“The night was fine and clear, bright overhead and dark on the water; calm wind and sea.”
So wrote Harold Lowe, Fifth Officer RMS Titanic, after the disastrous end to the maiden voyage. His words described the same scene 100 years later as we stood on the stern of the Balmoral and cast three wreaths into the sea.
It had been a strange sort of day – noticeably subdued compared to others, given that all minds were on the service that night. There were still some high spirits in evidence – the Australians (one of the largest contingents aboard) gathered at the stern with the memorial wreath sent by the Australian government, and while they were mindful of the solemnity of what the wreath represented as they were photographed, once the group broke up they were as blithe as any collection of Australians are when they get together.
As the day drew to a close, the skies were clear and there was only a fairly mild ocean swell. We sat in the Observatory Lounge to watch the sunset into which we sailed, remembering words such as those by the Reverend Harper a century ago about a similar sunset, when he said “it will be beautiful in the morning” – a morning he and many others on board Titanic would never see. My companion asked me the time – I glanced at my watch. “6.00 pm”. “Then a century ago, the bugle has just sounded for the first sitting at dinner,” he responded.
We dined, and then sat in at the Neptune Lounge for suite of Titanic music played by the Grupetto band. This quintet has provided one of the most moving aspects of this entire voyage – in the program it states that they play “in honour of the Titanic’s musicians”, and they have done them honour indeed. Not only with their musical talent and their evocative selection of music as played on that final voyage, but in the very evident respect they have for their historical counterparts. The music they played ranged from light classical to ragtime, as in between numbers a brief spoken narrative was given that traced the Titanic through her final hours. It concluded with an original composition in memory of that long lost ship.
At 11.40 pm the Captain made a ship wide announcement that we were over the wreck site, and requested two minutes silence to mark the moment of the collision.
I have rarely heard such stillness – in all that vessel, there was only the underlying sound of the ship’s machinery.
Then the name roll of the dead began, played on screens throughout the vessel, and spoken aloud in the two areas were the inside component of the service was held. At 1.00 pm we gathered in our designated area, the Neptune Lounge, as Commodore Ronald Warwick conducted the service. Following this, we filed out onto the stern.
I found my glance kept flicking to my watch, comparing the times to what was happening a century ago – what lifeboat was being launched, what desperate wireless message for help was being cast into the night air, what was happening on the decks of the liner. It was being played out in memory in time with the historic event.
While not quite the eerie “mill pond” calmness of that night, it was still a remarkably calm, remarkably clear night with stars overhead. I only caught the rather sickly sliver of a moon after the service. Harold Lowe’s “dark on the water” gained a new meaning as I looked over the railing into the well of blackness, and imagined what it would be like to be launched into that in a lifeboat. At first the cold did not seem too excessive – quite mild, in fact. But the longer we stood on the decks, the more the chill seeped into us, as our hands turned numb and we began to shiver.
At 2.15 pm the service resumed. It was brief, simple and without mawkish excess. Commodore Warwick and the Revd Huw Mosford read their words of benediction, the wreaths were cast to the sea by one of the Balmoral’s crewmembers, and the Grupetto band played “Eternal Father Strong to Save” – as was played in services on board the Titanic the morning of April 14. It is a hymn which has a special resonance for many seafarers, and was heard in near absolute silence, accompanied only by an extraordinary Welsh tenor on board. The proceedings concluded with “Nearer, My God, To Thee” and I remembered how Harold Lowe and others who lived through that night associated it ever afterwards with those terrible hours.
Soon after we resumed our journey towards Halifax.