck a berg; come at once, CQD OM (It’s a CQD Old Man), position 41° 46’ N, 50° 14’ W.”

After asking Titanic’s wireless operator Jack Phillips if he should go straight away to the bridge and get his ship turned round, Cottam received back, “Yes, quick.” Immediately, Harold Cottam left his cabin with the message and ran to Carpathia’s bridge where he found First Offer Horace Dean in charge of the watch. Then, as explained by Carpathia’s Captain Arthur Rostron:

“The wireless operator had taken the message and run with it up to the bridge, and gave it to the first officer who was in charge, with a junior officer with him, and both ran down the ladder to my door and called me. I had only just turned in. It was an urgent distress signal from the Titanic, requiring immediate assistance and giving me his position. The position of the Titanic at the time was 41° 46’ north, 50° 14’ west…Immediately on getting the message, I gave the order to turn the ship around, and immediately I had given that order I asked the operator [Cottam] if he was absolutely sure it was a distress signal from the Titanic. I asked him twice…He simply told me that he had received a distress signal from the Titanic, requiring immediate assistance, and gave me his position; and he assured me he was absolutely certain of the message. In the meantime I was dressing, and I picked up our position on my chart, and set a course to pick up the Titanic. The course was north 52 degrees west true 58 miles from my position.”

At the US Senate Investigation into the Titanic disaster, Capt. Rostron said that he received the distress message from Harold Cottam at 12:35 a.m., Monday, April 15, 1912. He also explained that 12:35 was Apparent time and asked if the Senators would rather have it in New York time. He then said, “The New York time at 12:35 was 10:45 p.m. Sunday night.”[1]

But was Rostron correct? When asked to provide the details of his voyage up to the time he arrived back in New York, Rostron said, “I can not give you the exact time, now, because, as a matter of fact, I have not looked at a single date or time of any kind. I have not had the time to do so.”

For years people have assumed that everything Arthur Rostron said had to be correct. After all, Rostron was the hero of the night, casting all aside and rushing in the dead of night to aid the stricken Titanic. Yet today we know that he was mistaken about the place where he picked up Titanic’s lifeboats, and he was mistaken about the time in GMT hours that Titanic foundered as reported in a wireless message to Olympic’s Capt. Haddock late Monday afternoon.[2]

At the British Inquiry Harold Cottam explained that the distress message received from Titanic came in at 10:35 p.m. EST.[3]

“I had another chit of paper with that on. I got it directly after Cape Cod had finished the first round of press. I know he finishes at half-past 10 so that I know it must have been at 10.35…It was on the desk in the Carpathia when I left her.”

Furthermore, in the wireless log of the Mount Temple we find an entry:

“10.35 [EST] MGY [Titanic] gets MPA [Carpathia] and says ‘Struck iceberg; Come to our assistance at once.’ Sends position.”

Did it take Harold Cottam a full ten minutes to deliver Titanic’s distress call to Capt. Rostron? Was Capt. Rostron mistaken about it being 10:45 p.m. in New York when Cottam gave him the message?

Harold Cottom was asked at the Senate Investigation how much time elapsed between the time when he received the distress call and the time he communicated it to his captain His answer was, “A matter of a couple of minutes.” He was then asked, “Only a couple of minutes?” to which he replied, “Yes, sir.”

So what is the true account? To find out we need to independently determine the difference between Carpathia’s time and time in New York.

As explained by Sir James Bisset, former Commodore of the Cunard Line, and who was Second Officer on Carpathia under Capt. Rostron when Titanic went down:[4]

“Going east clocks are put on, going west clocks are put back. The amount depends entirely on the speed of the ship and the distance run. In very fast ships they are usually altered 40 or 45 minutes at midnight, and the remaining few minutes in the forenoon when the ship’s position has been determined. Notices are always displayed in some prominent place informing passengers of the amount of alteration, so they can adjust their watches before retiring…The navigating officer, knowing to within a mile or two the ship’s position, has already put the clocks right for noon, and if he has done this well and truly, the apparently stationary period [when the sun reaches its highest point of the day and is said to be on the local meridian] should coincide with eight bells (twelve o’clock).”

Carpathia’s clocks, like most ship’s of her day, were adjusted to carry Apparent Time Ship (ATS) while at sea. What this means is that her clocks were adjusted so that they would read 12:00 when the sun would reach its highest point in the sky, a time called local apparent noon. Because of a ship’s movement eastward or westward, shipboard clocks had to be adjusted each day, just like today we have to adjust our timepieces as we cross different time zones when heading eastward or westward. Like many other passenger vessels at that time, Carpathia’s clocks were adjusted at midnight by an amount that depended on the progress that the ship was expected to make eastward or westward. Later in the morning, when the navigating officer would get a sun line to determine the ship’s longitude more precisely, he might find that he had to make a slight time correction so that the clocks would be accurate when the sun actually reached its highest point in the sky at local apparent noon. That correction was typically ½ to 1 minute if it even proved to be necessary at all.

When Carpathia left New York, her clocks were showing the time in New York which was Eastern Standard Time, or more precisely, mean time for the 75th meridian west of Greenwich. It was exactly 5 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. But the first night out at midnight, her clocks were put forward so that they would show Apparent time the next day. Knowing her route of travel and having a good estimate for her speed, we can reconstruct her passage eastward toward Gibraltar on a day-to-day basis. Not only that, we can also find out the time of local apparent noon in GMT for each day of her voyage, including where she would have been at noon on April 15th if she had not been diverted by the distress call from Titanic. Based on all of this, we can easily determine how her clocks were adjusted on each night of her eastbound April voyage.

We start out with Carpathia passing the Ambrose Channel light vessel (longitude 73° 50’ W) at 2:02 p.m. EST on April 11, 1912, making close to 14 knots.[5] At an assumed average speed of 13.8 knots, her eastward advance would be 331 nautical miles in 24 hours. But because of her eastward progress, her clocks had to be put ahead about 29 minutes each night. For Carpathia, the time from local apparent noon one day to local apparent noon the next day would be about 23 hours 31 minutes, not 24 hours that someone might expect. Thus, her average daily progress from noon one day to noon the next day was 325 nautical miles.

But we also know from Capt. Rostron that when he turned his ship around at 12:35 ATS on April 15, Carpathia was estimated to be 58 nautical miles from Titanic’s famous SOS distress coordinates of 41° 46’ N, 50° 14’ W. To get to those coordinates Rostron said he put his ship on a heading of N 52° W true, or 308° true by modern notation. From this information we get a dead reckoning (DR) location for Carpathia at 12:35 a.m. ATS on April 15th at 41° 10’ N, 49° 13’ W.

Fig. 2Carpathia’s Eastbound Dead Reckoning Advance From April 11, 1912 to April 15, 1912


When the distress call came in, Carpathia’s clocks were already set to April 15th time. With 12:35 on her clocks, it meant that local apparent noon for April 15th was expected 11 hours and 25 minutes later. At the time, Carpathia was heading within a few degrees of due east on the great circle course toward Gibraltar in the vicinity of latitude 41° N. Her eastward progress at 13.8 nautical miles per hour would take her from a DR longitude of 49° 13’ W to a longitude of 45° 44’ W. What we find is that local apparent noon on April 15, 1912 at 45° 44’ W came at 3:03 p.m. GMT. Since Carpathia’s clocks would have read 12:00 at noon, it means that they would have been running 3 hours and 3 minutes behind GMT, or 1 hour 57 minutes ahead of time in New York.

With that time difference established, we can now see what time it was in New York when Harold Cottam delivered the message about Titanic to Capt. Rostron.

Rostron said that he received the message at 12:35 a.m. Carpathia ATS. If we subtract 1 hour 57 minutes from that time we get 10:38 p.m. EST as the time Cottam delivered the message about Titanic to Capt. Rostron. That is three minutes after he picked up Titanic’s distress message recorded at 10:35 p.m. EST. This is in perfect agreement with what Cottam said he did. The bottom line is that Capt. Rostron was incorrect when he told Senator Smith at the American Inquiry that it was 10:45 p.m. Sunday night in New York when it was 12:35 a.m. Monday on Carpathia. One more piece of erroneous information that has been blindly accepted as true for all these years.

[1] American Inquiry, p. 19.

[2] Samuel Halpern, “Time and Time Again,” Atlantic Daily Bulletin, Journal of the British Titanic Society, September 2010. Also available on-line at

[3] 10:35 p.m. EST was also the time that Titanic sent out a revised set of distress coordinates that were worked out by Titanic’s Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall. Boxhall’s coordinates were 7½ miles eastward of the coordinates first transmitted at 10:25 p.m. EST. As proved to be 85 years later, these so called “corrected” coordinates were also erroneous, being located about 13 nautical miles to the west of where Titanic actually sank.

[4] Commander James G. P. Bisset, R.D., R.N.R., Ship Ahoy!! Nautical Notes for Ocean Travelers, With Charts and Diary, Third Edition, Charles Birchall Ltd., Liverpool, 1924.

[5] In his book, Tramps & Ladies (Angus & Robertson Ltd, 1959), James Bisset, Carpathia’s Second Officer at the time of Titanic, said that Carpathia was making about 14 knots on her course to Gibraltar.

| Home | Back to Top |