Opinion

Should the Captain go down with the ship?


by Melvin Mathews - published on 10 November 2020 393 -

This article was already published on Mel´s Musing blog on Nov 5th 2020
(see link at the end of the article)
photo by Harbour Pilot Maritime Photography


The ‘Captain going down with the ship’ is held up as a great tradition by mariners and land-lubbers alike. This tradition is in fact so ingrained in the psyche of society, that it is arguably almost the unquestioned expectation. Numerous movies have glamorised the valour shown by Captains, as the last person standing on the sinking ship, after evacuating all passengers and crew, or going down with the ship trying to do so.

At one point, the Captain on the Ship while being highly respected, also carried great responsibility and had the ultimate accountability for everything on board. But this respect, responsibility and accountability has not come overnight, or just when the Captain wears his four stripes.

So what is the history which led to this prominent position?

In the past, when the Captain of the ship was also the owner of the ship, the Captain had control and authority over every aspect of the ship. Obviously, it was the Captain who decided how the ship was to be maintained and protected, who is to be employed on board, where the ship will sail, what cargo to transport or which passengers to carry.

Naturally, with authority over every aspect of the ship, especially the earnings, the Captain was all powerful on board and was responsible for everything. Not just that, with seafaring being most likely the only means of livelihood for the Captain, and all their worldly possessions on board the ship, losing a ship meant, losing everything the Captain had. Which is probably why Captains in history have gone down, trying to rescue & salvage their ships, desperately trying until the end.

Now let’s fast forward to the modern era, what has changed?

Somewhere along the way, majority of the Captains ceased being the owners of the vessels they sailed on. The new owners of ships, now stationed ashore, decided who was to be employed, where the ship will trade, what cargo to transport, or how much to charge as freight.

What remained with the Captain, is no practical authority, except on paper, yet retaining the entire burden of responsibility and accountability for safety and security of the ship. This responsibility and accountability hardly went ashore with the new owners, who despite deciding on the budget for everything from maintenance to salaries, controlled even the food and provisions for the Captain and crew.

So, how has this impacted the modern Captain?

In short, the wings have been clipped and as a consequence the Captain has not just lost virtually all authority, but also left with very little respect from all quarters, including his own crew, who know very well, how very little is the power he has over them. He can neither hire, nor fire them when required. Modern laws criminalise the Captain, not just for their personal negligence, but the Captain is accountable even for the negligence or errors by the crew.

So what are the laws are in some countries?

  • Finnish Law states that, the captain must do everything in their power, to save everyone on board the ship in distress, and that, unless their life is in immediate danger, they shall not leave the vessel as long as there is reasonable hope that it can be saved.
  • As per South Korean law, Captains are required to rescue themselves last
  • In Spain, Greece, and Italy, a Captain abandoning ship has been a maritime crime for centuries

So, is it different for others in Leadership positions?

This is ironical, because are you aware of laws anywhere in the world that requires the CEO of a company to evacuate the building last or the President or Prime Minister of a country not to evacuate the house of representatives unless last person has been saved? Even if it has happened, it was done as a matter of individual choice and not because it was the law.

We live in a world, where innocent acts of pollution, accidents or abandoning a ship in distress, even to save the Captain’s own life, may be considered a crime that can lead to imprisonment. Recent convictions that Captains have received from local courts, for such incidents include criminal imprisonment. In many of such cases, the Captain may not have been directly involved, but was the recipient purely by virtue of the position held on board.

If we take the case of the Titanic which sank in 1912, more than a century ago. The 62 year old Captain Smith, was on his last voyage before he intended to retire, and was asleep in his cabin when the ship hit the iceberg. In today’s world, he would have most likely been sentenced to prison, had he not chosen to go down with the ship. Hence, do Captains only have a binary choice when an accident happens - either go down with the ship or go to prison in humiliation?

So what needs to change?

It is perhaps time to reflect on this subject and rethink its repercussions. If almost all authority has gradually gone ashore with the shipowner, then it is perhaps only fair, that some of the responsibility and accountability is sent that way too.

The next time an incident happens, should the CEO of the shipping company or the shipowner be given the same sentence that the Captain receives? Will this perhaps change some of the darker and shady corners of the shipping industry, including the hiring of cheap crew, registering the ship at a flag of convenience, lack of maintenance or shortcuts, engaging in dubious trades, etc.

So, the question still remains for the maritime industry to figure out, should the modern Captain, still feel compelled to go down honourably with the Ship?

Let me know your thoughts
Melvin Mathews
Editor's note:
Opinion pieces reflect the personal opinion of individual authors. They do not allow any conclusions to be drawn about a prevailing opinion in the respective editorial department. Opinion pieces might be deliberately formulated in a pronounced or even explicit tone and may contain biased arguments. They might be intended to polarise and stimulate discussion. In this, they deliberately differ from the factual articles you typically find on this platform, written to present facts and opinions in as balanced a manner as possible.

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SP
Sanjeev Pande Ocean Sparkle Limited, India
on 16 November 2020, 04:38 UTC

Thank you for making this video.
The need for a re-think on today's Captains having all the responsibility but practically no authority in crucial parts of a ship's operation is a must. An amendment in the ISM Code should be aimed at. Instead of that code just saying, "the Master has the overriding authority on matters of safety and environment protection", it should say something like, "the Master and the Ship Owner (that is, the entity/entities exercising technical, operational and commercial control of the ship) shall together, in equal measure, have the authority and responsibility for the safety of lives and the marine environment and which shall be exercised through the master. The responsibility to defend against criminal and/or civil suits filed by States due to accidents involving the vessel that result in loss of life or serious injury or damage to the marine environment shall rest with all parties to the common maritime adventure i.e. shipowners /operators, charterers to the extent of each's contributory acts that led to the accident as determined by the Court of Law under whose jurisdiction the suits arise.
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