Playlist Navigation Bar
A Man In Full: 3. Part Three: The Chivalry of the Sea
"Hold me up in mighty waters
Keep my eyes on things above --
Righteousness, divine atonement . . ."
I was dragged up from dreams by a hitch in the ship's familiar vibration, a sensation as gentle as the scrape of a wooden keel against the pebbled bottom of a lakeshore. For a moment, and a moment only, I drifted, lulled by the remnants of sleep. It seemed that I might well be lying in the bottom of a rowboat, rocked by the gentle waves of an English lake and staring up into a warm summer night.
Then I sat bolt upright in bed. "Hang on," I said into the darkness. "We're in the middle of the Atlantic!"
I leapt from my bed and ran, still in my pyjamas, out onto the deck. A quick glance over the portside rail revealed only calm flat sea. I sprinted round to the starboard and saw nothing there either. I thought that perhaps my eye might have spied the glint of something from the well deck, but I could not be sure.
The biting cold drove me back into the shelter of my cabin. I found myself mightily tempted to head on up to the bridge and ask Murdoch what had just happened, but I soon realized that neither my pyjamas nor my idle curiosity would earn me a warm welcome there. In the end, I decided to stay where I could easily be found. Whether lost in the woods or serving as a deck officer aboard a big liner, the best course of action is to sit tight and wait for them to come to you.
Sure enough, within ten minutes I heard a knock at the door and young Boxhall stuck his head in. One look at his face drove the last hope that our predicament was something as simple as a thrown propeller straightway from my mind.
"We've struck an iceberg," he said.
"I knew we hit something," I replied.
"The water is up to F Deck in the mail room."
I looked at him, suddenly feeling a chill in the pit of my stomach as though I had downed an entire glass of ice water without pausing to breathe. Nothing further needed to be said. He nodded and left, shutting the door behind him.
I pulled on clothing: trousers over my pyjama bottoms, a sweater on top, and a greatcoat over all of that. With water already up to F Deck, there was no time to lose making myself tidy. Outside on the Boat Deck, the bustle had begun. Seamen had hurried topside in response to the "all men on deck", and passengers had begun to wander up. I saw Ribeiro and his man still in evening dress and seeming not to feel the chill, and I gave him a brief nod as I assessed the situation. The ship was already well down at the head, and although I'd had no orders from Captain Smith I knew the first order of business was readying the lifeboats.
The roar of Titanic letting off her excess steam through all eight vents made it impossible for a man to form a cogent order much less communicate it over the din; I found myself limited to hand gestures. Nevertheless, I managed to set the men about the task of stripping the covers off the lifeboats and cranking the davits out into the lowering position.
Right around the time the Bosun's Mate indicated to me that the boats were in readiness, I spied Captain Smith just outside the wheelhouse, and I drew him into a corner. Cupping my hand to his ear in order to be heard over the roar of the steam, I yelled, "Hadn't we better get the women and children into the boats, sir?" He looked blankly at me for a moment and then gave a slow nod.
First Officer Murdoch took charge of loading the boats on the starboard side of the ship while I oversaw the port. We had quite a crowd of passengers by now: husbands and wives, women carrying small children, all in stages of dress from night attire to full evening regalia, their lifebelts over that. "Begin to load the boats, please," I shouted, although I daresay those around were able to understand me only by the movement of my lips. "Women and children only."
Ribeiro stepped out of the crowd and came toward me, trailed by his valet, who carried two lifebelts draped over his arm as casually as if they were a carriage rug in preparation for an afternoon outing. "I'm sorry, sir," I repeated. "Women and children only in the boats."
He shook his head angrily and inclined his head to bring his lips close to my ear. "I have no intention of getting into a boat. I'm offering you my assistance. The last thing you want here is a panic."
I looked him up and down. I would not have described him and his manservant as burly men -- quite the opposite -- but they were both very tall. Up close, he radiated strength and the calm of a man used to taking charge in any situation. I decided the two of them would be useful chaps to have about in a pinch. "Very well," I said, nodding to the life vests over the valet's arm. "But you should be wearing those."
Ribeiro smiled wanly and leaned in even closer. "Floating is the least of my worries. It would hamper my ability to swim in the event that I needed to distance myself from, say, a large sinking object. Can you look me in the eye, Mr. Lightoller, and promise me that I will not be swimming by the time this night is over?"
I tried then to do my duty to the White Star Line, to project the confidence needed in such a situation, but thinking on the noticeable settling of the ship by now and recalling the lost look in Captain Smith's eyes, the words stuck in my throat. Looking back on it, I think this was the first time I admitted the obvious truth to myself: Titanic was sinking. I remained silent.
"I see," Ribeiro continued. "You and I have an agreement then."
I nodded. "Yes, an agreement. You still should put on your belt, sir, if only as an example to the others."
Just then, the noise of the venting steam ceased, and my last words rang out in the ensuing silence as loudly as if I'd been an impassioned orator haranguing the crowd from a soapbox in Piccadilly Square. I hastened to moderate my tone and infuse it with the necessary confidence. "It's a precaution, merely. Do you see that ship, yonder?" I gestured toward a set of lights on the horizon, which I presumed to be those of a sizeable steamer. "She's been hailed by Marconi and Morse lamp, and I imagine she's coming to our aid as I speak."
"Just a precaution," Ribeiro repeated, with a wry look at my own midsection. "I'll wear mine, Mr. Lightoller, when you put on yours."
He had me there. With a quick nod, I turned to my duty, giving orders to fire off our distress rockets. Surely the steamer could not fail to notice. As the first of the flares burst overhead, bathing us all in a ruddy green flash, I heard a collective 'Ahhh!' rise up from some of the children among the assembled passengers, as if they were viewing a fireworks show for Guy Fawkes Day or some mid-summer extravaganza over the Thames.
At first, there were few takers for the boats. The women were reluctant to be separated from their men, and most, still believing White Star's vaunted fiction about the ship's invulnerability, preferred the illusory safety of the 'unsinkable' Titanic to the prospect of bobbing around on the dark Atlantic in a flimsy lifeboat.
We were further hampered by the fact that we had not yet had the chance -- or perhaps not thought it necessary -- to hold a boat drill. None of the passengers knew where to go or to which boat they were assigned, and all was confusion as they milled about awaiting their turns or deciding whether to go or stay.
At last I felt I had a sufficient number in the first boat -- Number 6, it was -- and I gave the order to lower away. Ribiero gained my attention with a tap on the arm and drew me aside. "Only forty? You told me the full capacity of these boats is sixty-five."
"Floating capacity," I replied, perhaps more sharply than was courteous. "Lowering capacity is quite another matter. Do you wish to see this keel snap?" The last thing I wanted was to overload the boat and drop millionaires' wives and children six stories into the freezing water.
Ribiero did not look at all happy to hear this, nor should he have, given our conversation three days earlier. He gave an angry shake of his head and stepped back, muttering to that man of his.
If only I had known then what I learned later! Harland and Wolff had indeed performed lowering tests with sand bags equaling the weight of sixty-five persons, and the boats had held up under the load. However, through the same oversight that had neglected to stock the crow's-nest with binoculars, we officers had not been informed of this. How many more lives might I have saved that night had they done so?
Mindful of the sparsely loaded boats, I directed the Bosun's Mate to take six hands down to open the port lower-deck gangway door, abreast of the No. 2 hatch, for the boats to row around and pick up extra passengers at the water level. Off they went, uncomplaining, never questioning their duty. None of them was ever seen again. Perhaps they were caught by a sudden rush of water in the corridors below, or perhaps they performed their mission and Titanic lies in her watery grave with a cargo door open, ready to discharge passengers into boats that never returned. I will never know.
Although he had a habit of asking inconvenient questions, Ribeiro proved himself invaluable, and more than once that night I found myself glad to have him around, especially as things grew more dire. By the end, when there might have been a temptation for the panicked crowd to rush the boats, I felt no worry. His very size and calm presence at my elbow seemed to forestall such an eventuality.
From time to time, I nipped away to take a peek down the long emergency staircase that ran from the boat deck down to C deck. In better times, it served as a shortcut for the crew; now it provided a benchmark for the ship's distress, as the water crept inexorably up the stairwell. I still see the eerie green glow of the submerged corridor lamps in my dreams. And each time as I returned to the task of loading, I glanced to the southwest, to the distant lights of that mystery ship and thought, 'Why does she not come?'
How things went that night on the starboard side, I have no idea. I've heard tales, and there is the telling fact of the survival of a number of male passengers, Mr. J. Bruce Ismay, President of White Star Lines among them, but my colleague Mr. Murdoch is not around to explain his reasoning. For my part, I'm proud to say that not a man entered those boats on my watch. All did their duty according to the ancient chivalry of the sea that puts the women and children first even in the face of certain death.
I've no regrets, even when it broke my heart. Partway through the loading, I found Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Strauss, the owners of Macy's Department Store in New York, standing near the deckhouse and chatting quietly to each other. "Can I take you along to the boats?" I enquired of Mrs. Strauss.
She looked to the grey-haired man at her side. "I've always stayed with my husband; why should I leave him now?"
He spoke to her with a reassuring smile, calling her by her given name and telling her to get in the boat, yet she shook her head. "Not yet."
A group of nearby friends chimed in then, Ribeiro among them. "I'm sure no one would object to an older gentleman like Mr. Straus getting in . . ."
Strauss would have none of that. "I will not go before the other men."
That sealed it. "We have been living together for many years. Where you go, I go," Mrs. Strauss replied, patting his arm, and the two of them sat down on a pair of deck chairs to await the end.
Theirs was not the only example of tragic devotion. I found a young couple, from the western states according to the twang of the girl's speech, sitting on a fan casing. "Not on your life," she told me when I offered to conduct her to a boat. "We started together, and if need be we'll finish together."
Ribeiro's face as he watched this exchange, was thin-lipped and wan in the greenish light of our last distress flare. As we turned away, his manservant bowed and gravely offered the two of them the lifebelts he carried.
Young and old, the power of love transcends the fear of death, but not all are so unencumbered. Courage comes in many forms. Husbands and fathers handed their families off to us with a brave smile and a shouted promise to be along on the next boat, the 'Daddies' boat', while their wives, with children clinging to their skirts, pretended to believe it. Their valour was no less.
At this point, Mr. Hartley, the band leader, had brought his musicians out on deck, and the partings took place to the incongruously cheery strains of ragtime and salon waltzes. With each boat I lowered, I sent away two of my deck crew to man them, and I found myself shy of White Star personnel to perform the loading. The women needed help negotiating the high railings, and not for the first time, I found myself cursing the fashion of the day, the hobble skirts and high heels that hampered them.
As the deck tilted more alarmingly, and my crew grew ever scarcer, I roped Ribeiro into service. He assisted the women up and into the boats with the same courtly air I'd seen him use to escort Mrs. Brown to her table, and only once did I see his calm slip. A rather large lady whose husband had brought her through the ever tightening ring of anxious men balked at the sight of the gap between railing and boat and clung to her man. "Please, Gwendolyn," the frantic chap begged, "you must be reasonable!" but his wife was having none of it.
Without a word, Ribeiro picked up the woman, who must have gone fourteen stone at least and chucked her over the gunwales with no more effort than if she'd been a down-filled bolster. I saw his manservant hide a smile behind his raised hand. But after that, the rest went with no backchat.
I checked the stairwell again. The water had risen up several decks, and Titanic's bow had dipped further into the sea. With little time to lose, I forgot my earlier caution and loaded the boats as fully as possible. My earlier plan had gone by the board, for the cargo doors were now underwater.
Boat Number 4 was the next to last. Ribeiro knitted his brows in pain as John Jacob Astor handed his wife into the boat and asked if he might be allowed to accompany her since she was, as he put it, in a delicate condition. I shook my head no, and with a last sad look at his young bride, the man stepped back and disappeared into the crowd.
Next came the Ryerson family: Mrs. Ryerson, the two girls and their maid. When young Jack Ryerson, a lad just into long pants, followed his mother to the rail, I put up my hand. "That boy can't go."
"Of course the boy goes with his mother," insisted Mr. Ryerson, in the same tones he no doubt used to address the employees at his steel company. "He's only thirteen!"
In my mind thirteen was man enough to stay with the others, and I began to say so, but I felt Ribeiro clasp my elbow and draw me aside. "In God's name, Mr. Lightoller," he whispered, "that is the man's posterity there. At least grant him the peace of knowing that his boy is safe as he faces what is to come."
I found myself staring directly into his face. Looking at him -- really seeing him for the first time without the artificial barrier of our different social positions -- I realized he seemed barely old enough to be more than a few years past his first acquaintance with a razor. What could he possibly know about parenthood? But something in the depths of those young-old eyes pulled me up short, and I thought of my own three sons at home safe in their beds, perhaps soon to be orphans.
"Very well," I said, motioning the lad onward. But as the boat lowered away I turned my head and muttered, "No more boys."
No. 4 was the last of our regular lifeboats. That left only the Englehardt collapsibles: Boat D stowed beside the No. 2 davits and 'B' lashed to the roof of the officers quarters. It was a stupid place for a craft that would be needed in an emergency, but like everything else that night it was the hand we were dealt.
We retrieved the falls and got 'D' ready to go. Thinking better safe than sorry, I had my remaining crew link arms in a ring, ready to let only the women through. Even then, at the very end, there was no panic. A father brought two young boys -- they could have been no older than two and four -- to the edge of the ring and stooped to whisper something into the older one's ear before handing them through. A husband brought his wife; Colonel Gracie ushered two unattended ladies through.
I stood, one foot on the railing, one foot on the gunwale, helping the ladies across. So many left aboard; so little time. We dared wait no longer; the lights of the ship had begun to glow red. As I gave the signal to lower, one of my men said, "You go with her, Lightoller."
"Not damn likely," I shouted and jumped back as she started away. The water was close now, so close. I looked up and saw Ribeiro and my trimmer, Hemming, already up on the roof of the officers quarters working at the lashings. A hand down from Ribeiro, a knee up from the manservant, Galwyn, and I found myself atop the roof there with them.
It was a hopeless tangle, or perhaps our panic made us clumsy. As I struggled, I heard the band give up its ragtime and launch into the strains of an old hymn, and I set aside a quiet corner of my mind to marvel at the complexity of the human spirit, each of us finding comfort in prosaic activities, in the performance of our duty, even at the brink of the abyss.
Then, Ribeiro had hold of a fire-axe, and he began to wield it one-handed, his muscles bunching like cords under the tight sleeves of his dinner jacket. One by one, the cords securing the boat parted with a snap. We had her free, and with a heave at the gunwales she flipped and crashed to the deck below. Agile as a cat, Ribeiro leapt down after her.
No time for me. The band fell silent. The ship gave a plunge forward then, and a great wave rolled up from the bow. Crowds of people fled from it, struggling their way back up the tilting deck. They were only prolonging the inevitable, I thought. It would be suicide to end up mixed in among that crowd.
Looking down, I saw Ribeiro and his man link arms and face the oncoming water. His lips moved in a single word -- Alberecht, it looked to me as if he said -- and then he let out a yell, not a womanish scream but a high-pitched cry like a war-whoop, and together the two of them sprang into the sea.
I had only a little time to think, 'This is it, old man. You're about to find out if the principles of self-reliance taught you by your faith will serve you in good stead.' I briefly looked back, tempted by the solidity of Titanic's still dry stern. But Ribeiro's wild war-cry still echoed in my ears and put the fire into my own blood.
"Into thy hands," I whispered, and jumped.
Playlist Navigation Bar