Abandon Ship: Captain’s Duties

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,

A tale of a fateful trip

That started from this tropic port,

Aboard this tiny ship.

The mate was mighty sailing man,

The skipper brave and sure…..”

For those of you who remember the TV show Gilligan’s Island, this theme was the opening of each show.  This is how I like to think of the skipper of a ship.

Recent shipwrecks have left us with a much different opinion of the leader of a ship.  Most notably, the Costa Concordia in Italy and the Sewol Ferry in South Korea, are examples of shipwrecks where the crew behaved less than admirably.

In 2012, thirty two were killed aboard the Costa Concordia when it capsized off an Italian island.  The captain of that ship is on trial for manslaughter. The charges allege that he caused the shipwreck by steering too close to the island and abandoning the ship before everyone else was safely evacuated. 

In April 2014, the South Korean Sewol Ferry sank with over 242 lives lost and 60 still missing.  The crew issued a ship wide announcement for passengers to remain in their cabins instead of heading to deck and life rafts.  Trusting the crew and not knowing what else to do, they listened.  The crew abandoned ship and were some of the first people rescued by the coast guard.  The Sewol captain is facing criminal charges, including abandoning ship, negligence, causing bodily injury and not seeking rescue from other ships.

Now that I think of it, two questions come to my mind: Should the captain go down with the ship and should they make every effort to ensure the safety of their passengers before they seek safety?

In the past captains showed a tremendous amount of courage and self-sacrifice.  One incident in particular, an 1852 crash of The HMS Birkenhead, is considered to help set the standard for noble conduct at sea.  The captain and officers of this British ship perished after allowing the women and children to board the lifeboats first.  Another example of courage is Captain Edward Smith who went down with the Titanic.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS), part of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), sets the legal baseline for the safety of merchant and passenger ships, their construction, equipment, and operation.  The first version in 1914 was in response to the Titanic.

The SOLAS does not specify the captain stay on the ship throughout the catastrophe.

Some countries, including Italy and South Korea, make abandoning ship a maritime crime.  United States law does not specify abandoning ship as a crime. However, according to CNN, it has been a long-standing tradition that the captain should be the last one off a sinking ship, and experts echo that sentiment.  Want to read up on issues related to Maritime Law?  Then I suggest to take a look at Admiralty and Maritime Law (available at the Riverside County Law Library in print and on Westlaw).

I think about those kids on the Sewol Ferry waiting for some sort of direction.  Shouldn’t the captain have been giving directions instead of being one of the first people off the ship?  Maybe.  Should the captain go down with the ship?  Not necessarily.  But should the captain make every effort to ensure the safety of their passengers before they seek safety?  Absolutely!


By rcll

May 06, 2014

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