To The Lifeboats

(May 17, 2003)
Published in The Sydney Morning Herald

If the ship is sinking, what do you do? One girl’s childhood obsession has become a literary career.

When I was nine, I saw the film A Night to Remember for the first time. Among the silences, uncluttered by incidental music, my mother and older sisters sobbed loudly as the Titanic sank, while my brother snorted in disgust. I, however, was silent, busily planning an escape route and survival strategy for the imminent likelihood of my being stuck on a large cruise liner, about to go under.

By the time I saw the first of many reruns of the Poseidon Adventure, I was taking detailed notes: stay near the stairwells – you can use them to climb to the upper decks; get a cabin near the lifeboats and hang around them at all times; don’t sleep – as soon as you do, the ship is bound to crash into something and you’ll lose valuable seconds in getting to the lifeboats first; and if you can’t get to the lifeboats, jump. But take a chair and a life jacket with you. Actually, the chances of my being on anything more impressive than a dinghy at the local reservoir were tiny. But that was irrelevant. I couldn’t help but imagine myself as those on board – survivors and victims.

The sinking of ships such as the Titanic holds many of us captive in films (even the overblown James Cameron affair had millions sobbing into their popcorn), photographic images and incidental anecdotes which have become part of our memory. Tragedy often has a mythical power – and any shipwreck is tragic – but we choose which tragedies affect us. The stories are as familiar as breath: the musicians playing in the last moments; the steerage passengers locked behind bars; the steward firing into the crowd; the Astors insisting on dying together.

We hear the details, and as with Gestalt therapy, we imagine ourselves into the role: I am the steward who will survive at all costs; I am the woman who cannot find her child; I am the man stepping aside for an older man. In doing so, we test out our versions of ourselves, good and bad.

When the Herald of Free Enterprise sank in the English Channel in 1987, Andrew Parker lay down and used his body as a human bridge – a feat which earned him the George Medal for gallantry in that year’s Queen’s Honours List. In spite of his bravery, Parker has reported feeling terrible guilt for being the one who survived. The tragedy produced poignant heroes like Michael Skippen, the head waiter, who died while getting passengers to safety. Equally, there were stories of people climbing over each other to get to life jackets, of children being shoved out of the way. Humans in extremis behave as they do in everyday life: sometimes terribly well, and sometimes only terribly. In general, though, we choose to focus on the heroes, tell their stories. In some way, perhaps, we hope that we would be like them.

Risto Ojassaar was one of the few survivors of the Estonia, the ferry which sank in the Baltic in 1994. Interviewed in 1997, he described scaling the floor of his cabin in a ship which had listed so far that the decks were vertical walls. Finally making it out, he turned to follow a swarm of desperate passengers heading to the left. Heeding his instinct, he changed his mind and turned to the right. Unlike the crowd who had gone left, he survived.

As with the tales from the last minutes of the Titanic, the Estonia’s sinking is full of tender, terrifying moments: a mother tries to climb the vertical floor of the bar with her adult son until, exhausted, she tells him she cannot go on, that he must go on without her. Refusing his pleadings, she calls to him that he must survive, and live well, live well enough for two. Sobbing, he goes on, and survives. More than 850 people drowned on the Estonia, the majority trapped on the ship as it went down. Most of the survivors were young men, fit and strong. Older people, women and children simply lacked the strength to get out.

Reading these stories of loss and survival, I am once again my nine-year-old self, trying to cover my options, to figure what I could do to make sure that I would be the one to escape, to have the combination of fitness, good instinct and pure luck which would get me out alive. More crucially, I am trying to sense whether I would help someone else on with the last life jacket, or whether – like the majority – I would shove them out of the way while I saved myself.

You see, it has never left me, this obsession with shipwrecks and survivors’ tales; this need to understand why we continue to believe we will beat the elements, and also the need to understand how it must be to live with having survived. Which is why, when I found myself sitting beneath the restored hull of the 17th- century merchant ship Batavia in 1995, reading about the shipwreck which led to the death of more than 200 people in 1629, I needed to know more.

The ship I was gazing at in the Fremantle Maritime Museum was the flagship of the Dutch East India Company. On June 4, 1629, the ship ran aground on a coral reef off Western Australia. Thirty people lost their lives in the initial wrecking, but 200 struggled ashore and survived. I could imagine their relief, to be standing on dry land, however barren, surrounded by their families, their workmates. Safe.

What happened next made the wreck of the Batavia a best-selling story in the Netherlands for decades. The commander set sail for the colonial capital of Batavia to seek help. No sooner had he disappeared over the horizon than his second-in-command revealed his true colours as a megalomaniac and a psychopath. After tricking the loyal troops into leaving to seek water on a neighbouring island, he set up his own crazed republic. A republic in which he was God, women were the common property of his lieutenants and more than 150 people were brutally murdered within a few weeks.

I was gripped by the story of Judith Bastiaansz, the daughter of the ship’s chaplain, whose life was spared simply because she was betrothed to one of the chief mutineers. What attracted me to Judith was that she didn’t know how to survive; her situation was so extreme that nothing in her short life could have prepared her for it. All she could do was decide moment by moment whether to let fear or her instincts guide her.

Judith survived. Little is known about her beyond that. I felt I had to write a novel to fill in the gaps in my understanding. I called it The Accomplice to reflect the way in which so many survivors of disaster have lived with crippling guilt and sometimes shame for having survived at all. How do such people make sense of their lives in the years after the trauma? How is it possible to be shipwrecked and yet to live?

The reality is that most of us don’t get shipwrecked or survive external disaster in that way. Most of us, though, do survive trauma of one kind or another. Death, loss, abandonment – we all have to deal with some version of these. And we still have to make that choice: what will I do with this? What sort of person will I let it make me?

We are inspired by stories of people like Andrew Parker, the human bridge, because they give us hope in humanity and in ourselves, in our potential to be humane, courageous. But of course, we don’t know how we will behave in extremis, and it is this mystery which frightens us, keeping many of us gripped by shipwrecks.

It isn’t just that we are engaged by the image of the elements punishing us, or nature getting its own back: in many ways, these shipwrecks serve as morality tales, or inspirational offerings. Flawed figures – in most cases – create the conditions for the wreck, and the victims survive or not, often making unwitting decisions that affect their survival and condition how well they will live. It may be that the reason we find these stories so fascinating is that they magnify what is always true – they remind us that, in the end, all we have is each other.

A friend recently told me of a conversation with an elderly aunt. Naively, he congratulated her on her advanced years, taking the “however do you do it?” line. His aunt sniffed dismissively and said: “Life is a shipwreck, you survive or you don’t.”

And it’s true. It is a shipwreck. And we cannot choose whether we survive it or not. What we have to choose is how well we behave among the chaos, and what small decisions we make along the way to allow us to live with ourselves. And, of course, how well we commemorate the lives of those who didn’t make it.