Charles Herbert Lightoller, born in March 1874, started as an apprentice on a sailing barque in Liverpool at fourteen, was ship-wrecked in the Indian Ocean in 1889 and was Second Officer on the Titanic when she sank in 1912. After diving from the stricken vessel, he reached a raft and was eventually saved by the Carpathia. In World War I, he earned the DSC hunting German U-boats, one of which he rammed and sank.
In 1929 Lightoller's wife, Sylvia discovered, lying in the mud at Conyer Creek, eight miles eastward from the River Medway, the hull of an old steam pinnace. They had been looking for a boat to convert into a cruising yacht. The hull was surveyed and pronounced sound, so they set about converting it. They had her ketch-rigged with jib, mainsail, mizzen and mizzen staysail. Because Sylvia was Australian, they called the ship Sundowner, - the Australian term for a tramp. She was finally launched on 28th June 1930 and after trials on the Thames, undertook her first voyage to France. During the next 10 years Sundowner cruised extensively along the north coast of Europe as far as the Baltic, up the Somme and through the French canals taking part successfully in many international competitions. The strength of her hull and rigging were put to the test in 1932 when she encountered a force ten storm off Ostend. But Lightoller was no mean seaman and they survived 32 hours at sea, completing in that time a journey which would normally be done in 8 hours.
As the clouds of war began to gather in 1939, Lightoller was chosen to undertake a secret mission to survey the European coast in very much the same area where the 'Riddle of the Sands' took place.
It was not surprising when, on 30th May 1940, the Admiralty announced that they were going to requisition Sundowner to go over to Dunkirk. The owner's reply was that if anyone was going to take her it was he, together with his eldest son Roger, and a Sea Scout called Gerald Ashcroft. On 1st June, in company with 5 other ships, they crossed the Channel. On their way, they met the motor cruiser Westerly, broken down and on fire. They went alongside and transferred her crew, taking them back to Dunkirk. By strange coincidence, Lightoller's second son, Trevor had been evacuated from Dunkirk 48 hours previously. Sundowner embarked 130 men and packed them in like sardines. On their way home, they avoided being hit by enemy aircraft through using evasive techniques of amazing skill. Deep in the water with their extraordinary load, their greatest danger was being swamped by the wash from fast-moving destroyers. On arrival at Ramsgate, they were nearly sunk by the weight of troops moving to one side of the ship to disembark until Roger shouted to them to lie down and not move until told to do so. The Lightollers were determined to return to Dunkirk, but by then only ships capable of doing 20 knots could go.
The Sundowner continued her war service as a coastal patrol vessel and took part in a number of spectacular rescues. Once, when a Walrus flying boat crashed in the sea and, on another occasion, when a Spitfire belly-flopped in the mud in the Thames Estuary. She also became a film star when she was used to demonstrate for a newsreel documentary the role taken by her type of craft in coastal defence and rescue operations.
In June 1946, Charles Lightoller got his ship back and as early as July 1947 she was back in Dunkirk, this time to take part in the Pavilion d'Or.
Charles Lightoller died in 1952 aged 78 years and his wife Sylvia continued to cruise in Sundowner, taking part in many competitions. At the age of 80 she still took the helm of her husband's boat and she led the Armada of Little Ships on the 25th Anniversary return to Dunkirk when she suffered a bad fall and had to be flown back to England. This was the end of her association with the great Little Ship, but Sundowner's travels had not ended. Under a new owner, she went to Spain and the Mediterranean and she returned from there 10 years later. In 1986 she was struck by a NE gale (the remains of Hurricane Charlie) off the North Foreland in Kent and suffered damage to her steering and planking. That autumn she was taken over by the East Kent Maritime Trust. As from May 2012 Sundowner is owned by The Steam Museum Trust who also manage the Ramsgate Maritime Museum
Source: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 11 & 19
Updated April 2013