Going Down With The Ship
April 24, 2005 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I just finished watching Titanic (again), and I'm wondering how common it was historically for a captain to go down with the ship? Are naval captains today told to go down with the ship? Is it inherently honorable, or just an antiquated concept?
posted by surferboy to Society & Culture (11 answers total)
For spring break, I was on the Disney Cruise and I took a bridge tour. The guide said the captain is required to be the last one to leave the ship. I guess if there are still people on the ship, he will go down with it.
posted by Mach5 at 9:43 AM on April 24, 2005

Back then, it was also part machoism. Remember when they said, "Save all the ladies and children?" It would have been considered a great dishonor and selfish for the Captain to bail ship (what Mach5 said). Also, as far as the Titanic goes, part of the speculation is the Captain knew he would be incredibly disparaged if he got back to land for sinking the Titanic and he didn't want to face up to that.
posted by jmd82 at 10:10 AM on April 24, 2005

It was never an actual dictate -- it's a pop culture misunderstanding. The typical stipulations of the Royal and US Navies and merchant marines is that the captain must ensure the safety of everyone aboard before he looks to his own safety. Therefore, he is supposed to always be the last to leave the ship. He only 'goes down' with the ship if he is unable to get all the crew and passengers off before the ship sinks or turns turtle; that is how the misunderstanding came to be. Only if time did not allow all other people to escape would the captain go down, since he could not leave the ship while individuals in his charge were still endangered.

If all passengers and crew are able to be offloaded, a captain is supposed to take the ship's log and any other official papers on his person and disembark as well. It would always be preferable to save all hands and have the captain return, as well, to give account of the disaster (and to be useful in future employments).
posted by Miko at 10:34 AM on April 24, 2005

Many (most?) boat commanders of the WW II Japanese Navy went down with their ships when they were sunk. Often they had themselves lashed to a beam to ensure their death. Of course this was also due to the fact that it was A) glorious to die in battle, and B) suicide was preferable to defeat. Later in the war as the commanders realized the futility of the war more of them balked and saved themselves.
posted by vito90 at 11:32 AM on April 24, 2005

I'm writing this from a 240' ship about 100-miles offshore.

Generally if a ship goes down, the idea is that the captain and mates are required to ensure the safety of all personnel on the ship. They have the best training with safety items such as the EPRB and SART. I would want the captain in my lifeboat.

Would it be the best all persons involved for the captain to search the bowels the ship for missing personnel? Possibly, but not necessarily. A mate is likely to be asked to locate missing hands while the captain directs the crew in the orderly evacuation of the vessel. Yes, in a pinch, the captain would join sailors in the rescue craft while someone is missing below deck.

Also, more often than you might think, everyone survives a sinking ship.
posted by MotorNeuron at 11:40 AM on April 24, 2005

The titanic was also a relatively unique case where there were not enough lifeboats for everyone. That doesn't happen that often these days.
posted by SpecialK at 12:05 PM on April 24, 2005

MotorNeuron makes an excellent point about having the Captain in your lifeboat. In the structured world of ships' officers, the captain's responsibility to lead does not disappear with the ship. Even if the party is dispersed into several lifeboats, the captain retains the command of his crew and calls the shots. UNness he is confronted with a mutiny (so, so rare despite famous historical examples), he is charged with whatever problem-solving, rationing, navigating, and personnel decisions may need to be made to ensure survival. For a horrifying portrait of what could happen in the past when captains weren't up to this challenge, read In the Heart of the Sea.
posted by Miko at 3:21 PM on April 24, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, good points. I second In The Heart Of The Sea, excellent book.
posted by surferboy at 6:19 PM on April 24, 2005

Despite recent attempts to pass the buck (such as Abu Ghraib), I also associate this expression with the idea that the captain or military leader is responsible for what happens on his (or her) "ship," regardless of who actually does something wrong. The idea is that it's the captain's job to maintain order, and so the wrongdoings of others are also his or her responsibility. Not sure if this more metaphorical reading of the expression is just my idiosyncratic take on it or not.
posted by Pattie at 6:35 PM on April 24, 2005

I heard (dunno if this is true or not) that if a captain in the Royal Navy lost his ship, whether it was to pirates or typhoons or anything, he almost always went down with it, and if he didn't he was court-martialed. Not for not going down with the ship, but for losing it.

It's supposed to be a responsibility thing. You're given the benefit of running a ship, so you also get the downside--if anything happens to it, it's your fault. I've found it striking how things have changed now; people don't think anything of a CEO bailing out on his corporation or getting off scot-free from bankruptcy and accounting scandals on the "I didn't know what was happening!" defense.
posted by Anonymous at 6:40 PM on April 24, 2005

It's been my understanding that losing a ship is a court marshallable offense regardless of how it's handled. It has nothing to do with not going down with the ship, and everything to do with the fact that they have to determine if your negligence as captain just cost your country a multi-million dollar piece of hardware.

That is not to say that the court marshall always (or usually) ends in conviction. However, there is always a trial, even if it only lasts fifteen minutes and consists of the judges shaking hands with the captain.
posted by Netzapper at 9:05 AM on April 25, 2005

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