April 1992, aboard the Royal Princess New York to Southampton.
Exactly twenty years ago, April 15, 1992, I was aboard a ship making its way in the North Atlantic. At 10:30 that night, on the portside of an elegant dinner, some were snuggled in beds already, some still strolling the decks or haunting the public rooms, and I was dancing up top with friends when everything went, without warning, dark.
Hearts stopped. Crew scurried.
Even then, there was no thought on any of our minds that it was an anniversary, an ominous day when another ship, steaming on her maiden voyage in the North Atlantic, fell, whether to hubris or misadventure.
A few days earlier I was in the bathtub of my stateroom, door closed, when Andrew, my cabin steward, pounded briskly on the door. "Bomb reported aboard ship, miss. You need to muster to lifeboat stations."
It was middle of the day, the bath and the champagne glass next to it filled with bubbles, and I wasn't budging. If the ship was going down, so was I.
His pleading notwithstanding, I stayed in my bath through what turned out to be a very persuasive drill. If there was a bomb, or an iceberg (or anything else, I pondered), we were in the middle of the North Atlantic. Who on earth would be rescuing us?
The lights eventually came back on that April night, all was well, and we sailed into Southampton, a few hundred of us jollier for the journey, eight days at sea from New York, tea concerts and matinees, leisurely lunches and brisk wind, all aswirl with champagne.
Some years later I was aboard what was then the largest passenger ship afloat, hopscotching through the Mediterranean, when two towers fell out of the Manhattan skyline. For whatever happened then, we later learned that she became a big floating target with a red 'X' on her.
We had a dinner once, a grand birthday dinner twice as nice really as my wedding, a birthday dinner for my husband, one of those big birthdays where people come from out of town and stay in hotels, and we served at that meal the last dinner on the Titanic, Petit filet Lili and Potatoes Anna and somesuch, flowers trailing down long tables. I doubt people noticed.
My ties to the ship that went down that night a hundred years ago are dubious--a transatlantic crossing, another largest ship, a meal. I don't know anyone who survived that night or went down, don't have any trinkets, bits or bobs, songs or tales. I've looked into a lifeboat more than once and prayed to my Maker that I'd never end up in one, knowing still full well that some look much more equipped for first class passengers. But then, I've crossed that same ocean by aircraft whose lifeboats are far less elegant.
I began my life fearful of the water, something I came by honestly. It took years to come to a place where I could actually stretch my legs eight days at sea and find bliss. But in that time, before I found the life that ultimately became so precious, a routine bomb drill midday while I was in the bathtub was just another existential aerobic.
Celebrating a birthday at sea, middle of the North Atlantic, April 1992.
There's a song sung at sea, Sunday mornings when generally the captain or one of the senior officers presides at chapel, a song sung by sailors in more than one navy, by passengers and crew on countless ships, by those who've skirted the ocean's bow, songsheets raised, mouths fed.
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who biddest the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
One scene from the movie, that James Cameron thing that many watched but fewer confessed, stayed with me more than the others--lovers entwined on a bed, water swirling around them.
I can only wonder, had I been there that night a hundred years ago, awake or asleep in the North Atlantic, would I have survived, would I have perished? Would I have gone into the dark cold night in a lifeboat with little hope of rescue, or clung to the ship resigned to another fate?
I generally try not to think about it, strolling the decks.