Louise Patten's grandfather Charles Lightoller was second officer on the Titanic's maiden -- and only -- voyage when it sank in April 1912. He was in his cabin when the boat struck the iceberg, and vowed to stay with the ship rather than go to a lifeboat. As it sank, he jumped into the water and was sucked down into the depths -- but then miraculously thrown back to the surface by an underwater explosion, and picked up by a lifeboat.
As the most senior surviving officer, Lightoller testified afterward to official U.S. and British investigative panels, telling them he had no idea why the ship went down. But his granddaughter Patten now says that he was lying and that he told his wife the real story. She told Patten the story after his death.
In her new book, "Good as Gold," Patten says the ship's steersman, who died on the Titanic, got mixed up and turned the wheel the wrong way. In 1912, ships were transitioning from using the tiller steering system of sailing ships -- where if you want to turn right, you push the tiller left, in the opposite direction -- to a new system on steam ships, which you drive like a car, turning the wheel in the direction you want to go.
"Crucially, the two steering systems were the complete opposite of one another. So a command to turn 'hard a-starboard' meant turn the wheel right under one system and left under the other," Patten told The Belfast Telegraph.
After the crash, Lightoller went to consult with the captain and first officer. "That is when they told him what had happened," Patten told another newspaper, London's Daily Telegraph. "Instead of steering Titanic safely round to the left of the iceberg, once it had been spotted dead ahead, the quartermaster, Robert Hitchins [whose name is also sometimes recorded as Robert Hichens], had panicked and turned it the wrong way."
Patten says her grandfather lied to investigators because he didn't want to damage the name of his dead colleagues. And she says the family kept his secret for so long, because they didn't want to tarnish the legacy of Lightoller, who went on to become a British war hero in World War II.
"I've known since I was 10," Patten told told The Guardian. Besides being a crime novelist, Patten is also a London business executive and wife of former Conservative education secretary Lord John Patten.
Hitchins' wrong-way turn wasn't the only mistake that led to the Titanic's sinking, Patten said. As the ship was going down, its officers held a final meeting with its owner, Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star Line. Ismay believed the Titanic was "unsinkable" and persuaded the captain to keep sailing forward, rather than giving up and waiting for a rescue.
Instead, more than 1,500 people died as the Titanic went down on April 15, 1912.
Experts say Patten's explanation of the mix-up with steering mechanisms is a not a new theory. "In the Titanic world, it's always been one of those things that's referred to," Michael McCaughan, a maritime specialist and Titanic researcher, told The Guardian.
"But of course, as we come up to the centenary, this is clearly interesting. It's a new piece of aural evidence coming in to the public sphere and it will give rise to a lot of discussion and debate," he said. "People are still fascinated by Titanic because it's like a parable of the human condition, it's a story of profit, pleasure and memorialization."
Patten's book reveals her family secrets about the Titanic in a fictionalized account of a banker who survives the sinking.