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 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.
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 that “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.”
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.”
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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Cindy from United States on June 10, 2016:
There is also the Sewol ferry incident in 2014.