Fifteen years ago James Cameron's blockbuster film asked: "Are you ready to go back to Titanic?" For the 1,309 passengers who lined up at Southampton yesterday to retrace its ill-fated journey on a 12-night memorial cruise, the response could not have been clearer.
Standing on the concourse waiting to board the MS Balmoral, some were clad in Edwardian tea dresses, while others clutched newspaper covers from 1912. Misty-eyed couples bade farewell to their friends and well-wishers. In a global recession, coupled with recent cruising tragedies such as the Costa Concordia, a fee of as much as £5,995 for the opportunity to relive one of the world's deadliest peacetime disasters might seem a tough sell. Yet tickets have been sold out for months.
As the departures queues spilled all the way into the car park of Southampton's Eastern docks yesterday, the organisers denied they were profiting from "disaster voyeurism".
Jacki Free, an IT consultant from Bolton, was preparing to board with her husband, three children and in-laws. Standing behind her husband, she defended wearing her self-proclaimed Edwardian "Kate Winslet arrival dress". "If I came wearing 2012 attire people might say I'm being disrespectful. This is a Titanic memorial cruise so it is about putting yourself in that time and era. It's about respecting those we have left behind," she said.
Miles Morgan, the British travel company behind the excursion, has promised an "authentic" and "sympathetic" flavour of Titanic life (without the iceberg-induced interruption). Food on board is from the original menus of the White Star Line ship, and a Belgian band will play the same selection of music as in 1912.
There will be 10 specialist lectures and two memorial services at the point off Newfoundland, Canada, where the ship collided with an iceberg. The first will be on 14 April starting at 11.40pm – the time of the original collision – and the next at 2.20am the next morning, when it finally sank.
David Holmes, 63, from Taunton, Somerset, works behind the check-out counter at Tesco and has saved for two years for a ticket. "When I saw it advertised, I just knew I had to go," he said. "I know it's not cheap but it'll never happen again." He insists he's too excited to worry about meeting the same fate as the Titanic. "To be honest I'm far more nervous about arriving in New York by myself – I've never been to America before."
Sarah Haynes, 31, from Stowbridge in the West Midlands, received her tickets as an engagement present. "I've never sailed before and feel like I could be tempting fate. A few people have asked if it's just morbid curiosity. But I think that's unfair. This is an opportunity to learn about other things like history, the value of life and the class system."
Unlike the original voyage, there will be no class divisions on board this time. That doesn't worry Howard Owens, 55, who flew over with his wife from Moreno Valley in California (the trip is costing him more than $50,000). "A lot of our friends have lost homes and marriages in the recession. But we can't let that stop us from achieving our goals," he said.
However, he did not approve of those in Edwardian attire. "Period clothing is an insult to those who lost their life. I'm not going to impersonate someone who died on that ship. We're here for the right reasons; the presentations, lectures and accumulating knowledge. But I'm not here to make a mockery of their death."
Among those on board the MS Balmoral are relatives of victims and survivors of the Titanic, including Philip Littlejohn, the grandson of Alexander Littlejohn, who was a steward in the first-class section of the vessel and survived by rowing away one of the 16 lifeboats on board.
If you're a bit uncomfortable about the direction of disaster tourism, be warned: this is only the start. Plans are already afoot for an underwater tour of the Titantic wreckage in a Russian-built submarine. And after that? Mr Owens adds: "We could well do the same thing for 11 September in 90 years' time. In fact when we arrive in New York we have reservations booked for the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. It sounds awful; but it is important to pay respect."
But among the crowd there were a few less moved by the moment. Heather Hutchinson, 25, flew in from New South Wales in Australia with her grandfather. Boarding in a pair of flashing Easter bunny ears, she said: "I have always been fascinated with Titanic; it has a mystery that is still being discovered"
Engineer's letter revealed after 100 years
By Karrie Gillett
A letter written by a Scottish engineer exactly 100 years ago as he prepared to board the Titanic will go on show for the first time next week.
Robert Douglas Norman, a 28-year-old electrical engineer from Glasgow, wrote the letter from his half-sister's London home on 9 April 1912, the eve of the ship's departure from Southampton.
He died when the Titanic sank six days later, leaving an estate of more than £8,500 (worth more than £650,000 today) to his half sister, step-niece and cousin. The letter was discovered by the National Records of Scotland.
Mr Norman was travelling to Vancouver, where he had a brother and a share in land. He was a second-class passenger, paying £13 10s for his ticket.
The documents will be shown from 16 April as part of a display at the Scotlands People Centre in Edinburgh to mark the centenary of the sinking of the ship.