Look, Cromie, this isn’t a ship. You don’t have to go down with it!
- from “Reilly: Ace of Spies”
In the popular imagination, there has been the idea that a captain is supposed to do everything in his power to save his passengers or die trying. But the answer to the question is “No.” If a ship is sinking, and everything possible has been done to evacuate crew and passengers, the captain is under no obligation to remain at the helm and go to a watery grave. So where does this idea that a captain goes down with the ship come from?
Throughout history ships’ masters have shown this resolve to stay with sinking vessels, and it had less to do with lofty principle than with concerns over salvage rights. Under ancient maritime law, an abandoned ship could be salvaged by anyone able to put a line on it and bring it safely into port, according to Craig Allen, a Professor of Maritime Studies at the US Coast Guard and at Yale Law School.
The salvor may then be entitled to a substantial salvage award from the owners, based on the value of the abandoned ship and its cargo. So long as the captain or crew remained on the stricken vessel, however, the terms of any salvage arrangement can be negotiated, likely resulting in a lower salvage award.
So traditionally the captain stayed with a damaged ship to protect the ship owners’ interests. Even in the absence of potential salvors, with a captain on the ship it was easier for owners to arrange a towing contract to get the vessel back to port.
Maritime law holds that a captain is responsible for his or her vessel no matter what its condition. If his ship is in imminent peril, his responsibility includes executing the evacuation plan, which requires his presence for the duration. Out of a sense of duty, captains have believed that they must, if it can be managed, be the last person to get off the ship.
Although captains feel a moral duty to do so, it is usually not written that a captain must be the last person to leave the ship. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), adopted in response to the sinking of the Titanic, does not specify that the captain remain on the ship throughout the emergency.
In 1948 the United Nations created the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Its International Safety Code has been adopted by most maritime nations (including the US), but it doesn’t mandate that a captain be the last one off the ship.
Individual countries pass their own laws about the conduct of ships’ masters during catastrophes within their jurisdictions. “Abandonment” of a ship can be prosecuted in some jurisdictions; other countries have prosecuted captains for negligence, or if there are deaths, manslaughter.
Some captains have defended leaving their vessels during evacuation by pointing out that nothing required them to stay until the end. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t help.