A Matter of Course

There was more to Great Britain's fashionable Countess of Rothes than banquets and garden parties. She proved that the night Titanic went down.


There were six oars but only two were used by the four crewmen who arranged themselves in pairs on either side of the boat. It was slow going. Luckily, following Noëlle’s lead, other women volunteered to assist, and at least seven began taking turns rowing.

“Let me help!” sang out Margaret Swift, 46, reaching for an oar. Active in church work in Brooklyn, Swift was returning from a European trip with her friend, 49-year-old Dr. Alice Leader. Alice was with her in the boat, along with another of their friends, Marion Kenyon, 31, who had bid a casual farewell to her husband when she got into No. 8, not realizing the danger. Alice and Marion also offered to row.

One argument the occupants of Boat 8 didn’t have was over which way to go. Almost everyone had heard the captain’s instructions to Jones to head for the lights in the distance, and with all oars in use now, and Noëlle steering, they were making good headway.

While Boat 6 rowed aft –– it had been lowered a few moments after No. 8 was afloat –– Jones and Noëlle navigated straight for the lights on the horizon.

Titanic appeared solid as they shoved off. Twenty minutes later, from a distance of about a hundred yards, the list was alarmingly obvious. The sight of the ship leaning to port, “her bows right down in the water,” as Gladys put it, was unbelievable. Lights blazed from the portholes, the band continued to play, and distress signals were still being fired every few minutes. One by one, lifeboats were lowered and rowed clear, yet Titanic’s decks were lined with hundreds of people.

Titanic Sinking

One of the first lifeboats launched, No. 8 rowed for a ship's lights in the distance - enlarge

“It was so unreal, like a scene on a stage,” said Alice Leader, rowing beside Margaret Swift.

Gladys wondered how such a horrible event could be taking place in a setting so beautiful. “It was the stillest night possible, not a ripple on the water, and the stars were wonderful,” she recalled. “That icy air and stars I never want to see or feel again.”

The only hope the people in Boat 8 had was that they would soon reach the glittering lights ahead of them. But the two orbs, one higher than the other indicating the masts of a steamer, seemed to be playing tricks with the rowers –– they never got any nearer.

Noëlle, sitting at the tiller, kept her eyes firmly on the lights. They appeared stationary yet were growing dimmer. She regularly called out to Tom Jones about these “phantom lights,” particularly when another light became visible, a red running light, designating the strange steamer’s portside.

Crawford, pulling his oar, faced Titanic as he rowed but every once in a while he turned around to check the lights. Like the countess, he noticed them growing less distinct; it wasn’t clear if they were actually moving away or just rotating in the current. Crawford also noticed Titanic was trying to signal for help with its Morse lamp but, as far as he could tell, there was never a reply from the mysterious ship.

•          •          •

By 2:10 a.m., it had been over an hour since No. 8 cast off from Titanic’s side, pulling all the while for the unreachable lights. The occupants of Boat 8 never stopped rowing but their morale dipped from time to time. One or two women kept asking if they were getting any closer to the elusive ship on the horizon, and the disheartening reply was always “no.”

Noëlle said their vain attempt was “pitiful.” To her the lights looked tantalizingly close but regardless of how fast those at the oars rowed, it was apparent “there was simply no getting there.”

It was also evident that Titanic was going down very quickly. When Boat 8 left the ship, the danger didn’t seem imminent; water had only risen to just under the portholes of E-Deck, the lowest passenger deck. But the ship’s bow was now almost completely submerged, its stern beginning to rise above the surface of the sea to expose three giant propellers. From a distance of about a mile, the farthest away of any of the lifeboats, No. 8’s people had a bird’s eye view of the harrowing event.

“The most awful part of the whole thing,” remembered Noëlle, “was seeing the rows of portholes vanishing one by one.”

All the lifeboats were gone, yet over 1,500 people remained aboard. Sufficient boats weren’t thought necessary on an “unsinkable” ship, and more than half of those who sailed on Titanic would pay the price for the White Star Line’s overconfidence in technology.

The situation was underscored by grim silence. There were no more shooting rockets, no band playing, as Titanic began its fatal plunge. The last distress flares had been detonated, the Marconi operators tapped out a final SOS, and the crew were unlashing two small canvas rafts, trying to launch them before the rising sea swept everybody off the deck. Meantime, a mass exodus had begun –– as Titanic’s stern swung upward, burying its bow in the waves, crowds of people rushed for the highest part of the dying ship.  Hundreds ran along the decks, clambered up ladders, scrambled over rails, in a race against the invading water.

From such a distance it was impossible for anyone in Boat 8 to see in any detail the final moments of those left aboard the doomed liner. In the darkness it was only by watching the portholes disappearing that Noëlle and the others were able to gauge the rate of the sinking. These lights, which had burned brightly the whole time, were now glowing a reddish color; suddenly, as the stern continued swinging up, they flickered out, and a cacophony of terrified voices shattered the quiet night.

The horrifying sounds from Titanic jarred everyone in No. 8, and all eyes were fixed on the ship, cloaked now in total darkness.  Hearing the despairing cries that echoed over the sea, Maria Penasco, whom Noëlle had quieted before taking the tiller, lost control of her emotions again, and began moaning loudly. The young woman’s maid held her but she still wailed uncontrollably.

Noëlle sprang to her aid. Turning the helm over to Gladys, she made her way to the side of the young bride. Whispering kind words, she tried to shield Maria from the sight of the ship’s terrible end.

“Senora Penaso began to scream for her husband,” Noëlle recalled. “It was too horrible. I left the tiller to my cousin and slipped down beside her to be of what comfort I could. Poor woman! Her sobs tore our hearts.”

Maria’s moans –– “unspeakable in their sadness,” the countess said –– mingled with the death screams from Titanic, standing almost on end.

“The terror of seeing that boat go down, and the fearful shrieks of the passengers who were left was too awful,” said Gladys. “Then the awful sound of all the air-tight compartments going.” She compared it to the rumble of an earthquake.

The countess, too, was shocked by the sounds, and to prevent further hysteria in Maria, she put her hands over the desolated woman’s ears.

“When the awful end came,” Noëlle told an interviewer later, “I tried my best to keep the woman from hearing the agonizing sounds of distress. They seemed to go on forever.”

Things were happening too quickly for people to be sure of what they saw in the dark. But before plummeting to the bottom of the sea, Titanic had split in half, and the traumatic wrenching away of the keel below the surface caused the huge liner’s stern to rotate over the spot where the bow had disappeared. Swimmers in the water around the sinking ship, and survivors in boats nearby, saw the twisting stern more clearly. Those in Boat 8 could discern little in the dark, only swaying shadows.

To Alice Leader, tugging at her oar, the confusing picture she had was that of the ship resurfacing. “The black hulk seemed to rise out of the water again,” she said,  “and sink a second time.”

Titanic Sinking

Titanic went down at 2:20 a.m., April 15, 1912 - enlarge

Noëlle didn’t see the ship go down – her head was pressed to the senora’s, and both were looking away. But Gladys saw it all. She said Titanic went under with the roar of a “distant battle.” It was 2:20 a.m.

The sound of the ship’s destruction faded but the shrieks of the drowning persisted. Tom Jones’ reaction was visceral. He stood up and called out that the boat would row back and try to save some of those struggling in the water. The response to his order was anything but what he expected from the women, several of whom had left husbands behind. In a nearly unanimous cry, the frightened ladies protested against going back.

Noëlle felt very differently. Supported by Gladys and an American woman, most likely Margaret Swift, who was now rowing beside Jones, the countess insisted it was their duty to go back and help.

But she and Jones were bitterly rebuked. Noëlle was incensed by the other women’s attitude:

Several of us –– and Tom Jones –– wanted to row back and see if there was not some chance of rescuing anyone that had possibly survived. But the majority in the boat ruled that we had no right to risk their lives on the bare chance of finding anyone alive after the final plunge. They also said the captain’s own orders had been to row for the ship lights, and that we had no business to interfere with his orders. Of course, that settled the matter and we rowed on.

Gladys was also surprised by the reaction:

I could not hear the discussion very clearly, as I was at the tiller, but everyone forward and the three men refused.

She added that she felt the others were so upset about the proposed return that they “would have killed us rather than go back.”

Jones, astounded by the majority’s decision, made his stance clear when he shouted: “Ladies, if any of us are saved, remember I wanted to go back. I would rather drown with them than leave them.”

•          •         •

With the cries of the dying filling everyone’s ears, Boat 8 dutifully resumed its chase of the elusive lights. Lost in thought, nobody talked. After about half an hour the cries faded and in their place fell a terrible stillness.

“The silence of a lonely sea dropped down,” Noëlle said. “The indescribable loneliness, the ghastliness of our feelings, never can be told.”

The countess remained with Maria Penasco for the time being, then relieved Gladys at the tiller for a while before taking her turn at an oar beside Emma Bucknell, the 59-year-old widow of Bucknell University’s namesake, William Bucknell. Noëlle’s rowing partner was one of those who had disagreed with her about returning to help people in the water but Emma was a team player at the oars; she rowed all night and had blisters on her hands to prove it.

Despite the earlier clash, the women in Boat 8 were of the same community spirit and, with few exceptions, they worked together well. Marie Young later commended the self-control of her boat mates –– true “20th century women,” she called them.

Those at the oars included 22-year-old Edith Pears, wife of the grandson of the founder of the Pears soap company. Saved with her aunt and two cousins, Caroline Bonnell, 30, also rowed. So did Ruth Taussig, 18, and Mary Holverson, 35. These women didn’t know it yet, but each had just lost husbands, fathers or other male relations.

Also rowing were Alice Leader, Marion Kenyon, and the energetic Margaret Swift, whom Noëlle said remained at her oar all night::

Mrs. Swift did yeoman service. She rowed for five hours with Tom Jones without taking a rest. Really she was magnificent, not only in her attitude but in the whole souled way in which she worked.

Even those who weren’t rowing did their bit. One lady held the lantern to help people maneuver in the dark as they relieved each other at the oars. Even fretful Ella White got into the act, counting strokes for the rowers. From time to time, she couldn’t resist swinging her electric cane to illuminate the scene, and no one bothered to complain.

The women were glad to row –– to keep their spirits up and to keep warm. Many wore only negligees and robes under their coats. One woman looked ready for a ball in her evening dress and high heel slippers. Another was barefoot, with just a sweater over her nightclothes. Alice Leader had on a blue serge tailored suit and hat, covered by a lightweight cloth motoring cloak. Caroline Bonnell wore three coats while Ruth Taussig discarded her extra wrap. Gladys’ thick suit and full-length fur cape weren’t enough insulation, and her “stockings were all ripped.” She said she felt “numb from the waist downwards.”

While Noëlle rowed next to Emma Bucknell (and perhaps shared her brandy flask), the latter turned round to find her maid rowing beside the countess’ maid, and the sight filled her with pride. Noëlle meantime called out reports on the distant lights to Jones; they would flicker every once in a while, or seem to move, and she wanted him to know in the event that a change in course was necessary. Seeing the faint outline of icebergs around the boat, she also guided Gladys in her steering, suggesting which we way to go to avoid them.

For all their efforts, the glimmering lights were no nearer than they had seemed when Boat 8 started for them. At one point both running lights of the weird vessel were seen, indicating its bow had swung to face the lifeboat. Noëlle and Alfred Crawford saw the red and green lights distinctly, but only for a moment or two, and they disappeared.

During this time, an hour after Titanic’s sinking, Gladys handled the tiller while Noëlle rowed. This is a significant point, as the countess’ future celebrity was based partly on her having steered Boat 8. The truth is Gladys was at the tiller for more than half the time, having taken over from Noëlle just before the ship sank.  But this fact doesn’t diminish Noëlle’s leadership. Along with steering for the first hour or so, she did her share of rowing and, as has been shown, she even acted as lookout.

She was almost unofficial skipper, her example of grace and calm inspiring those around her to forget their fear and take an active part in managing the boat. Jones was in physical command of Boat 8 but Noëlle was the motivational heart of the work accomplished that night. Without her morale boosting and volunteer spirit, it seems unlikely that the nervous, privileged ladies in No. 8 would have rallied so enthusiastically to the side of the young sailor and his motley crew of stewards and kitchen help.

•          •          •

It was now almost 3:30 in the morning. Dawn was coming, bringing relief to the huddled survivors from the misery of their cold night vigil. And with the first faint streaks of daylight came rescue.


Titnic's lifeboats, surrounded by icebergs, was the scene that greeted the rescue ship Carpathia

Boat 8 was still pulling for the unattainable lights in the north when a dot of illumination appeared in the opposite direction, gradually resolving itself into a bright, moving object. It seemed to be heading straight for them. That wasn’t the only thing the survivors saw. White-capped waves were hurtling towards them. A breeze had sprung up, tossing the sea about, and the boat heaved in the swell.

Jones was the first to see the new light appearing in the south and called out to Noëlle, asking if she could see it. She looked but couldn’t make anything out. Then, as No. 8 crested a wave, Noëlle clearly saw a brilliant light, speeding across the horizon, and she replied in the affirmative. With that, Jones announced to the others there was a ship coming on full steam. Gladys immediately swung the boat around.

“Suddenly we saw the lights of a steamer.,” she recalled, “and we turned and began rowing towards her.”

It wasn’t an easy task because of the waves. “That awful time until we got to her I shall never forget,” continued Gladys, “It was beginning to get rough and very difficult to steer.”

Boat 8 had quite a way to go. Because it had pursued the mystery lights for over two hours, it was one of the farthest of the 20 scattered lifeboats from the approaching rescue ship; Crawford thought they were as much as two miles away.

It would be a long haul in the choppy sea but no one was fussing. Salvation was in sight, and the women were ecstatic. Ella White waved her electric stick with abandon and Margaret Swift, rowing beside Jones, suggested everyone sing, “Pull for the Shore.”

Noëlle recalled “Lead, Kindly Light” as another hopeful tune sung in the boat that morning. It was one of her favorites, and she cheerily joined in:

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
          lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I’m far from home,
           lead Thou me on!

Jones was caught up in the excitement as well. “To keep up our spirits,” he said, “we sang as we rowed –– all of us. Then we stopped singing and prayed.”

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