The captain goes down with the ship

"The captain goes down with the ship" is a maritime tradition that a sea captain holds ultimate responsibility for both his ship and everyone embarked on it, and that in an emergency, he will either save them or die trying. Although often connected to the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912 and its captain, Edward J. Smith, the tradition precedes Titanic by at least 11 years.[1] In most instances, the captain 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 tradition is 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 adhere to 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.

The tradition says that a captain will be the last person to leave a ship alive before its sinking or utter destruction, and if unable to evacuate the crew and passengers, the captain will not save himself even if he can.[2] In a social context, especially as a mariner, the captain will feel compelled to take this responsibility as a social norm.

In maritime law, the ship's master's responsibility for his vessel is paramount no matter what its condition, so abandoning a ship has legal consequences, including the nature of salvage rights. Therefore, 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 serious crime 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.[2] Captain Francesco Schettino, who left his ship in the midst of the Costa Concordia disaster, was not only widely reviled for his actions, but lost his final appeal against his 16-year Italian prison sentence, including one year for abandoning his passengers, five years for causing the shipwreck, and ten years for manslaughter of its victims. Abandoning ship is a maritime crime that has been on the books for centuries in Spain, Greece, and Italy.[3] South Korean law may also require the captain to rescue himself last.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

Notable examples

  • 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.[7]
  • 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 save only 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, 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 RMS Titanic when it struck an iceberg, was seen walking onto the bridge only a few minutes before being submerged.[8] There are conflicting accounts of what happened to Smith; some[9] 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.[10] Others claimed that Smith entered the wheelhouse on the bridge and died there when it was submerged.[11][12]
  • May 30, 1918: When the Italian steamer Pietro Maroncelli was torpedoed by the German submarine UB-49 and started to sink, Italian Rear Admiral Giovanni Viglione, who was on board as the convoy commodore, ordered all the survivors into the lifeboats, then chose to stay aboard and to go down with the ship.[13]
  • November 1, 1918: In the last days of World War I, Croatian Rear Admiral Janko Vuković, the first day he was appointed fleet commander, chose to go down with his flagship SMS Viribus Unitis in Pula harbor as Italian frogmen sank it with two 200 kg mines.
  • November 23, 1939. HMS Rawalpindi, a British armed merchant cruiser (a converted passenger ship) encountered the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau north of the Faroe Islands. Her captain, Edward Coverley Kennedy, despite being hopelessly outgunned, ordered an attack. He went down with his ship.
  • June 27, 1940. When Italian submarine Console Generale Liuzzi was forced to surface by British destroyers in the Mediterranean, her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Lorenzo Bezzi, ordered his crew to abandon ship and then scuttled the submarine, going down with it.
  • October 21, 1940. During the Battle of Harmil Island, Italian destroyer Francesco Nullo was fatally damaged by HMS Kimberley. Her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Costantino Borsini, chose to go down with his ship; seaman Vincenzo Ciaravolo, his attendant, chose to follow him.
  • November 5, 1940. German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer encountered Allied Convoy HX 84 in the North Atlantic. The convoy consisted of 38 merchant ships escorted by HMS Jervis Bay, an ocean liner newly armed with guns of 1890s design. Her captain, Edward Fegen VC, signalled the convoy to scatter, and attacked the enemy. Jervis Bay was hopelessly outranged and outgunned, and was sunk; her captain and many of her crew went down with her. The sacrifice bought enough time for 31 of the convoy to make it to safety.
  • May 24, 1941: During the Battle of the Denmark Strait, HMS Hood suffered a direct hit and magazine explosion, which sank the ship in three minutes. Only three 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.
  • May 27, 1941: Captain Ernst Lindemann of the German battleship Bismarck was said to be with his combat messenger, a leading seaman, and apparently trying to persuade his messenger to save himself. In this account, his messenger took Lindemann's hand and the two walked to the forward flagmast. As the ship turned over, the two stood briefly to attention, then Lindemann and his messenger saluted. As the ship rolled to port, the messenger fell into the water. Lindemann continued his salute while clinging to the flagmast, going down with the ship.[14][15]
  • December 10, 1941: Admiral Sir Tom Phillips and Captain John Leach both went down with HMS Prince of Wales during its sinking along with 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. In addition, Captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto chose to remain with his ship Sōryū when it was scuttled after being destroyed in the same battle.
  • 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 went down on the sinking sub USS Sculpin.
  • October 24, 1944: Admiral Inoguchi Toshihira[16] 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, 1,376 of 2,399, 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 Chiriqui, a merchant vessel under his command, sank in the Caribbean Sea not far from Barranquilla.[17]
  • July 26, 1956: Piero Calamai the captain of the Italian liner Andrea Doria, after satisfying himself that all 1,660 passengers and crew had been safely evacuated following a collision with the MS Stockholm had determined to go down with the ship to atone for his errors that led to the disaster that killed 46 people. During his supervision of the rescue operation, one of the largest in maritime history, Calamai turned to one of his officers and said softly, "If you are saved, maybe you can reach Genoa and see my family. ... Tell them I did everything I could." His officers finally convinced him to reluctantly board a lifeboat by refusing to leave him behind, nevertheless, Calamai made certain he was the last person off his doomed ship.[18][19] Captain Calamai who never commanded another vessel, reportedly asked repeatedly on his deathbed in 1972, "Are the passengers safe? Are the passengers off?"[20]
  • December 9, 1971: Mahendra Nath Mulla MVC 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.
  • September 10, 1980: Captain Geoffrey Underhill, the captain of the ore-bulk-oil combination carrier Derbyshire, went down with the ship after it sank in Typhoon Orchid, killing all 44 people on board.
  • October 29, 2012: Captain Robin Walbridge of Bounty, a replica of HMS Bounty, stayed on the ship until it capsized during Hurricane Sandy. Fourteen crew members who made it to liferafts survived.[21]
  • October 2, 2015: Captain Michael Davidson, master of the cargo ship El Faro was recorded on the Voyage Data Recorder encouraging the ship's helmsman, frozen by fear and exhaustion, to join him in abandoning the vessel, before the recording ended with both still on the bridge of the sinking ship.


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 facing dishonor.

  • July 17, 1880: The captain and crew of SS Jeddah abandoned the ship and their passengers in a storm expecting it would sink, but the ship was found with all passengers alive three days later. A key part of Joseph Conrad's 1899–1900 novel Lord Jim is based on this incident; Conrad had been a captain in the merchant marine before turning to writing.
  • August 4, 1906: Captain Giuseppe Piccone abandoned SS Sirio at the first opportunity. Between 150 and 400 people died when the ship sank.
  • July 30 1945: 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 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 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 in the disaster.
  • 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 students from Danwon High School embarked for their trip remained in their cabins, according to instructions provided by the crew.[22][4] Many passengers apparently remained on the sinking vessel and died. Following this incident, the captain 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. The captain was subsequently sentenced to 36 years in prison for his role in the deaths of the passengers, and was also given a life sentence, after being found guilty of 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.[23] 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."

In aviation

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."[24] Jurisprudence has explicitly interpreted this by analogy with the captain of a sea vessel.

This is particularly relevant when an aircraft is forced to ditch in the ocean and becomes a floating vessel that will almost certainly sink. For example, following the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River, Captain Chesley Sullenberger was the last person to exit the partially-submerged aircraft, and performed a final check for any others on board before doing so.

Similarly, on October 16, 1956, Pan Am Flight 6 was a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser en route from Honolulu to San Francisco that was forced to ditch in the Pacific Ocean due to multiple engine failures. The airliner broke apart when one of its wings collided with a wave swell. Airline Captain Richard N. Ogg was the last to exit the airplane during the successful mid-ocean ditching and rescue of all 31 on board by the US Coast Guard cutter USCGC Pontchartrain.[25] The airplane fuselage sank with no one on board a few minutes later.

In academia

After a major scandal at Baylor University, the university fired President Kenneth Starr and appointed him chancellor. A week later, Starr resigned as chancellor and "willingly accepted responsibility" for the actions of Baylor that "clearly fell short." He stated that his resignation for the scandal was "a matter of conscience," and said, "The captain goes down with the ship."[26] He indicated that his resignation was necessary even though he "didn't know what was happening."

See also


  1. 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.
  2. "Must a captain be the one off a sinking ship?". BBC News. 18 January 2012. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  3. Hetter, Katia (19 January 2012). "In a cruise ship crisis, what should happen?". CNN. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  4. Drew, Christopher; Mouawad, Jad (April 19, 2014). "Breaking Proud Tradition, Captains Flee and Let Others Go Down With Ship". The New York Times. Retrieved April 20, 2014.
  5. "Merilaki 6 Luku 12 §. 15.7.1994/674 - Ajantasainen lainsäädäntö". FINLEX, database of Finnish Acts and Decrees (in Finnish). 2015. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  6. Longstreth, Andrew. "Cowardice at sea is no crime – at least in the U.S." Reuters. Retrieved 13 June 2013.
  7. Shaw, David (2002). The Sea Shall Embrace Them. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. p. 256.
  8. "Day 9 - Testimony of Edward Brown (First Class Steward, SS Titanic)". British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry. 16 May 1912. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  9. "Day 14 - Testimony of Harold S. Bride, recalled". United States Senate Inquiry. 4 May 1912. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  10. "Capt. Smith Ended Life When Titanic Began To Founder (Washington Times)". Encyclopedia Titanica. 19 April 1912. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  11. Bartlett 2011, p. 224.
  12. Spignesi, Stephen (2012). The Titanic for Dummies. John Wiley & Sons. p. 207. Retrieved November 6, 2012.
  13. Steamer Pietro Maroncelli -
  14. Grützner 2010, p. 202.
  15. McGowen 1999, pp. 58–59.
  16. "Toshihira Inoguchi". World War II Database. 2015. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  17. García Fernández, Javier (coord.) (2011). 25 militares de la República; "El Ejército Popular de la República y sus mandos profesionales. Madrid: Ministerio de Defensa.
  21. Ware, Beverley (15 February 2013). "Witness recounts Claudene Christian's last minutes on Bounty". The Chronicle Herald. Halifax, Nova Scotia. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  22. "참사 2주째 승무원도 제대로 파악 안돼" [Exact Number of Crew still not known 2 weeks after the ferry disaster]. The Hankyoreh (in Korean). 20 April 2014. Retrieved 3 May 2014.
  23. "Yangtze River Ship Captain Faces Questions on Sinking". The Wall Street Journal. June 2, 2015.
  24. "Title 14 Chapter I Subchapter A Part 1 §1.1". Code of Federal Regulations. 2015. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
  25. This Day in Aviation, 16 October 1956, 2016, Bryan R. Swopes
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