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C. H. Lightoller (1874-1952), some will recall, was the only senior officer of the Titanic to survive--a bit of good fortune that also made him a potential scapegoat. But that's not nearly the half of this hearty tale of ""an incorrigible merchant seaman."" ""Lights"" first went to sea, at 14, as an apprentice on a windjammer--carrying an extra set of sails that made her one of the tallest ships afloat: it was his job to set the ""skysail."" On his second voyage he sailed with Liverpool's ""most daring cracker on""--whose luck gave out and marooned them on a desert island in the Indian Ocean. He fetched up in hospitable Australia (he'd later marry an Australian woman); survived an Indian Ocean cyclone and a burning cargo of coal off the South African coast; ""discovered there were more ways to fish than with hook and line""--i.e., with dynamite from the Nitrate Coast. But Peruvian nitrate was the last ""grim, depressing"" business left to the sailing ships, so Lightoller reluctantly ""went into steam""--and, goaded by a malicious captain, almost drowned off the West African coast. Disillusioned, he tried the Klondike, counted himself lucky to get home; now 25 and determined to shape up, he presented himself at ""the prestigious White Star Line."" There begins a zestful account of passenger service, primarily on the North Atlantic run, in competition with Cunard: the contrast between the gilded saloon and ""the heat and hell of the stokehold""; the Oceanic's redoubtable Captain Cameron, who made his crossings within five minutes. Enter then the new, supremely luxurious, ""unsinkable"" Titanic: ""Appointed First Officer. . . was Charles Herbert Lightoller."" Stenson, a British journalist who combines cracker-barrel storytelling with meticulous reporting, gives a fine, double-edged account of events leading to the disaster; Lightoller's subsequent attempts to protect his superiors and his employer without actually lying (how he got around the absence of binoculars in the crow's nest, the iceberg-warnings and high speed); and ""the whitewash."" But there are further adventures, and notable shipwrecks, to come, in WW I service; there is Lightoller's sidetracking, by a Line that wanted no Titanic reminders in sight; and finally there is Dunkirk, when he loaded 130 men onto his own 60-ft. yacht. With Lightoller's memoirs for ""an invaluable head start,"" this is a vigorous, richly detailed narrative of a life at once exceptional and representative.

Pub Date: Nov. 26th, 1984
Publisher: Norton