Captains Who Abandon Ship

Updated on March 15, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The replica of HMS Bounty sank off North Carolina in October 2012. Fourteen crew members were saved, but Captain Robin Walbridge went down with his ship.
The replica of HMS Bounty sank off North Carolina in October 2012. Fourteen crew members were saved, but Captain Robin Walbridge went down with his ship. | Source

The popular image is of Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic stoically remaining on the bridge of his stricken vessel as she plunges under the frigid waves. He is seen as the embodiment of gallantry and honour; the captain who goes down with his ship.

There is a certain amount of mythology attached to Captain Smith’s story. It is not known for certainty how he died but it is known beyond doubt he never left his command while passengers and crew were still on board. Sadly, others have not been so courageous.

Captain Edward Smith.
Captain Edward Smith. | Source

The Costa Concordia Disaster

The massive Italian cruise ship the Costa Concordia foundered on rocks just off the Mediterranean island of Giglio on the night of January 13, 2012. It was a case of a captain hot-dogging and showing off his apparently limited navigation skills to a retired master mariner ashore. Thirty-two people died in the disaster and the vessel lay on its starboard side about 150 m from shore.

Captain Francesco Schettino claims he tripped and fell into a lifeboat and decided to coordinate the rescue effort from there and later on land. But nobody bought the story; in fact, witnesses say the descent into the lifeboat was more of a deliberate jump than an accidental stumble.

As Eric Reguly reported in the Globe and Mail “Italians dismiss Capt. Francesco Schettino’s erratic behaviour as a vergogna (shame) on Italy.” He was dubbed “Captain Coward” around the world.


Brought to trial in 2014, Schettino was found guilty of numerous charges and received a sentence of 10 years for manslaughter, five years for causing a shipwreck, and one year for leaving his command while passengers were still aboard.

Prosecutor Stefano Pizza said “The captain’s duty to be the last person off the ship is not just an obligation dictated by ancient maritime rules, it is also a legal obligation intended to limit the damage to those on the ship.”

However, this is more of a moral obligation that has been breached many times in the past.

Captain Schettino not Alone

Andrew Lambert, a professor of naval history at King’s College, London, told Discovery News “The story of captains abandoning sinking passengers is as old as ships. They are only human.”

One of the worst examples is that of Hugues de Chaumareys, captain of the French frigate Medusa.

In July 1816, the sailing ship was bound for Senegal with 400 people aboard when she smacked into a reef off the African coast. In the New York Times Florence Williams writes that, “Most of the politicians and officers, including the captain, boarded five lifeboats. Most of the rest, crew, soldiers, and a few unlucky settlers, were herded onto a makeshift raft, having been promised that they would be towed to safety by the lifeboats.”

Medusa. | Source

Then, according to Rossella Lorenzi of Discovery News, “the raft was ordered cut free by de Chaumareys, who abandoned the passengers to a gruesome fate of murder and cannibalism.” By the time the raft was found by another French ship only 15 of the original 147 remained alive. Captain de Chaumareys faced a court martial but was only given a slap on the wrist.

Other Disgraced Captains

In July 1880, Captain Joseph Clark left Penang with 953 Muslim pilgrims heading for Mecca aboard the S.S. Jeddah. They ran into some very rough weather and the ship started leaking. Capt. Clark and some other British officers abandoned ship and left the pilgrims to fend for themselves, knowing there were not enough lifeboats to save them all.

Capt. Clark and his crew were picked up by another ship and, when they got to Aden, Clark reported his vessel lost at sea. However, the storm died down, and the Jeddah was towed into the port of Aden with all the pilgrims saved. An inquiry found Captain Clark guilty of gross misconduct and his master’s certificate was suspended for three years.


More recently, Captain Yianis Avranas left his stricken cruise ship, the Oceanos, as it was sinking off the coast of South Africa. The Greek liner was listing in heavy seas with 170 passengers still on board when the captain left. Luckily, everybody on board was saved by helicopters with the ship’s entertainment staff organizing the rescue.

Captain Avranas famously said, “When I order abandon the ship, it doesn’t matter what time I leave. Abandon is for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay.”

Even though scorn was heaped upon him his employer, Epirotiki Lines, gave him another command.

No Law Demands Captains Sacrifice Themselves

According to Howard G. Chua-Eoan (Time Magazine), “In reality, there is no law of the sea that requires the captain to remain to the end.”

He adds that “Such nautical chivalry, however, began only in Victorian times. Previously, women were tossed overboard in emergencies so that men could have a greater supply of rations.”

Naval Historian Andrew Lambert told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program The Current that captains abandoning their ships is “rather more common than we are led to believe. Very few ship’s captains did the heroic thing of standing on the bridge and waiting for the ship to go down.”

Bonus Factoid

William Thomas Turner (pictured below) was the captain of the RMS Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland in May 1915. He thought he was the last person aboard and held on to a rope as his ship went down, then clung to a floating oar, and finally a chair. After drifting for hours in the water he was picked up and brought ashore. He was horrified to learn that some people had stayed on board and had been sucked down with the sinking liner. Eighteen months later, Turner was master of the troop carrier SS Ivernia when it was torpedoed by another German submarine in the Mediterranean Sea. He remained on the bridge until all lifeboats and rafts had been launched and then swam away as his ship sank. Again, he survived. He died of natural causes at the age of 77 in 1933. His son, Merchant Navy Able Seaman Percy Wilfred Turner, died in 1941 when the ship he was crewing, MV Jedmoor, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat.



  • “Prosecution in Costa Concordia Captain Trial Recommends Sentence.” Paddy Agnew, Irish Times, January 26, 2015.
  • “Scorned Cruise Ship Captain not Alone in History.” Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News, January 17, 2012.
  • “Captain Coward Forever Linked to Cruise Ship Disaster.” Eric Reguly, Globe and Mail, January 20, 2012.
  • “Rocking the Boat.” Florence Williams, New York Times, December 2, 2007.
  • “Disasters: Going, Going...” Howard G. Chua-Eoan, Time Magazine, June 24, 2001.
  • “Abandoning Ship: History of Captains.” CBC The Current, January 20, 2012.
  • “Why Should Captains Go Down With Their Ships?” James E. Gould, Atlantic Magazine, May 7, 2015.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Chatty Chat profile image


      4 years ago from Planet Earth

      There is also the Sewol ferry incident in 2014.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)