The Captain’s Duty on a Sinking Ship

Craig Allen is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Maritime Studies, U.S. Coast Guard Academy and Visiting Professor, Yale Law School. The article that follows appeared in Professional Mariner in 1994 when he was serving as commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Resolute.
In accordance with both the lore of the sea and the law of the sea, it is widely believed that a ship’s captain, in the event of disaster, must go down with his ship— or at least he is expected to be the last one to step off its awash decks.
The master of the cruise ship M/V Oceanos, who in the fall of 1991 off the coast of Africa, breached this custom by fleeing his sinking ship while hundreds of passengers remained aboard, soon learned the dishonor that attends such a too- hasty abandonment.
The master’s actions during the sinking of the Oceanos raised a number of questions among captains of both merchant marine and naval vessels. What is the captain’s duty to his ship and to his passengers and crew following a casualty which threatens to sink the vessel? What is the source of that duty and how is it enforced? Finally, does the order to abandon ship extinguish any further duty by the captain to the ship and its passengers and crew?
At Lloyd’s of London, the famous marine insurance organization founded in 1689, the ship’s bell from HMS Lutine is traditionally rung to announce maritime disasters. In August of 1991, the Lutine Bell was no doubt tolled to announce the demise of the Greek cruise ship Oceanos, which had sailed from East London to Durban, South Africa, with 571 passengers and crew members. The 7,554 ton vessel was commanded by Captain Yiannis Avranas, a Greek licensed master with 30 years seagoing experience. On August 3, 1991, while engulfed in a gale, the ship began taking on water after a main engine explosion damaged the hull. Powerless, the ship drifted in 80 knot winds and 30 foot seas, with flooding waters rising deck by deck within. A growing list developed, eventually taking the ship to the bottom.
Miraculously, all 571 souls aboard the Oceanos survived—a tribute to the courage and professionalism of the South African Air Force. Helicopter crews operating out of Cape Town reportedly hoisted more than 170 passengers from the deck of the sinking vessel in conditions that were described as harrowing. South African Navy strike craft and private vessels rescued 400 more survivors from the ship’s lifeboats. 
Much public attention was focused not on the heroic rescuers, however, but on the ship’s master and his actions. Almost immediately, survivors began to tell a tale of cowardice and betrayal. The captain, they reported, abandoned his ship in the first available helicopter, leaving 160 passengers on board. A navy diver who had been lowered to assist the passengers in getting into hoisting slings reported that Captain Avranas stepped ahead of an elderly passenger and demanded to be hoisted next. The diver, believing he had misunderstood him, turned to assist the passenger, only to find that the Captain had already donned the sling and was being hoisted off.
Incredibly, Robin Boltman, a magician hired to entertain the ship’s passengers during the cruise, oversaw the evacuation following the captain’s hasty departure. At first using music and comedy to keep up morale among the remaining passengers while awaiting rescue, Boltman and his fellow entertainers later guided the passengers to the sloping, spray-soaked deck when their turn to be hoisted finally came. Then, recognizing that a string of lights was going to interfere with the helicopters access to the ship, Boltman climbed aloft to cut the lights away. Throughout the rescue, he coordinated the operation with helicopters, using the ship’s radio. In the end, it was Robin Boltman, not the ship’s captain, who was the last to leave the Oceanos.
When questioned about his conduct, Captain Avranas was predictably defensive. “When I order abandon ship, it doesn’t matter what time I leave,” he said. “Abandon ship is for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay.” Many observers in the maritime industry disagreed. Bill Fowler, a maritime historian at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, observed that, “It is very, very unusual for the captain to leave his vessel in a moment of crisis. He has to set the example of courage and moral standing.”
Frank Branyard, curator of the American Merchant Marine Museum at Kings Point N.Y., and author of several books on shipping, was less restrained. Captain Avranas, he observed, exhibited cowardice and panic. “Anyone who loves the sea and knows the sea understands that the captain is responsible for the safety of his passengers.” Captain Avranas should be deprived of his license and face criminal prosecution, Branyard said, for “betraying the responsibilities of a ship’s master that date from the earliest days of navigation.”
Nautical fiction is filled with tales of ship’s captains who, unlike Captain Avranas, stood by their ship until the last possible moment, forsaking the safety of a lifeboat until all hope of saving the ship was lost and the last passenger or crew member was accounted for. The literary tradition is a long one indeed. Perhaps the best known piece of fiction on the subject concerns not a hero but rather a coward. In Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad graphically describes the enduring shame felt by the novel’s protagonist who, as an apprentice seaman, had once “looked down from the foretop with the contempt of a man destined to shine in the midst of dangers.†Year later, however, as the chief mate of the Patna, Jim and the captain of the ship abandon the ship and her 800 pilgrim-passengers out of fear that the collision bulkhead may soon give way.
The mariners’ “standard of conduct†alluded to in Lord Jim is apparent in a number of true accounts of the actions of captains of merchant vessels following some well- known tragedies. The common denominator in all these accounts is the merchant marine master’s traditional solicitude for his passengers and his commitment to protect the ship owner’s property.
Captain E.J. Smith, master of the Titanic, who—though no doubt imprudent in steaming at 22 knots in hazardous conditions on that “night to remember†in 1912—is widely remembered for his calm and courage throughout the ensuing ordeal. Following the Titanic’s collision with the iceberg, Captain Smith immediately ordered flooding boundaries set while he and the ship’s chief designer went below to assess the damage. Concluding that there was no hope of saving his ship, Captain Smith ordered all ship’s boats readied as the newly-adopted S.O.S. message was sent. He then directed his officers to place the women and children in the lifeboats first, and to use force if necessary to ensure his boarding priority was followed. As the last available lifeboat cleared away, Captain Smith was heard admonishing those remaining with him aboard the rapidly sinking liner to “be British.â€
Equally noteworthy were the actions of the Italian Captain Peiro Calamai, master of the passenger ship Andrea Doria. In 1956, the Andrea Doria collided with the Stockholm 150 miles from the Lightship Nantucket. Though, as in the case of the Titanic, unsafe speed was partly to blame for the disaster, Captain Calamai was nevertheless praised for remaining with his stricken ship until all passengers had been rescued. He then ordered most of his remaining crew members to abandon ship, asking only a few volunteers to remain with him, to await the tugs which were on their way to attempt to salvage the liner. When the list reached 40 degrees, however, Calamai ordered the remaining volunteers over the side, vowing to remain alone until help arrived. Only after the other officers refused to depart unless he accompanied them did Calamai finally abandon his ship.
A less well-known but equally dramatic example of a captain standing by his ship occurred in 1952, when the freighter Flying Enterprise, under the command of the  Dane, Henrik Kurt Carlsen, was torn open by a storm in the English Channel. Tugs removed the ship’s 10 passengers and 40 crew members. However, Captain Carlsen refused to leave. Tenaciously staying aboard the sinking ship for seven days while tugs attempted to salvage her, Carlsen was finally forced to release his grip from the ship’s funnel just moments before a second storm took his ship to the bottom. The city of New York later honored Carlsen with a harbor salute, a ticker-tape parade and the city’s medal of honor.
The explanation for these captains’ resolve to stay with their ships even after the passengers and crew were safe probably lies at least in part in the law of marine salvage. Under that ancient body of law, an abandoned ship can be salvaged by virtually anyone able to put a line on it and bring it safely into port. 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 remain on the stricken vessel, however, the terms of any salvage arrangement can be negotiated, likely resulting in a lower salvage award. This motivation may in part explain the heroic struggles of Captain Rugiati of the T/V Torrey Canyon and Captain Bardari of the T/V Amoco Cadiz, both of whom stayed aboard under life-threatening circumstances to attempt to coordinate the salvage of their tankers.
Regrettably, not all merchant vessel captains are imbued with the same sense of duty as Captains Smith, Calamai and Carlsen. In 1965, for example, the cruise liner Yarmouth Castle caught fire in the Caribbean and began to sink. When the Bermuda Star came to assist, the captain of the Yarmouth Castle was one of the first to flee the burning ship and come aboard the Bermuda Star—even though a number of passengers were still in danger aboard his ship. The captain of the Bermuda Star was reportedly so incensed at this display of cowardice that he forced the fellow captain to return to his ship until all of its passengers were accounted for. A board of inquiry later condemned the Yarmouth Castle master, finding that his actions demonstrated negligence and abandonment of command responsibility.
Federal statutes impose few specific requirements on a merchant ship’s captain following a casualty. The shipping laws of the United States and most other nations do include a “Standby Act,†which requires the captain of a ship involved in a collision or other incident with another vessel to stand by and render such assistance as the ship is capable of giving. However, no statute or regulation expressly addresses the captain’s duty to his own ship in the event of a sinking. 
Nevertheless, the captain’s duty to remain with his ship until the end is recognized. The Merchant Marine Officer’s Handbook, for example, lists the duties of a master following a casualty. According to the Handbook, the master is:
1. The last man to leave the vessel;
2. Bound to use all reasonable efforts to save everything possible (ship and cargo), through aid of salvage, if necessary;
3. Responsible for the return of the crew;
4. Responsible for communicating promptly with owners and underwriters; and
5. In charge until lawfully suspended.
Federal case law largely echoes the Handbook.  Courts have ruled that a captain’s duty “includes doing, at all times, everything possible to preserve the vessel.†And “even though the so-called duty of a captain to go down with his ship exists more in fiction than in fact there can be no doubt that he must risk even that, in some measure, if by remaining aboard he may be able to save her.â€
The duties imposed on merchant vessel captains are enforced in a number of ways. Captains who fail in their duty to the ship’s owner or passengers are likely to find that—like Jim in Conrad’s novel—the only available work will be a position as a water clerk. In addition, any licensed mariner who is found to have committed an act of misconduct, negligence, or incompetence in his duties may face license suspension or revocation proceedings. Finally, the master may find himself facing a number of lawsuits.
Things are different in the U.S. Navy. For hundreds of years, naval officers have demonstrated valor and determination in standing by their ships and crews both in and out of battle. The names of many naval heroes, like Jones, Truxton, Preble, Decatur, Perry, Farragut, Porter and Dewey, are carved in marble at the Arlington Cemetery amphitheater—a tribute to their courage and enduring evidence of the naval tradition. The naval captain’s tradition is characterized by a commitment to continue the fight to the end, save the ship if humanly possible and, if damage control fails, protect the crew during and after abandonment of the vessel.
In 1779, John Paul Jones, in command of Bonhomme Richard, inaugurated the U.S. Navy tradition when he uttered his now famous challenge, “I have not yet begun to fight.†Locked in close-aboard combat with HMS Serapis, Jones gave and received cannon fire throughout the night. Although his ship was ablaze and rapidly flooding, Jones remained aboard until the British captain finally surrendered. Only after victory was obtained did Jones finally abandon his ship.
Captain James Lawrence earned similar lasting fame as commanding officer of USS Chesapeake in the War of 1812. During a bitter alongside battle with HMS Shannon, Lawrence was carried below mortally wounded. Though near death, he nevertheless commanded his men to “Go on deck and order them to fight the ship till she sinks.†Throughout the final battle, he rallied his officers and men with his order “Don’t give up the ship.†Those words would later be emblazoned on Oliver Hazard Perry’s flag aboard USS Lawrence.
A monument at the U.S. Naval Academy honors one of the Navy’s most courageous captains who, like Captain Smith of the Titanic, literally went down with his ship. In 1857, Captain William L. Herndon, commanding officer of the Central America, found his vessel foundering in hurricane force winds. Unable to save everyone on board, Captain Herndon focused his attention on the passengers, safely evacuating 31 women and 28 children before the ship finally succumbed to the storm. The image of Captain Herndon, sinking out of sight, a cigar clenched between his teeth, would later capture the imagination of thousands of Naval Academy midshipmen whose notion of duty would be forever personified.
The records of three aircraft carriers severely damaged in the Pacific during World War II demonstrate the continued vitality of the naval captain’s tradition for standing by their ships and crews. The captain and crew of USS Yorktown (CV-5), whose ship was near-fatally crippled in the Battle of the Coral Sea, were able, through super-human effort, to stabilize the carrier enough to enable it to limp back to Peal Harbor for repairs. As courageous as the Yorktown crew’s efforts were, however, damage control honors must surely go to Captain Leslie Gehres, commanding officer of USS Franklin (CV-13). Hit twice by bombers on March 19, 1945, the Franklin’s crew battled the ensuring gasoline-fed conflagration around the clock. Even though nearly 1000 of his crew were killed or wounded, Captain Gehres and the remaining crewmen managed to save the ship. No other American warship has survived such extensive damage.
When damage control efforts fail, naval captains must ensure that their crew abandons ship in an orderly manner that minimizes further casualties. Contrary to Captain Avranas’ belief, the order to abandon ship is not self-executing; rather it requires careful coordination by the captain. The valiant though unsuccessful efforts of the captain and crew of USS Lexington (CV-2) to save the carrier after she was struck by torpedoes and bombs will long be remembered, yet their more significant accomplishment may have been the fact that the thousands of crewmen aboard methodically abandoned ship without losing a single man.
Naval ships are equipped and manned to be able to control damage, as they must to carry on the fight. Appropriately, U.S. Navy Regulations direct commanding officers of ships suffering major casualties to remain with their ship “so long as is necessary.†Should it become necessary to abandon ship, however, the Regulations provide additional direction. Article 0852 specifically states that the commanding officer is to be the last one to leave (Coast Guard Regulations, paragraph 4-2-8, are virtually identical in their requirements). Finally, the commanding officer is charged with responsibility for the protection of the survivors until rescue can be effected. Neither regulations nor custom require or encourage the captain to actually go down with his ship, however. Indeed the widely acclaimed Command at Sea treatise tells naval commanders:
Don’t be burdened by nineteenth century stories of captains going down with their ships. Most who did so were badly wounded, and only a few took this final step. The modern Royal Navy and United States Navy have long discarded any remnants of this tradition. There is no current regulation or tradition which prevents you from leaving your ship after you have discharged your duties, if you are absolutely sure that it is about to sink. If you commanded well and fought well the Navy will want to use your experience and talents again.
Maritime law, naval regulations and custom impose a broadly defined duty on captains of ships involved in casualties to attempt to save their ship if at all possible. Failing that, the captain must remain in command at all times and do his best to ensure the safety of any passengers and crew members in abandoning ship and effecting rescue. To accomplish that, the captain must remain aboard his vessel until all passengers and crew are evacuated or accounted for. At that point, the wise ship’s captain will no doubt conclude, and legal experts would agree, that it is better to “live and fight another day†than to “go down with the ship.â€
By Professional Mariner Staff