One hundred years ago this Sunday, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank into the Atlantic on its maiden voyage. At that very spot today is another luxury liner, there to mark the centennial of the disaster. Writer Lester Reingold is on board the memorial cruise, and he sends us this report.
As the Titanic Memorial Cruise began, our ship, the Azamara Journey, pulled away from the pier and headed down the Hudson River. We gazed up at One World Trade Center. Though still under construction, that skyscraper at 9/11 Memorial Plaza already dominates the skyline of Lower Manhattan.
We were heading to another disaster site, but one with no memorial. On the trackless ocean surface, we would have nothing but the ship's GPS to confirm that we would be at the exact spot where the Titanic went down. Yet the imagination can be as evocative as any marker, and we would have the shared imagination of well over 400 passengers, trip organizers and guest lecturers — most of whom have devoted much of their lives to what occurred at the site where we were headed, exactly 100 years ago.
From New York we headed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we spent a day in port. In 1912, recovery operations were based there, with boats heading for the Titanic wreck site and returning with bodies and some debris. Among other stops, we visited three Halifax cemeteries and paid our respects to the 150 victims buried there (many others were conveyed to their homes, where they were buried). At the cemetery with most of the graves, the markers form the shape of a ship's bow, with a space signifying the iceberg's impact area.
The rest of our memorial excursion would be experienced on board the ship. This is a cruise — Titanic-themed, to be sure — but nonetheless, still a cruise. Onboard activities include plenty of lectures and discussions on Titanic esoterica, but also more standard cruise fare, such as spa treatments, martini tasting and bingo. One cabaret singer channeled the Temptations and the Blues Brothers, but he also sang "Danny Boy" in tribute to his native Ireland, where the Titanic was built, and because the song in its present form dates from 1913, the year after the sinking. Emma Sinclair, a compelling soprano, performed selections from The Sound of Music and Phantom of the Opera, but also "My Heart Will Go On" from the movie Titanic, because, well, for obvious reasons. Each meal includes one selection that was served on Titanic, but on formal nights it's a full eight-course menu, just as the first class dined on the Titanic.
The "Titanic Enrichment Series," as the onboard lectures are called, is geared to hold the interest of those who are far from new to the subject, so there's no simple retelling of the Titanic story. Instead, there are talks on topics such as: Titanic books and other collectibles; the history of the Carpathia, the ship that came to the rescue of Titanic's survivors; even an analysis of the lethal iceberg.
The lectures are fascinating — I haven't missed one yet. But my fellow passengers are as much a part of the cruise experience as the names on the program. I had expected to find a ship of zealous Titanic enthusiasts, and I wasn't disappointed. It can be awesome, the human capacity to research, synthesize and recall details of whatever captures one's interest — in this case, a single ship and its first and only voyage. To be on this centennial excursion, I met people who came from as far away as South Africa and Australia.
Despite their common interest, these enthusiasts are still a varied lot. There are the "rivet counters," who are fascinated by the ship's structure. Karlee Weiler, who took a week off from college in Colorado to join the cruise, is one of those who focus on the people on board the Titanic. For Weiler, James Cameron's Titanic provided an introduction, but she soon found the historic figures much more compelling than Jack and Rose. The same is true for Suzie and Cathrine Swift, mother-and-daughter long-haul truck drivers from Canada with an abiding interest in history. Bob Daugherty, a high school history teacher from Houston, manages to combine his Titanic enthusiasm with his hobby of home brewing. So in honor of a crew member named Ryerson, Daugherty brews a rye beer, and for "The Unsinkable" Molly Brown – one of the most colorful characters to emerge from the disaster — there's a brown ale, of course.
For a few on the cruise, the Titanic is more than an avocation, it's family history. Joan Randall's mother was four years old when she made it to one of the Titanic's lifeboats. William Bateman's grandfather, a Baptist minister, did not survive. William is here with his son, Robert James Bateman, who bears the same name as his great-grandfather.
To my surprise, it didn't take a longstanding Titanic devotion to prompt some passengers to sign on for this cruise. Several, like Kathy and Jim Hession, just found a good, last-minute deal. "I wanted a trip where the weather would stay cool," Jim says. "I wilt in the heat."
Passengers were invited to dress in keeping with the Titanic theme. Some came outfitted in Titanic swag — ties, caps, shirts, pins and more, all emblazoned with the noble liner's image. Some have dressed in the period of a century ago. And there are plenty, like me, who just appear as nondescript cruise passengers.
Those opting to emulate Titanic attire took a variety of approaches. Michael Michaud and Peg Foen, along with daughter Anita and son Michael, were able to improvise representative outfits from their own wardrobes, with new bowler hats added for the gentlemen. Preparations for Laurie and Dan Castaneda involved several weeks of research, last-minute purchases and even home-sewn clothing from vintage patterns.
But the most authentic, surely, have been Byron and Judy Matson. Both have long been devoted to the Edwardian era. Each day they have appeared resplendent in a different outfit, with all details, from Byron's button shoes and stiff collar to Judy's shirtwaist and corset, scrupulously correct to the time of the Titanic. To get their four large suitcases, three hanging bags and three hatboxes on board, they had to drive from their home in Sedalia, Mo.
The Titanic struck the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912. Exactly 100 years later, at the same time and at the same spot, our ship's horn sounded, and all on board observed two minutes of silence. In the memorial that followed, the names of all who were lost — roughly 1,500 passengers and crew — were read aloud. A religious service was held, Titanic's first distress call was re-created over the PA system, and two wreaths were cast into the water over the sunken liner. At 2:20 a.m., the time Titanic disappeared beneath the surface, our ship's horn sounded once more. Then a string ensemble came forward to play the hymn long associated with the disaster, the melody reportedly heard from the ship at the end: "Nearer My God to Thee."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Early this morning, in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, a cruise ship floated over the spot where the Titanic, the unsinkable ship, broke apart and plunged to the bottom of the sea. The ship was there to mark the moment 100 years ago today that the luxury liner sank on its maiden voyage, killing more than 1,500 people.
The disaster shocked and outraged people around the world. And even today, the story of the Titanic and its passengers - some very privileged, many very ordinary - still has a powerful grip on the imagination.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOVIE, "TITANIC")
MARTIN: Think of all the books and movies about the tragedy even the phrases that have become part of everyday conversations: women and children first.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOVIE, "TITANIC")
JONNY PHILLIPS: (as Second Officer Lightoller) For the time being I shall require only women and children.
MARTIN: And the band played on.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOVIE, "TITANIC")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right boys, like the captain said, nice and cheery so there's no panic.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WEDDING DANCE")
MARTIN: And this phrase, to describe any hopeless endeavor: rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Today, the tragedy is being remembered around the world: in Belfast, where the ship was built; in Southampton, where the ship departed on its trans-Atlantic voyage; and in Nova Scotia, where some of the victims are buried.
It is also being remembered at sea and that is where we've reached Lester Reingold. He's a freelance writer with a longstanding interest in the Titanic, and he joins us from the Azamara Journey, a cruise ship that traveled to the very spot where the ship sank.
Lester Reingold, welcome to the program.
LESTER REINGOLD: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: So, if you could, set the scene for us. Tell us how you and your fellow passengers are marking this occasion.
REINGOLD: The objective of this trip was to be at the site where the ship sank exactly a hundred years to the moment. The Titanic struck the iceberg at 11:40 P.M. So at 11:35 on board the ship, the captain came on the public address and invoked the memory of the Titanic and those who were on board. And then exactly at 11:40, the ship's horn sounded. And then, following that, throughout the ship was two minutes of silence. And an announcer then read the name of every person, both passenger and crew, who were lost on the Titanic.
One thing that struck me as they were going through that reading of the names, was when they got the third class you could hear large groups of the same names. Because these were whole families of immigrants who were headed for the United States and those whole families were wiped out.
MARTIN: Oh, my.
REINGOLD: So, right at approaching the time of the actual sinking, we are all on the top deck of the ship. The time change to 2:20, which was the time of the sinking. And then our horns sounded, and that was at 2:20. Immediately after that, a string ensemble played the song that is most associated with the sinking of the Titanic. And that is the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee."
MARTIN: And I understand that some of your fellow passengers are in character? Are people actually walking around in period dress?
REINGOLD: They are, indeed. There are some who did it sort of as improvisation. They got out their tuxedos and then they bought a bowler hat, and that was their nod to the Edwardian era. But in contrast, there are a number of other passengers who are really devoted to all things Edwardian. There is one couple in particular who had 10 suitcases. Each day, they are outfitted in a completely different, impeccably accurate outfit. And much of their outfits are not just representative of the period, but are actually antique clothing from the period.
MARTIN: Wow. So, after all this time, Lester, what do you think makes the Titanic so compelling, even a century after its demise, that it would draw these type of people, yourself, to this kind of event?
REINGOLD: Many people talk about the convergence of so many factors that makes this for the highest of dramas - the fact that it was a maiden voyage, the fact that the elite of society were traveling that day. There are some who point to lessons of overconfidence in the face of nature.
One thing that I've learned is, frankly, how little I know or how much I still have to learn about the Titanic. The story of the Titanic is one that some people have devoted their lives to, and I'm constantly amazed at how much they have learned and how much they have mastered.
MARTIN: Lester Reingold is a freelance writer and a Titanic enthusiast. He joined us from aboard the Azamara Journey. That's a cruise ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Lester Reingold, it goes without saying that we wish you a very safe rest of your trip.
REINGOLD: I appreciate that. It's very good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.