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The Responsibilities of a Captain

Michael Peters

Sightlines - July 2014

Down With the Ship

Are captains courageous in short supply?

Back in the late 1980s my friend Tommy and I were in Italy aboard a local tour boat watching the start of the Viareggio-Bastia-Viareggio offshore race. The vessel was about 90 feet and was full to capacity with about 150 people onboard, all of whom wanted to be on the upper deck for the best viewing of the race. The race boats took a slow lap to the south, made a turn, and lined up for a running start heading north. As the boats approached the starting line at over 100 miles per hour all the spectators ran to one side to catch the spectacle, causing the boat to list violently, feeling like she was about to capsize. Standing as far to the high side as possible, Tommy asked me, “Is that safe?” My answer: “Look at which side the naval architect is standing on.” No one else seemed at all alarmed.

Captain's hats

The fact is, the average person is a bit out of their element when aboard boats and can be a bit of an idiot when it comes to having any sea sense. They don’t think about stability or overloading, they are just trying to have a good time and assume everything is fine. A passenger expects that the vessel is seaworthy and has been built to government regulations and that everything has been double-checked on behalf of their safety. They place all their trust in the hands of the captain and his ship. 

In January 2012 the cruise ship Costa Concordia struck a reef off the coast of Italy, capsizing and killing 32 people. The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, shirked all his responsibilities and abandoned ship, leaving the rescue of the passengers to others.

This past April, the South Korean ferry Sewol capsized after a high speed turn, killing nearly 300, mostly school children. The Sewol’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, along with most of his crew, was among the first to abandon ship. South Korean culture teaches children to absolutely obey their elders, so when the captain ordered the children to stay in their rooms, they unquestionably followed his orders to their death. Searches for bodies showed fingernail scratches on the walls and ceilings, as the children struggled in vain to save their lives. The tragedy of these two accidents was infinitely compounded by the selfish actions of their captains. Both men were cowards.

I think every passenger aboard a cruise ship believes that their captain places the lives of his passengers and crew above his own. We have been taught to believe that “the captain goes down with the ship.” Isn’t this the law, or is it just a myth? It turns out it is more of a tradition of honor, not the law. The tradition of going down with the ship is actually not much more than a century old, made most famous in 1912 by Captain Edward Smith who went down aboard the Titanic.

The captain is responsible for the safety of the ship and everyone onboard, but he is not required by law to give up his own life if the ship or some of her passengers can’t possibly be saved. The captain is supposed to stay onboard to direct the rescue operation until the absolute end and can himself abandon ship when all hope is lost. He is expected to be the last person to leave the ship, and anything short of this is dishonorable and will result in the certain end of his career. In the cases of the Costa Concordia and the Sewol, both captains will be tried in civil court as criminals for leaving their passengers to die while saving themselves instead. Their shame will last forever.

When friends and family come aboard your boat for a day of fun, they believe your boat is seaworthy and you wouldn’t put them in harm’s way. When they board your boat, you are responsible for their safety. You are their captain. So you need to know when your boat is overloaded, or has too many people on the bridge, or if the seas are too big to head out on that day. If you don’t know, your passengers don’t know either. They are relying on your experience and your judgment. If an accident occurs, are you prepared to take charge and direct a rescue and risk your life to save everyone onboard? Would you go down with the ship?

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.