What Does it Mean for a Captain to Abandon Ship?

There is unwritten code for captains of ships, and that code dictates that a captain should never leave a sinking ship when there are still passengers on board. Any time a captain violates this principle, he or she is said to have abandoned ship. For this reason, the term “abandon ship” has negative connotations, even though there are times when a captain could rightly abandon ship (most obviously when every passenger has been helped off the ship, but potentially in other situations as well). Below, we examine the tradition of captains staying on board their ships till the bitter end, and look at some notable recent instances of captains (prematurely) abandoning ship.

Given the long history of shipping, it is unclear exactly when an opprobrium against captains abandoning ship developed. However, there are certainly notable instances of captains refusing to leave the deck of a ship until every other passenger had been evacuated. On the HMS Birkenhead, a British military vessel, the captain and other military officers on board insisted that women and children should be saved first when the ship sank in 1852. Because of their selflessness, the captain and officers drowned; rather than violate their code of honor, they went down with the vessel. When the Titanic sank 60 years later, a good portion of men followed the “women and children first” rule, which explains why men died in hugely disproportionate numbers relative to the total number of passengers on board the Titanic. The captain of the Titanic, Edward John Smith, was one of the men who went down with the ship, which perhaps helped mitigate some of the blame assigned to him for the Titanic shipwreck. (The men who did survive were often ostracized. J. Bruce Ismay, one of the many notable passengers on board the Titanic, survived the shipwreck and was loathed for the rest of his life, although part of this had to do with the fact that he infamously insisted that the Titanic have fewer lifeboats than were necessary to save all passengers. As the managing director of White Star Line, the cruise line that operated the Titanic, he tragically got his wish.) The integrity of these men of yore set the standard for noble conduct at sea.

This noble conduct seems to have fallen out of favor recently, however, much to the embarrassment of seamen who adhere closely to traditional conceptions of maritime honor. The most recent instance of cowardice at sea – or at least it is cowardice as far as many onlookers and victims are concerned – occurred when Lee Joon Suk abandoned the Sewol, the South Korean Ferry that sank in the Yellow Sea. After loudspeakers on the ship announced that passengers should stay in their quarters as the ship listed and long before even half of the passengers had made it off the Sewol, Joon Suk abandoned ship, which is one reason an arrest warrant was issued for the captain. When the Costa Concordia sank, the captain of the vessel, Francesco Schettino, also abandoned ship prematurely. His personal evacuation was so hasty that the Italian Coast Guard actually ordered him to re-board the ship, as a transcript of the emergency call between the Schettino and the coast guard shows. The captain’s abandonment of the ship was particularly egregious considering that there is a reasonable case to be made that Schettino is responsible for the Costa Concordia shipwreck. If recent shipwrecks are any indication of the state of maritime code of ethics, being the captain of a ship doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

To conclude, there is something undeniably noble about a captain refusing to relinquish his duties and abandon ship even in the face of death. We can call the captain of the Titanic many things, but we cannot call him a coward. In any case, a captain is ultimately responsible for the passengers on his vessel, and an absolute commitment to their safety is the captain’s most sacred obligation. Thus, if you aren’t prepared to go down with your ship, you shouldn’t be a captain.

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