The captain goes down with the ship
"The captain goes down with the ship" is an idiom and maritime tradition that a sea captain holds ultimate responsibility for both his ship and everyone embarked on it, and he will die trying to save either of them. Although often associated with the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 and its captain, Edward J. Smith, the phrase predates the Titanic by at least 11 years. In most instances the captain of the ship forgoes his own rapid departure of a ship in distress, and concentrates instead on saving other people. It often results in either the death or belated rescue of the captain as the last person on board.
The concept is closely related to another protocol from the nineteenth century, "women and children first." Both reflect the Victorian ideal of chivalry in which the upper classes were expected to emulate a morality tied to sacred honour, service, and respect for the disadvantaged. The actions of the captain and men during the sinking of HMS Birkenhead in 1852 prompted praise from many due to the sacrifice of the men who saved the women and children by evacuating them first. Rudyard Kipling's poem "Soldier an' Sailor Too" and Samuel Smiles' Self-Help both highlighted the valour of the men who stood at attention and played in the band as their ship was sinking.
Social and legal responsibility
The idiom literally means that a captain will be the last person to leave a ship alive prior to its sinking or utter destruction, and if unable to evacuate the crew and passengers, the captain will not evacuate himself. In a social context, especially as a mariner, the captain will feel compelled to take this responsibility as a type of social norm. Shirking this responsibility in a crisis would go against societal mores because of the offender's lack of ethics.
In maritime law the responsibility of the ship's master for his ship is paramount no matter what its condition, so abandoning a ship has legal consequences, including the nature of salvage rights. So even if a captain abandons his ship in distress, he is generally responsible for it in his absence and would be compelled to return to the ship until danger to the vessel has relented. If a naval captain evacuates a vessel in wartime, it may be considered a capital offence similar to desertion unless he subsequently returns to the ship at his first opportunity to prevent its capture and rescue the crew.
Abandoning a ship in distress may be considered a crime that can lead to imprisonment. Captain Francesco Schettino, who left his ship in the midst of the Costa Concordia disaster, was not only widely reviled for his actions, but was arrested by Italian authorities on criminal charges. Abandoning ship is a maritime crime that has been on the books for centuries in Spain, Greece and Italy. South Korean law may also require the captain to rescue himself last. In Finland the Maritime Law (Merilaki) states that the captain must do everything in his power to save everyone on board the ship in distress and that unless his life is in immediate danger, he shall not leave the vessel as long as there is reasonable hope that it can be saved. In the United States, abandoning the ship is not explicitly illegal, but the captain could be charged with other crimes, such as manslaughter, which encompass common law precedent passed down through centuries. It is not illegal under international maritime law.
- September 27, 1854: James F. Luce was in command of the Collins Line steamer SS Arctic when it collided with SS Vesta off the coast of Newfoundland. Captain Luce regained the surface after initially going down with the ship. He was rescued two days later drifting on wreckage of the same paddle-wheel box that killed his youngest son Willie.
- September 12, 1857: William Lewis Herndon was in command of the commercial mail steamer Central America when it encountered a hurricane. Two ships came to the rescue, but could only save a fraction of the passengers, so Captain Herndon chose to remain with the rest.
- March 27, 1904: Commander Takeo Hirose, in command of the blockship Fukui Maru at the Battle of Port Arthur, went down with the ship while searching for survivors, after the ship sustained a direct strike from Russian coastal artillery, causing it to explode.
- April 13, 1904: Admiral Stepan Makarov of the Imperial Russian Navy went down with his ship, the Petropavlovsk, after his ship hit a Japanese naval mine during the early phase of the Siege of Port Arthur.
- April 15, 1912: Captain Edward Smith, in command of the RMS Titanic when it struck an iceberg, was seen walking towards the bridge only a few minutes before it was engulfed by the sea. A crewman entering the bridge seconds after Smith was seen walking towards it found the bridge apparently empty. There are conflicting accounts of what happened to Smith: some claimed to have seen him jumping into the water, or in the water, swimming either toward a lifeboat or near the capsized collapsible lifeboat "B", while others claimed he committed suicide by shooting himself. Yet others said that Smith entered the wheelhouse on the bridge and died there when it was engulfed.
- May 24, 1941: During the Battle of the Denmark Strait, HMS Hood had a magazine explosion which sank the ship in 3 minutes. Only 3 people survived the disaster. One of the survivors, Ted Briggs, said in interviews after the sinking that Admiral Holland was last seen sitting in his chair & making no attempt to escape from the sinking ship.
- December 10, 1941: Admiral Sir Tom Phillips and Captain John Leach both went down with their ships during the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse by Japanese warplanes off the coast of Pahang, British Malaya.
- February 28, 1942: Rear Admiral Karel Doorman was killed in action when his flagship HNLMS De Ruyter was torpedoed in the Battle of the Java Sea. Part of the crew was rescued before the sinking, but the Dutch admiral chose to go down with the ship. Captain Lieutenant Eugène Lacomblé also died in the sinking.
- June 5, 1942: Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, on board the aircraft carrier Hiryu, insisted on staying with the stricken ship during the Battle of Midway. The ship's commander, Captain Kaku, followed his example.
- February 7, 1943: Commander Howard W. Gilmore, captain of the American submarine USS Growler, gave the order to "clear the bridge," as his crew was being attacked by a Japanese gunboat. Two men had been shot dead; Gilmore and two others were wounded. After all others had entered the sub and Gilmore found that time was critically short, he gave his last order: "Take her down." The executive officer, hearing his order, closed the hatch and submerged the crippled boat, saving the rest of the crew from the attack of the Japanese convoy escort. Commander Gilmore, who was never seen again, received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his "distinguished gallantry," making him the second submariner to receive this award.
- November 19,1943: Captain John P. Cromwell goes down on the sinking sub USS Sculpin.
- October 24, 1944: Admiral Inoguchi Toshihira chose to go down with the Japanese battleship Musashi, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, even though he could have escaped. Over half of the ship's crew, 1376 of 2399, were rescued.
- April 7, 1945: Admiral Seiichi Ito, the fleet admiral, and Captain Kosaku Aruga went down with the Japanese battleship Yamato during Operation Ten-Go.
- December 30, 1950: Luis González de Ubieta (born 1899), exiled Admiral of the Spanish Republican Navy, went down with his ship. He refused to be rescued when the Chiriqui, a merchant vessel under his command, sank in the Caribbean Sea not far from Barranquilla.
- December 9, 1971: Mahendra Nath Mulla, the captain of the Indian frigate INS Khukri, went down with the ship after it was attacked by a submarine in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. At least 194 members of the crew died in the sinking, which reportedly took two minutes.
- October 29, 2012: Captain Robin Walbridge of the Bounty, a replica of the HMS Bounty, stayed on the ship until it capsized during Hurricane Sandy. Fourteen crew members who made it to liferafts survived.
In some cases the captain may choose to scuttle the ship and escape danger rather than die as it sinks. This choice is usually only available if the damage does not immediately imperil a vast portion of the ship's company and occupants. If a distress call was successful and the crew and occupants, the ship's cargo, and other items of interest are rescued, then the vessel may not be worth anything as marine salvage and allowed to sink. In other cases a military organization or navy might wish to destroy a ship to prevent it being taken as a prize or captured for espionage, such as occurred in the USS Pueblo incident. Commodities and war materiel carried as cargo might also need to be destroyed to prevent capture by the opposing side.
In other cases a captain may decide to save himself to the detriment of his crew, the vessel, or its mission. A decision that shirks the responsibilities of the command of a vessel will usually bring upon the captain a legal, criminal, or social penalty, with military commanders often subject to capital punishment and dishonor.
- July 17, 1880: The captain and crew of the SS Jeddah abandoned the ship and their passengers in a storm expecting it would sink, but the ship was found with all passengers alive two weeks later.
- August 4, 1906: Captain Giuseppe Piccone abandoned the SS Sirio at the first opportunity. Between 150 and 400 people died when the ship sank.
- December 17, 1939: After being damaged in an engagement with British cruisers, the Graf Spee put to port in Montevideo, Uruguay. Under the Hague Convention, the ship had to leave the neutral port within 72 hours or be interned, along with the crew. Captain Hans Langsdorff, having received fictitious reports that a large British force was approaching, instead decided to scuttle the ship just outside the harbor. He returned to shore with his crew, but shot himself two days later.
- July 30 1945: The USS Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. Captain Charles B. McVay III managed to survive in shark-infested waters for three days before the survivors were discovered, and later became the only captain in the history of the U.S. Navy to face court-martial for his ship being sunk by enemy action. He committed suicide on November 6, 1968, and was cleared of wrongdoing by the Secretary of the Navy in 2001.
- November 12, 1965: When a fire broke out aboard the SS Yarmouth Castle, Captain Byron Voustinas was on the first lifeboat, which had only crew and no passengers aboard. 90 people died.
- April 7, 1990: Having been erroneously informed the ship was evacuated, Captain Hugo Larsen abandoned the MS Scandinavian Star after arson caused the ship to burn. 158 people died.
- August 3–4, 1991: Captain Yiannis Avranas of the cruise ship MTS Oceanos abandoned ship without informing passengers that the ship was sinking. All passengers survived. A Greek board of inquiry found Avranas and four officers negligent in their handling of the disaster.
- January 13, 2012: Captain Francesco Schettino abandoned ship during the Costa Concordia disaster. 32 people died in the accident. Schettino was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his role.
- April 16, 2014: Captain Lee Joon-seok abandoned the South Korean ferry MV Sewol. The captain and much of the crew were saved, while hundreds of high school students embarked for a school trip remained in their cabins, according to instructions provided by the crew. Many passengers apparently remained on the sinking vessel and died. Following this incident Lee Joon-seok was arrested and put on trial beginning in early June 2014, when video footage filmed by some survivors and news broadcasters showed him being rescued by a coast guard vessel. Orders to abandon ship never came, and the vessel sank with all life rafts still in their stowage position. He was subsequently sentenced to 36 years in prison for his role in the deaths of the passengers, and later was also given a life sentence, after having been found guilty to murder of the 304 passengers that did not survive.
- June 1, 2015: The Chinese captain of the river cruise ship Dong Fang Zhi Xing left the ship before most passengers were rescued. On June 13, 442 deaths were confirmed with 12 rescued among 454 on board. It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in China's history.
Extended or metaphorical use
When used metaphorically, the "captain" may be simply the leader of a group of people, "the ship" may refer to some other place that is threatened by catastrophe, and "going down" with it may refer to a situation that implies a severe penalty or death. It is common for references to be made in the case of the military and when leadership during the situation is clear. So when a raging fire threatens to destroy a mine, the mine's supervisor, the "captain," may perish in the fire trying to rescue his workers trapped inside, and acquaintances might say that he went down with his ship or that he "died trying."
The concept has been explicitly extended in law to the pilot in command of an aircraft, in the form of laws stating that he "[has] final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight." Jurisprudence has explicitly interpreted this by analogy with the captain of a sea vessel. For example, following the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River, pilot Chesley Sullenberger was the last person to exit the aircraft, and performed a final check for any others on board before doing so.
- John, Alix (1901). The Night-hawk: A Romance of the '60s. New York: Frederick A. Stokes. p. 249.
...for, if anything goes wrong a woman may be saved where a captain goes down with his ship.
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