When Captain Francesco
Schettino hopped a life boat after the Costa Concordia hit a
rock off the Tuscany coast, he violated a sacred maritime tradition: that a captain should be the last to leave his ship.
The responsibilities of a captain can be traced back to a
twelfth century French document called the Rolls of Oleron,
which established the first known outlines of maritime law. The
sailor's code that's developed from the rolls - or rules - has
been celebrated in everything from Conrad's Lord Jim, about a
young seaman who abandons a ship in distress, to the Gilligan's
Island theme song, with the memorable lyric, "If not for the
courage of the fearless crew, The Minnow would be lost!"
The rule that a captain should be the last to leave a
distressed ship, however, is not a criminal offense -- at least
not in the United States. A Westlaw search for the phrase
"abandon ship" turned up 618 decisions but none appeared to
address a captain's decision to leave a ship before his
The closest federal law that appears to take on the act of
leaving a ship before passengers and crew members is seaman's
manslaughter, which criminalizes a captain's misconduct or
negligence that result in deaths. A version of the statute was
used to convict a seaman in the nineteenth century who abandoned
31 passengers aboard a sinking ship on its way to Philadelphia
But seaman's manslaughter has rarely been invoked in recent
years -- cited in just 22 court decisions since 1976, none of
which involved accusations against a captain leaving a ship
prematurely, according to Westlaw.
The issue of abandoning ship has been discussed widely in
the wake of the Costa Concordia's crash. According to the
Italian Coast Guard, Schettino not only jumped into a lifeboat
before there had been an accounting of the more than 4,000
passengers and crew, he also refused a coast guard's plea to
Schettino, who was arrested a day after the boat capsized,
has denied accusations that he acted cowardly. He says he fell
into the life boat while helping other passengers, according to
a report in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
THE SAILOR'S HONOR CODE
Unlike U.S. law, Italy's current maritime code criminalizes
the act of abandoning ship. A commander who leaves before his
passengers can be sent to jail for up to two years. If he jumps
ship and people die, he can be sentenced to eight years in jail.
"It's based on the sailor's honor code," said Luca C.M.
Melchionna, a professor at St. John's University School of Law.
The concept that a ship's master has specific duties was
popularized in Britain by Eleanor of Acquitaine around 1160,
after she had become the Queen of England. Based on the Rolls of
Oleron, the rules mostly addressed commercial concerns like the
condition of cargo.
Over time, different countries adopted aspects of the Rolls
for their admiralty law. After the sinking of Titanic in 1912,
several nations signed the International Convention for the
Safety of Life at Sea, which addressed several safety
requirements for ships such as the number of lifeboats needed
and other emergency equipment. The treaty, which has been
amended several times, requires that the master of a ship at sea
"proceed with all speed" to help any person in distress, if
possible. It doesn't mention when it's acceptable for a captain
to leave a ship in danger.
"There is no basis in international law for the notion that
the captain goes down with the ship, or that he is the last to
leave the ship," said Vice Admiral Sir Alan Massey, chief
executive of the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency and a former
senior officer in the Royal Navy.
It has been up to individual states to enact their own
criminal maritime laws. In the U.S., for example, the seaman's
manslaughter statute was passed in the mid-nineteenth century
following several steamboat accidents that led to deaths.
There's no shortage of inspiring tales of seaman following
the honor code. William Lewis Herndon, commander of the
commercial mail steamer Central America in the mid-nineteenth
century, got women and children safely off the sinking ship, and
stayed behind with more than 400 passengers and crew who
couldn't escape and drown as the ship submerged. Though
historical accounts differ on the death of Edward John Smith,
the captain of the Titanic, in the 1997 movie he's shown
stoically gripping the ship's wheel before water breaks the
windows of the control room and kills him.
Of course, not every seafaring figure with a story was a
hero. A yarn that has haunted mariners for years comes from
Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, who fantasized about being a hero if
an emergency ever arose at sea, said Craig Allen, Sr., a
visiting professor of maritime studies at the U.S. Coast Guard
"When the emergency really did arise he proved to be a
coward instead," he said.
Whether Schettino joins Lord Jim in history will now be
decided by the Italian courts.
(Reporting by Andrew Longstreth in New York; additional
reporting by Estelle Shirbon in London and Silvia Aloisi in
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