Colonel Astor and Major Peuchen —Yachtsmen with Different Fates

Mar 17, 2018
I was reading Michael Davie’s book “Titanic: The Death and Life of a Legend” (1986; revised 2012 edition, updated by Dave Gittins, published by Vintage Books, which is a division of Random House, Inc.). I had gotten to the point where Davie is giving us some background information on Colonel John Jacob Astor IV, who was the Titanic’s wealthiest passenger. In chapter 3, on page 62, it says “(Astor) was an intrepid yachtsman and once disappeared for sixteen days aboard his private yacht ‘Normahaul’ in the Caribbean, affecting real-estate markets in New York...” and something clicked inside my head. I had remembered also reading that Major Arthur Godfrey Peuchen, of Toronto, Canada, was a survivor because of his experience as a yachtsman. I went back and reviewed the Titanic books in my library on these two yachtsmen and the circumstances that would allow one of them to live and the other to perhaps die needlessly.

It is shortly before 1:10 A.M. on April 15, 1912. The ship’s evacuation has been proceeding for about 25 minutes. Up to this point, three lifeboats have been successfully loaded and lowered from the ship’s starboard (right) side by First Officer William Murdoch. On the port (left) side, however, only one lifeboat has left and Second Officer Charles Lightoller is having some trouble. He was concerned about lowering the lifeboats fully-loaded with people from the top deck (nearly 70 feet to the water). He thought the lifeboat might buckle or tip and dump everyone of the lifeboat’s occupants into the sea. It was a reasonable fear in Lightoller’s day. However, although Lightoller and his fellow officers didn’t know this, the shipbuilders Harland & Wolff had provided for this emergency with new and improved equipment that had been tested and could lower the boats successfully with 65 people. This included the Welin lifeboat davits. Lightoller sends the Boatswain Alfred Nichols and a team of sailors (six, I believe) to open the gangway doors on D deck and allow passengers to board lifeboats from there. However, this plan fell apart and the men never returned. Lightoller is now short of sailors to help row the lifeboats. Only two men are present in lifeboat 6, Lookout Frederick Fleet to row and Quartermater Robert Hichens to command at the tiller. The boat needs at least one more man to join, but Lightoller cannot spare anyone. Lightoller is in quite a predicament, when a stranger steps forward from the crowd and volunteers, “I can go, if you like.” (The man, as Lightoller later learned, is Major Arthur Peuchen, Vice-Commodore of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club). “Are you a seaman?” Lightoller queried. “I am a yachtsman” Peuchen replies. Lightoller then allowed Peuchen to join the lifeboat, even though Peuchen had to first prove himself by climbing down one of the davit falls.

Some forty minutes (give-or-take) now pass between this event and the next, and Lightoller is now helping load lifeboat 4. The boat has been lowered from the Boat Deck to the deck immediately below, to the windows of the enclosed A-deck promenade. Colonel Archibald Gracie was assisting and wrote the following in his account “The Truth About the Titanic” (published posthumously in 1913; see “The Story of the Titanic As Told by Its Survivors”, edited by Jack Winocour, published by Dover Publications Inc. in 1960; the quote is from page 130):

“The Second Officer, Lightoller, was in command on the port side forward, where I was. One of his feet was planted in the lifeboat, and the other on the rail of Deck A, while we, through the wood frames of the lowered glass windows on this deck, passed women, children, and babies in rapid succession without any confusion whatsoever. Among this number was Mrs. Astor, whom I lifted over the four-feet high rail of the ship through the frame. Her husband held her left arm as we carefully passed her to Lightoller, who seated her in the boat. A dialogue now ensued between Colonel Astor and the Officer, every word of which I listened to with intense interest. Astor was close to me in the adjoining window-frame, to the left of mine. Leaning out over the rail he asked permission of Lightoller to enter the boat to protect his wife, which, in view of her delicate condition, seems to have been a reasonable request, but the officer, intent upon his duty, and obeying orders, and not knowing the millionaire from the rest of us, replied: ‘No, sir, no men are allowed in these boats until the women are loaded first.’ Colonel Astor did not demur, but bore the refusal bravely and resignedly, simply asking the number of the boat to help find his wife later in case he was also rescued. ‘Number 4,’ was Lightoller’s reply. Nothing more was said. Colonel Astor moved away from this point and I never saw him again.”

To conclude this comment, it is just my speculation, but it’s possible that if Lightoller had known Astor and knew he had experience in sailing, he might have allowed him to join his wife in lifeboat 4, as an extra hand to row the boat.
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