“Iceberg, right ahead!” When Titanic lookout Frederick Fleet phoned the bridge and shouted those infamous words, the ship had less than a minute before impact. The officers on duty, seeing the iceberg at the same moment, turned the ship hard to the left in an effort to avoid collision, but it wasn’t enough. The iceberg sliced a 240-foot gash in her starboard side.
Frederick Fleet began working aboard ships at the age of 16, after his father died and his mother left him. He worked for four years as lookout aboard the Oceanic, then joined the Titanic as lookout for her maiden voyage in April, 1912.
At 10:00 pm on April 14th, 24-year-old Fleet and Reginald Lee took their watch in Titanic’s crow’s nest. As the ship sped along at 22 knots, Fleet and Lee kept a careful eye on the seas for icebergs. No moon lit the sky, but many survivors, including Fleet, remembered an unusually large number of bright stars. Why didn’t they see the dark shape of the enormous iceberg sooner?
Some experts have claimed that their lack of binoculars was partly to blame. Binoculars for the crow’s nest were supposed to be available, but were rumored to be locked away with the whereabouts of the key unknown. No matter where the binoculars were, it’s unlikely they would have made a difference. According to new information, binoculars were useful during daylight on the ocean, but the naked eye was more reliable at night.
The sudden drop in water and air temperatures recorded by other ships in the area and survivor accounts describing a light gray haze hanging low over the water has led some to conclude there may have been a ‘night-time mirage’ affect taking place. This phenomenon, well-known to fishermen in the north Atlantic, causes the horizon to appear to blend with the water. It distorts objects and distances, making it difficult for the observer to be certain of what he is seeing. This may have contributed to the last-second iceberg sighting.
After the collision, Fleet and Lee remained at their post another 20 minutes before being sent to help load the lifeboats. Fleet was ordered to man Lifeboat 6, carrying Margaret Brown (see last week’s post). After rescue, he testified at the inquiries into the disaster. He returned to sea for several years, working for other White Star ocean liners, then for Harland and Wollf shipbuilders in Southampton England.
Following the death of his wife in 1964 and a bout of depression, Frederick Fleet hanged himself in 1965. He was 77.