Charles had always been a sailor and an officer for various companies in Britain. When he retired from the sea in the late 1920s, he and his Australian wife, Sylvia, purchased a decrepit 58 foot motor yacht for about $3000 in today’s money. They named the vessel Sundowner. In Australia, a “sundowner” was a slang term for a bum or hobo. Charles thought the name was perfect, and the couple set about spending a considerable sum getting the old crate up to standards, and they added sails and completely remodeled the insides.
The couple used the vessel mostly to cruise the coasts of southern England and occasionally made the trip across the English Channel to skip along Europe’s northwestern edge. A few years later, when he was in his 60s, Charles received a message that his help was desperately needed, and the message asked if he could aid in rescuing some stranded folks on a beach. Charles contacted his adult son, who brought along a teenaged Sea Scout (like a Boy Scout but for sailing), and the trio quickly set off to do what they could to aid in the rescue.
An odd thing happened enroute to the rescue. Sundowner encountered another ship that was on fire. Charles pulled alongside the stricken vessel, and he and his crew of two took aboard the crew of the ship. They then continued on the original rescue journey. When they arrived at the beach, they realized that the water was too shallow for them to pull near enough to shore to bring those there aboard. So, Charles sent word to have the people go onboard a ship that was tied up there, and from this other ship he took aboard all Sundowner could carry.
You’ve probably already guessed that Charles and his yacht were involved in the rescue of hundreds of thousands of men from the Dunkirk beaches at the beginning of World War 2. His boat and others like it managed to rescue 350,000 Allied soldiers over several days in 1940. Charles himself saved 130 that day. Yet, he never considered himself a hero. To him, it was simply doing his duty.
And he was used to doing his duty, even and especially in difficult situations. During World War 1, Charles had commanded vessels for the Royal Navy and received commendations for bravery. And back when Charles worked as a sailor and officer for private companies, he was assigned aboard some of the most famous luxury liners and ships in history. You know the most famous one.
You see, Charles Lightoller had been the Second Officer and most senior surviving crew member from the RMS Titanic.