I came down from London to Southampton yesterday morning and, after an alarming 45 minute wait along the line thanks to a breakdown on the train, arrived at the station to find that most of the others on board had the same destination – Oceanic dock. A short trip through the town, where I was able to catch glimpses of such familiar landmarks as the Titanic memorial, and there we were. An enormous crowd – as soon as I was out of the cab, staff were on hand to manage the luggage, and then on up to go through boarding formalities. The crowd was managed with efficiency, and queues were kept entertained by people in costume and character, portraying White Star Line stewardesses, Marconi operators, ship’s officers and newsboys handing out a mock-up newspaper about the sinking.
From the ceiling, vast banners depicted some of the people who sailed, from Captain E J Smith down to little Eva Hart. There were also some displays, including one of a stateroom in which were mannequins wearing a period costume and one of the coats used in James Cameron’s 1997 movie. The “swim” tea gown that was worn with the coat is on display in the Australian National Maritime Museum’s “Remembering Titanic” exhibition.
Just as my group number was called up to go through security and boarding, I heard a familiar voice call my name – old friends Bridget and Senan Molony were there, resplendent in period costume. Senan has written several books on the Titanic, including landmark The Irish Aboard Titanic, and will be lecturing on this voyage. Many of the boarding passengers had gone to the trouble of simulating 1912 fashion, with varying degrees of success, but it was a colourful and excited group that had assembled.
On board I met up again with my cabin mate, Mike, and was pleasantly surprised to find how big the cabin was. I’m accustomed to rather more “economical” quarters available on board dive liveaboards, and while I’d joked about us being “steerage” down at the waterline on this voyage, the cabin is comfortable and the staff very attentive.
We were mustered for the lifeboat drill, and while I’ve done many of these, it was one of those eerie moments of juxtaposition, remembering the same procedure back in 1912 and the rather cursory observation of procedures. Even the warning we were given that the lifebelt straps must be worn very snugly to prevent possible injury brought to mind the fact that some of those who jumped from the sinking Titanic would have been injured or killed outright by the lifebelt suddenly jarring back the head on impact with the water. Our assembly area was in the boutique area, near one of the stained glass window adorned staircases, and to see all those passengers and crew assembled in those glittering surroundings was another reminder of the strange incongruity of crew and passengers assembled in their lifejackets on deck the morning of April 15, with the lights still blazing and the ship settling so slowly it was hard for many to grasp the enormity of the peril they were in.
The departure from Southampton was a rather more festive affair than the Titanic’s comparatively low-key sailing in 1912, however. We assembled on the aft decks while the band played initially some Irish music and then rather more contemporary music as the crew handed out hot drinks laced with bracing rum and brandy and we waved farewell to the well-wishers ashore. Camera crews on board and dockside recorded the moment.
Dinner, to my slightly overwhelmed eyes, had nearly as many courses as an Edwardian dining experience – and, indeed, one of the side dishes on offer was the cabbage au gratin served on the Titanic…a remarkably rich dish that went well with the confit of duckling. The food on board has been thus far of a uniformly high standard, and the sit down provided us an opportunity to meet more fellow passengers, and learn what has drawn them to the cruise.
Many of those on this voyage have spent years anticipating the crossing, and many of them have a profound interest in that long-ago tragedy. It’s an interesting cross-section on board of regular cruise goers, Titanic aficionados, and those who, while not having a previous interest in the subject, are curious about the voyage. The first night lecture was given by Claus Goren Wetterholm, speaking on Third Class passengers, and from speaking to both those who have researched the subject of the vessel and those new to the subject it broke down the broad, generic ideas that many have about this class – the interesting idea, for example, that after English, Swedish was probably the second most widely spoken language on board.
This morning I woke to find a definite roll (back to that slightly drunken pitch as we walk!) and I was startled awake by a wave slamming at the portal (as I was typing this in my cabin, security arrived to close the portal covers). It’s a grey day out there, although I did my regimented turn of the promenade deck in the drizzle. I’m still finding my way around the Balmoral, even though she’s rather more well signposted and mapped out for passengers than a 1912 ocean liner. With my experience of ships being limited to rather smaller vessels like scuba diving liveaboards, this morning I found myself relating to Sixth Officer James Moody’s words about the difficulties of navigating his way around the Titanic, and how when he joined her in Belfast he and his fellow officers “just played about the ship, learning the best way to get from one end to the other which I assure you takes quite a bit of finding.”
This morning it’s still taking “quite a bit of finding”, although I’ve walked fore to aft quite a few times. Next mission will be to find the library and send this entry off. This afternoon we arrive in Cobh, the Titanic’s final port of call before her Atlantic crossing began.