The legend of the Titanic

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic has special meaning for one young New Zealand naval officer—his great-great-uncle was the senior officer whose determination to save the women and children from the icy waters was immortalised in the blockbuster movie. Susan Edmunds reports.

Most of Nicholas Eathorne's mates don't believe his story.
Photo / Doug Sherring
Most of Nicholas Eathorne's mates don't believe his story. Photo / Doug Sherring

For officers in the Royal New Zealand Navy, drills are a part of life. Lifeboat drills, man overboard drills, fire drills and "muster at mess" while at sea. For most, it's just part of the day-to-day routine. For one petty officer, Nicholas Eathorne, the drills have a particular resonance.

The 33-year-old is the great-great nephew of Charles Herbert Lightoller, the second officer of the Titanic - and the most senior officer to survive the disaster.

The ship struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912, on its maiden voyage. It sank in calm seas, killing 1517 people. The lack of lifeboat drills and inadequate provisions for an emergency have been blamed for the huge loss of life.

Eathorne says he is yet to encounter a dangerous situation but when he's going through those safety procedures he does sometimes think of his great-great-uncle, and how things could have turned out differently for his ship, had they had similar safety procedures in place.

"Bertie" Lightoller commanded the penultimate watch before the ship hit the iceberg. As the ship went down, he was assigned the grim task of loading the life rafts. He brandished his revolver at men who had taken refuge in the rafts ahead of women and children - only to then be unable to find women and children to take their places, so several life rafts departed half-empty.

To his critics - including the scriptwriters of the blockbuster movie Titanic- his actions were recklessly negligent. To his defenders, they were principled, perhaps even heroic. Eathorne says being in the navy helped him fill in some of the gaps in his family's story-how Bertie Lightoller had gone to sea, while his father left for a new life and a new family in New Zealand.

Eathorne can understand why the sinking of the Titanic still holds the world's attention: it was human bravado defeated, the unsinkable ship that sunk. "It was because of what it was and what it meant," he says. "It was meant to be a huge engineering feat, that kind of went wrong." For Eathorne and some in the family, salt water runs in their veins. Others in the family say they will never set foot on a cruise liner.

Next month, Eathorne and millions of people around New Zealand and the world will stop to recall the tragedy of the Titanic. Some, like Reefton's Cathie Douglas, will go still further. Douglas booked tickets three years ago, when they first went on sale, for the Titanic memorial cruise, retracing the fated journey. The trip is costing Douglas $11,500, plus airfares to get to the English port town of Southampton, from which the liner Balmoral departs.

About 2000 people will be on board, many dressed in period costume. Douglas says she's always had an interest in the Titanic, since she saw A Night To Remember as a young girl. "It's a morbid sense of curiosity, if anything," she says. "It's going to be quite different and we're all looking forward to it."

Books, movies, merchandise and package tours - the mythology that has built up around the tragedy is sometimes overwhelming. The sinking was global news in April 1912 - but it took days, sometimes weeks for that news to reach around the world.

The Whangarei-based Northern Advocate reported the disaster on May 2, 1912, under the headline "Titanic disaster". The story described a "death-strewn ocean" with bodies floating over 65km of sea and 30 people clustered in the water around an overturned lifeboat.

Two months later, the Grey River Argus, with the headline "Titanic sinking", published a first-hand account describing disbelief among passengers as they were bundled reluctantly into lifeboats, and women who refused to be separated from their husbands.

Dr Steven Matthewman, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Auckland, says the news would have been greeted with shock and horror in New Zealand. There were no New Zealand citizens on board the Titanic but, at that time, what was important to Britain was important to New Zealand.

It was also, for many citizens, the first really big loss of life they had heard about-World War I was yet to arrive. "Large-scale disasters were few and far between. Before that, natural disasters were the only thing similar. Other ships would have sunk but not on this scale."

The sinking was called the story of the century. It has proved to be a story of this century, too. James Cameron's blockbuster Titanic is to be rereleased in cinemas in 3D, in time for the centenary. Photos taken by deep sea explorer Robert Ballard of the ghostly Titanic, lying on the seafloor, still capture attention.

Recent expert studies have, in turns, blamed the moon for putting icebergs in the Titanic's path and considered whether helmsman error was to blame. Elaine Cowlin, who headed up Auckland's now-defunct Titanic Club, can understand why the story still has so much resonance. Although she says the club "hit an iceberg" and no longer has regular meetings, it was great while it lasted and didn't struggle for members.

The club was initially dreamt up by a friend, who was a very enthusiastic Titanic buff, and members would collect memorabilia and check out liners when they moored at the Auckland docks.

But Cowlin says there has always been an aura of mystique around the Titanic, an air of something unbelievable about it.

"It was a glamour ship, that disappeared on its maiden voyage," she says. "It went down in a calm sea, so totally a surprise, it was almost considered to be hubristic." Cowlin says it is almost a moral story for that time and ours-where the overwhelming pride of humans proved to be their downfall.

"They almost to an alarming extent. I think it's a psychological thing more than anything, human beings can go too far."

The Onion, a spoof online newspaper, summed it up well in a headline: "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg / Titanic, Representation of Man's Hubris, Sinks in North Atlantic." Matthewman agrees. The ship came to symbolise the myth of progress and human frailty. "It was the technological marvel of the time, the unsinkable ship. It was like the space shuttle of its day . . . and that crashed too."

The Titanic still strikes a chord these days, he says, as a metaphor for our world. The ship, with its mix of young and old, wealthy and poor - with the poor making up the vast majority of casualties - is like a microcosm of society. "There's an idea that there's an iceberg waiting for all of us."

The incredibly successful Titanic film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in an epic love story, helped keep the tragedy in the public imagination.

For Eathorne and his mother Sally, that's been a mixed blessing. Lightoller, played by Jonny Phillips in the film, is portrayed as something of a villain. "He's the one that left on the life rafts . . . that was quite controversial,"Eathorne says.

"In the movie, he's portrayed as shooting at people. But he went to court over it and it was found his gun wasn't actually loaded." Sally says Lightoller does appear to get a bad rap. "We understand it wasn't a glowing thing, he left the boat and was allegedly court martialled over it. I know this chap in Nick's class was saying he was court martialled over it, but it wasn't really correct. He was exonerated."

Lightoller himself, in his book Titanic and other Ships, wrote that the confrontation occurred only because he was sticking firm to the principle that all the women and children be allowed to board the life rafts first. He described what happened when he found men in one of the life rafts, trying to save themselves ahead of women and their little ones.

"Arriving alongside the emergency boat, someone spoke out of the darkness, and said, 'There are men in that boat.' I jumped in, and regret to say that there actually were - but they weren't British, nor of the English speaking race. I won't even attribute any nationality to them, beyond saying that they come under the broad category known to sailors as 'Dagoes'.

"They hopped out mighty quickly, and I encouraged them verbally, also by vigorously flourishing my revolver. They certainly thought they were between the devil and the deep sea in more senses than one, and I had the satisfaction of seeing them tumbling head over heels on to the deck, preferring the uncertain safety of the deck, to the cold lead, which I suppose they fully imagined would follow their disobedience - so much for imagination, the revolver was not even loaded!"

Titanic portrays the exchange as even more violent: "Get back, I say, or I'll shoot you all like dogs!"

Lightoller then engages in a confrontation with another crew member because he is sending away life rafts half full.

The idea that the unsinkable ship might actually sink was such a foreign concept that, even as the deck tilted towards the sea, some passengers were convinced it was just a drill. Lightoller and other officers kept loading the rafts and sending them off. It was not till they were lowering the last two life rafts that crowds began gathering, too late, and asking to be put on them. Lightoller spent the night floating on an upturned collapsible boat until help arrived.

At the Devonport naval base, Eathorne's family connection has caused him to follow preparations for the 100th anniversary more closely.

The navy has no official commemoration planned, and the anniversary coincides with preparations for Anzac services. To Eathorne, commemorating the tragedies of the Titanic and Gallipoli go hand-in-hand most years.

He expects a bit of a hard time from mates in the navy once they learn he is descended from Lightoller - but for many of them, it's just another old seaman's tale. Most don't believe his story, Eathorne says. "Hardly anyone knows about it, and if they do, they think it's cool."

Tim Clubb, head of the navy's marine engineering school, summed up the attitude of Eathorne's friends and officers to serving with someone who provides, dare we say it, a symbol of the metaphor that is the sinking of the Titanic.

Clubb says the connection between Eathorne and the Titanic is a nice representation of seagoing tradition in the family. "And none of the ships he has served on have sunk yet so he's obviously got that out of the way."
@hos.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf01 at 26 Nov 2014 11:24:11 Processing Time: 714ms