The Boat That Went Back (Part I)

After the Titanic struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, it soon became apparent that the ship would sink within a few short hours. All sixteen lifeboats plus four collapsible boats were lowered to the Atlantic’s surface, some only half-filled with passengers and crew.

Of the 2,223 souls onboard, only 706 survived by escaping the ship on a lifeboat. After the sinking at 2:20 am, hundreds cried for help in the water. Those in the lifeboats claimed it sounded like one long wailing chant, and was the worst sound they ever heard.

Titanic sinking artist rendering

photo credit - Titanic Universe

Many of those in the water wore their lifebelts, but with the water temperature at 28 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia soon set in. After about twenty minutes, their cries began to diminish. By 3:00 am, all was quiet.

Passengers in many of the lifeboats wanted to go back and try to rescue any they could. They begged those in charge of their boats to go back, but were told they were too far away, or those in the water would swamp the boat. In Lifeboat 8, the Countess of Rothes and a few others wanted to return, but the other passengers overruled them. In Lifeboat 5, Ruth Dodge wanted to go back, but the others disagreed. She was so disgusted with them that she later switched boats. In Boat 6, Quartermaster Robert Hitchens told his passengers, “It’s our lives now, not theirs.”

Countess of Rothes

The Countess of Rothes (photo credit - Titanic Forum)

Lifeboat 4 had been the last boat to leave Titanic’s port side, with two sailors and 42 passengers aboard. Among them were Mrs. John Jacob Astor and several more ladies from first class. As it launched, the women’s husbands stood on the deck together, quietly watching. Thirty-nine-year-old Quartermaster Walter Perkis, still on deck, was then sent to the boat to take command. He had to slide down a 70-foot rope to reach it.

As the Titanic sank, Boat 4 passenger Mrs. Emily Ryerson, wife of steel magnate Arthur Ryerson of Philadelphia, heard someone say, “Pull for your lives or you’ll be sucked under.” She saw Mrs. Astor helping with the rowing, but there didn’t seem to be any suction. The lifeboat hadn’t gone far when the occupants began hearing the agonizing cries from those in the water.


Mrs. Emily Ryerson (photo credit -

Perkis told the US Inquiry, “…we picked up eight men that were swimming with life preservers. Two died afterwards in the boat. One was a fireman and one was a steward.”

Mrs. Ryerson stated, “…we dragged in six or seven men. They were so chilled or frozen already they could hardly move. Two of them died in the stern later, and many were raving and moaning and delirious most of the time.”

In Lifeboat 14, Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, 29, blew his whistle and ordered that several boats near him, including Boat 4, tie together and redistribute the passengers more evenly. When that was done and the cries from the water subsided a bit, Lowe felt it was safe to return to rescue people from the water. Until then, he felt the boats would be sunk by hundreds of people attempting to climb in.

(To be continued next week)

A sampler of survivor stories

Out of 2,223 passengers and crew aboard the Titanic, only 706 survived. Here are three survivor stories. Lucy Dyer-Edwards of London had married the nineteenth Earl of Rothes in 1900 and became the Countess of Rothes. Bound for Vancouver, BC, to meet her husband, she boarded the Titanic at age 33, accompanied by her cousin and her maid.

The Countess had some prior sailing experience, and manned the tiller for most of the night in Lifeboat 8, while her cousin helped row. Able seaman Thomas Jones, the crewman in charge, admired her courage and gave her the number plate from the boat afterward. They corresponded for several years.


 The Countess of Rothes

Esther Hart of England, her husband Benjamin and seven-year-old daughter Eva were on their way to a new life in Winnipeg, Canada. Their tickets were changed from another ship to the Titanic at the last minute. Certain that something dreadful was going to happen to the Titanic, Esther slept during the day and stayed awake every night, fully dressed. She enjoyed the voyage enough, however, to write a letter to a friend back home, saying what a wonderful journey it had been so far. The letter was kept in Benjamin’s coat pocket until they reached New York.

Esther felt the collision with the iceberg and immediately rushed her family out from their second class cabin. Benjamin gave her his coat as she and Eva boarded Lifeboat 14. Benjamin went down with the ship.

With her husband gone, Esther chose to take Eva back to England and live with her parents. The letter was saved by family members, and was sold this past April for 119,000 British pounds.


Benjamin, Eva, and Esther Hart

Olaus Abelseth, born and raised in Norway, had left his homeland in 1902 at the age of sixteen to seek his fortune in America. He managed to start a farm in South Dakota, and went back to Norway to visit family. With him on the Titanic were five other Norwegians, all traveling in steerage. Olaus was 26.

Following the sinking, he was one of the few available third class passengers who could speak English, so he testified at the American inquiry. He described the confusion amid the third class decks after the collision, how the lifeboats were all taken by the time he reached them, and how he waited to jump into the freezing water. With his life vest on and surrounded by men trying to hang on to him, he swam toward one of the collapsible rafts. No one helped him aboard because of the fear it would capsize. He gradually pulled himself aboard and endured waist-deep ice cold water until rescued by the Carpathia eight hours later.

Olaus returned to farming in the United States, married and had four children.

Olaus Abelseth

Olaus Abelseth