Monday, October 10, 2011

"I never realized how hard the parting would be."

Cunard's Commodore Sir James Charles was a charmingly affable mariner whose name became synonymous with the RMS Aquitania during much of the 1920s. A seaman of the highest caliber, future-Commodore Robert G. Thelwell summarized him as "the most remarkable man I served under in my life at sea." As Sir James neared his retirement in 1928, however, he began to have a premonition that he would die at sea. He even went so far as to buy a burial plot before his last voyage aboard "The Ship Beautiful."

As Aquitania neared Europe in mid-July 1928, the Commodore was heard to murmur, "I never realized how hard the parting would be" to his staff captain. Sir James was convinced of his imminent death.

Thelwell, a junior officer on that voyage, describes what happened at Cherbourg, France on July 15, 1928:
[Sir James] was obviously unwell but refused the pleas of his officers and the doctor to leave the bridge. He docked the ship but immediately had a severe internal hæmorrhage. On the short passage from Cherbourg he became worse and he was carried down the gangway unconscious at Southampton with only a few hours to live. He was a truly modest man. His headstone in the churchyard of the little village of Netley Marsh in the New Forest bears only his name and the dates of his birth and death.
It seems that the Commodore's premonition was indeed correct. Is there something about the sea that warns its servants of their coming deaths? This surely ranks as an interesting instance in the long - and sometimes bizarre - history of ocean travel.

References: Commodore Robert G. Thelwell, I Captained the Big Ships (London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1961), 36-37.

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