Book: The Odyssey of C.H. Lightoller by Patrick Stenson

Very good biography of a man who led an astonishing life

Patrick Stenson
The Odyssey of C.H. Lightoller
W.W. Norton, 1984
ISBN: 0-393-01924-1
Out of print; used copies seem to fetch around $50 as of this writing
314 pages (main text)

If I recall correctly, a while ago Michael Cash said in a Usenet post (which Google seems to have misplaced) that the least interesting thing that happens in The Odyssey of C.H. Lightoller is that Mr Lightoller is the highest-ranking officer to survive the sinking of the Titanic. That's nearly all you need to know about the book.

But I'll say a bit more anyway. Mr Lightoller was born in 1874 and didn't much like school. So as a boy of fourteen, he signed on as an apprentice seaman on a square-rigged sailing ship carrying cargo from Liverpool to San Francisco. He would routinely have to climb a hundred feet and more up the ship's masts to adjust the sails during storms and bitter cold. That would make an interesting story in itself (as it does in Eric Newby's The Last Grain Race), but Mr Lightoller's adventures were just getting started. On his second voyage, he was shipwrecked on a desert island. A little later, he switches from sailing ships to steamships and ends up swimming for his life through surf on the west African coast. After an interlude to go prospecting for gold in the Yukon, he goes to sea again and just manages to avoid being shipwrecked. He works his way up as an officer on the White Star Line and then ships out on the Titanic. Suffice it to say that that story is told remarkably well. But that's not the end of Mr Lightoller's adventures by any means. He becomes a destroyer captain during the first world war, and that turns out to be just as interesting as everything else he did. And finally, long retired, he, his son, and a young friend take his yacht across the English Channel to help with the evacuation at Dunkirk.

Patrick Stenson's prose is more workmanlike than elegant, but that's not important. The story is what's important here and he tells it admirably. Fifty dollars is cheap for a read like this one.

Mr Stenson is mistaken when he says that the lime juice given to British sailors had none of the anti-scurvy properties of lemon juice (p. 9). It is merely less effective than lemon juice.

Posted: Thu - March 17, 2005 at 08:11   Main   Category: