Heroism in sea of death

By Tania McCauley

Harold Lowe didn't like a huge fuss being made about the part he played in rescuing people when the "unsinkable" Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in the freezing waters of the Atlantic, taking 1500 people with it, in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

But he was credited by more than one survivor as being a "real" hero.

In James Cameron's 1997 movie about the disaster, the ship's fifth officer was portrayed by then little-known Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, leading the solitary lifeboat to search for survivors among the wreckage, picking up Kate Winslet's character Rose.

Lowe's lifeboat was the only one to go back. What the movie did not show was Lowe also organising the rescue of the occupants of a sinking lifeboat and towing another to safety. He told two inquiries into the disaster they had to wait to attempt rescue or panicking people could have easily overloaded the lifeboat, but he always felt he could have done more and told his son he should have gone back earlier.

When Inger Sheil discovered that there was no biography of Lowe she began to research his life, with the blessing of his family, including one of his grandsons, a retired merchant captain.

With the 100th anniversary of the disaster approaching, Sheil reworked her manuscript and found a publisher, The History Press in Britain. The book is titled Titanic Valour: The Life of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe.

"His family has been brilliant," Sheil says. "They've allowed us to use photos, they've never directed me or tried to change my mind about things although I'm sure there will be things in there they might disagree with."

Later in his career, Lowe sailed to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and his family told Sheil he was so keen on hunting and fishing that New Zealand would likely have been his first choice had he emigrated. A photo of him with a big kingfish he caught in Poverty Bay still hangs in the Seamen's Institute in Barmouth, Wales, where he grew up.

Sheil, assistant to the director of Sydney's Australian National Maritime Museum, says the Titanic was a childhood interest that blossomed into fruition as an adult.

"One of my classmates was talking about shipwrecks and showed me a book about it. I was absolutely intrigued from that point onwards."

She is a keen diver but never felt the need to take her love of the sea further.

"I did think about a maritime career but you need tremendous technical aptitude.

"And navigation is hard for me, and I'm not overly enthused about maths."

She has some ideas for a new Titanic-related work, using the information about the Titanic's other officers and their lives as a lead in to the rapid changes in maritime history in the early 20th century.

At present she is on the Titanic memorial cruise, which will sail to the spot in the Atlantic where the wreck lies deep below.

Titanic Valour: The Life of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe

by Inger Sheil

History Press, $29.99

The biography of this unassuming seaman opens with a cracking prologue detailing the most famous event he was associated with, the sinking of the Titanic.

Lowe's long and distinguished maritime career began at 15 when he ran away to sea.

He served in the Merchant Navy in World War I and was sent to Vladivostok during the Russian revolution.

In later years, he worked on passenger lines, including runs to Australia and New Zealand.

A man of few words, Lowe preferred not to talk about his efforts during the Titanic tragedy. He also suffered the effects of personal tragedy, losing two brothers to the sea.

The Welshman's propensity to call a spade a spade and use strong language when he saw fit lends a bit of humour to what could have been a grim, dry story.

The book is slim at 146 pages but avoids a lot of technical jargon, and provides Lowe's full career history and a copy of the sworn affidavit he gave to the Titanic inquiry in May 1912.

This is an insightful look into maritime and social change in a long-gone era, besides being a good yarn about one man who deserved all the recognition he got, for doing the best he could in the most horrible of circumstances.

- Hamilton News

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