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A Dispatch From The Titanic Memorial Cruise

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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, Miss.

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."

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