Does a Captain Have to Go Down with the Ship?

The captain goes down with the ship. This maritime tradition is as old as the industry itself, but what about its modern application? Does the captain really have to go down with their ship, or does the maxim apply more to a captain’s obligation to do everything possible to rescue others if their vessel is sinking? It seems the latter is true, but there’s a bit more to it.

On the evening of January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia ran aground after deviating from her planned route off Isola del Giglio, Tuscany. The cruise ship, which was carrying 3,206 passengers and 1,023 crew members, struck a rock formation on the sea floor at 9:45 p.m. and began to list from port to starboard before capsizing. While there were still about 300 passengers on board, the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, got on a lifeboat and left the Costa Concordia to her fate.

32 people lost their lives, including 27 passengers and 5 crew members.

Schettino was subsequently arrested and charged with manslaughter, causing a maritime accident, and abandoning ship. After a 19-month trial, he was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison on February 11, 2015. Schettino’s attorneys attempted to appeal the conviction, but it was upheld, and the former captain began serving his sentence in 2017.

Schettino’s abandonment of the Costa Concordia is a modern example of a captain who put his own life above the lives of his passengers, but his conviction did not stem solely from the fact that he did not go down with the ship.

There is no universal maritime law that states a captain must go down with their ship. Such a broad statement would not apply to every scenario, such as a situation where a vessel is sinking but all crew members and passengers have already been rescued. In that case, the captain would certainly have the right to get off the vessel before it was too late.

Most countries, however, have laws in place that establish a captain’s obligation to protect the safety of passengers and crew members. In South Korea, for example, a captain must remain on board until all passengers have been rescued. In Finland, a captain must do everything possible to save the passengers and crew and, unless their life is in immediate danger, must not abandon ship if there is reasonable hope that it could be saved. In the United States, there is no explicit law requiring a captain to remain on their ship, but they could face criminal charges if they acted with negligence or extreme disregard for human life in abandoning a vessel in distress or causing a maritime accident in the first place.

Schettino faced criminal charges because of his role in the initial grounding of the Costa Concordia as well as a host of other factors. One such factor was his alleged downplaying of the incident to port authorities and coast guard officials, which delayed rescue efforts. It was also alleged that he did not give an official order to evacuate the vessel until about 10:55 p.m. and that if he had issued the order earlier, more passengers would have been saved. It was also alleged that Schettino veered too close to land in an effort to impress a female friend with whom he was having an affair.

It was these things, along with Schettino’s abandonment of the vessel while there were still passengers on board, that led to his conviction. One year of his 16-year sentence was attributed to abandoning his passengers.

What Obligation Does a Captain Have to Remain on a Sinking Ship?

The Titanic is perhaps the most famous example of a captain who chose to go down with his ship. Captain Edward Smith was in command of the Titanic when it struck an iceberg and sank on April 15, 1912. Accounts of Smith’s death are varied, including reports that he returned to the bridge just before the vessel made its final plunge into the water, where he was engulfed by the sea, or that he perished in the icy water after jumping overboard just as she went down. No matter what happened, Smith lost his life when the Titanic was lost.

Edward Smith’s choice to remain on the Titanic could be seen as one of duty or moral obligation. Had he abandoned ship, his fate would have likely been decided in court, just as it was for Francesco Schettino.

The moral (and often legal) obligation for a captain to remain on a sinking vessel also has ties to salvage rights. Historically, once a captain abandoned ship, any person could come aboard and attempt to salvage the vessel. If there was a chance that a vessel could be saved, the captain would stay until the end in order to protect it from would-be salvagers.

A captain should not have to sacrifice their life simply because the vessel they are in control of is in distress. They should, however, do everything possible to oversee the evacuation of the crew and passengers before abandoning ship. If they act negligently, they could be held liable for any lost lives.

The same applies to maritime employers. If they direct captains to abandon ship, delay evacuations, or put vessels in harm’s way, they should be held accountable. They have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the captain and all crew members are properly trained, that the vessels they operate are seaworthy, and that productivity and profits are not put above human lives.

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