Seafaring tradition holds that the captain should be last to leave a sinking ship, but is it realistic to expect skippers to suppress their survival instinct amid the horror of a maritime disaster? To ask them to stare down death from the bridge, as the lights go out and the water rises, until everyone else has made it to safety?
From mariners on ships plying the world’s oceans, the answer is loud and clear: Aye.
“It’s a matter of honor that the master is the last to leave. Nothing less will do in this profession,” said Jorgen Loren, captain of a passenger ferry operating between Sweden and Denmark and chairman of the Swedish Maritime Officer’s Association.
Seamen have expressed almost universal outrage at Capt. Francesco Schettino, who faces possible charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his crippled cruise ship off Tuscany while passengers were still on board. The last charge carries a possible sentence of 12 years in prison.
Jim Staples, a captain for 20 years, who spoke Wednesday from the 1,000-foot cargo vessel he was captaining near New Orleans, said captains are duty-bound to stay with the ship until the situation is hopeless. When they bail early, everything falls apart.
“I’m totally embarrassed by what he did,” Staples said of Schettino. “He’s given the industry a bad name, he’s made us all look bad. It’s shameful.”
Schettino should have remained on board “until the last passenger was accounted for,” agreed Abelardo Pacheco, a Filipino captain who was held hostage for five months in Somalia and now heads a seafarers’ training center in Manila.
“That is the responsibility of the captain. That’s why all privileges are given to him. But he has together with that an equal burden of responsibility,” Pacheco said.
The Costa Concordia, carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew, slammed into a reef on Friday, after Schettino made an unauthorized detour from the ship’s programmed route. A recording of his conversation with the Italian coast guard shows he left the ship before all passengers were off, and resisted repeated orders to go back, saying the ship was tipping and it was dark.
Schettino said he ended up in a life raft after he tripped and fell into the water. He is being held under house arrest as prosecutors prepare criminal charges.
Even if he’s not convicted, it is highly unlikely he’ll ever command a cruise or cargo ship again because of the damage to his reputation, said Craig Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
“Some people panic, but a short time later they collect their senses and do the right thing,” Allen said. “In this case there was more than enough time for the moment of panic to pass. It was abject cowardice.”
The tradition of a captain standing by his ship isn’t established in international maritime law, though some countries, like Italy, have included it in national laws.
Still, it is respected as “an unwritten rule or law of the sea,” said Capt. Bill Wright, senior vice president of Marine Operations for the Royal Caribbean International cruise line.
A captain’s responsibilities and authority are laid out in the International Safety Management Code, which is part of a larger convention adopted by the U.N. body in charge of safety and security of shipping. It was passed in 1914 as a direct result of the sinking of the Titanic, and has been amended many times since.
The code doesn’t specifically say when a captain can leave a stricken ship, though it stresses his “overriding authority and responsibility to make decisions with respect to safety.” It also says the ship owner must clearly define a captain’s duties and assure he is “properly qualified for command.”
Both literature and real life offer plenty of examples of shipmasters who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect their passengers and crew.
The most famous, perhaps, is Capt. Edward Smith of the Titanic, who helped evacuate the ship — women and children first — until there were no lifeboats left, and then perished with it.
A more recent example is Robert Royer, the captain of a fishing vessel that sank off Alaska in 2010. As water rushed into the ship and the three other crew members jumped overboard, Royer stayed in the wheelhouse to make a frantic mayday call and give the ship’s position to the Coast Guard. The crew said that likely saved their lives, because the ship’s emergency beacon didn’t work.
After more than three hours in the water, they were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. Royer, however, died after suffering a head injury when he finally left the ship.
Maritime experts say such manifestations of courage at sea far outnumber incidents in which captains save themselves and leave their passengers behind.
Those who did earned instant infamy, like the captain of the Greek luxury liner Oceanos, which sank in rough seas off South Africa in 1991.
The 402 passengers and 179 crew members all survived, but Capt. Yiannis Avranas and other officers left the ship while some passengers were still on board.
A magician who had been performing on the ship took over the bridge, monitoring rescue calls as a fellow entertainer kept passengers calm by playing Beatles songs on his guitar. Avranas defended his actions, saying he left the ship to direct rescue operations.
“When I order abandon ship, it doesn’t matter what time I leave,” Avranas said at the time. “Abandon is for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay.”
A Greek board of inquiry found Avranas and four officers negligent in their handling of the disaster.
In 1965, the captain and several other crew members were among the first to abandon ship after the Yarmouth Castle caught fire and started sinking off the Bahamas, killing 90. Fleeing in a lifeboat, they were told by the captain of a rescue ship to go back and help their passengers.
Captains accused of leaving prematurely often claim they can manage the situation better from the safety of a lifeboat, rescue vessel or on shore.
Allen dismissed that idea, saying the captain’s knowledge of his ship is crucial in an emergency.
“Shoreside rescue people can do all the shoreside coordination efforts needed,” he said. “You need someone on the ship to communicate with them, to command the people who are on the ship, to help get the passengers off and to guide the rescuers.”
Rear Adm. Richard Gurnon, president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, called Schettino’s actions “abhorrent” and a violation of an unwritten code.
“It isn’t just a maritime code, it’s a code of leadership,” Gurnon said. “If you are leader, you have responsibility for your people. They put their lives in your hands.”
Steen Brodersen, a retired Danish captain, said that every single crew member, from the chief mate to the cooks, has a designated role in an emergency on a cruise ship. Regular drills ensure everyone knows what to do.
The captain must first ensure the safety of his passengers, then of his crew and, finally, of the ship, though the notion that he’s supposed to go down with it is more legend than fact.
Brodersen, 60, said he never had to deal with that kind of situation, though he has sometimes thought about when his survival instinct would trump the hope of salvaging a doomed ship.
“There must be a point at which I would think that now it is time to jump into the water so I don’t die,” he said.
“But that would come after the ship has been evacuated,” he added. “It is my responsibility. I am the captain.”