The cowardly act of the Costa Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, who has been accused of abandoning the sinking ship, leaving more than 4,200 passengers onboard, has added another unsavory chapter to the less reputable parts of maritime history. The incident has also raised concerns over the need for more stringent regulations and guidelines to prevent further such tragedies and ensure better disaster management during a ship wreck.
According to the International Maritime Organization - a United Nations (UN) agency responsible for marine safety and international marine regulations, a ship has to abide by a set of globally accepted rules, the laws of the country it is registered in (and whose flag it flies) and those of the countries it berths in. The Costa Concordia, therefore, must answer, among others, to Italian law.
Furthermore, international maritime guidelines say a ship's captain - also called the Master of the ship = is responsible for sending May Day messages once he is sure the ship cannot be saved and/or the passengers' lives are in danger. He must also give the call to abandon ship, in such cases, by ringing the bell (or blowing the ship's horn) seven time. Finally, he must look to communicate with the owners and the authorities by any means necessary.
Most importantly, he must remain onboard and coordinate rescue attempts. He must first attempt to save all the passengers; the crew must then be saved and only then can the captain leave his ship. Traditional guidelines also say the captain should ensure priority is given to the women and children onboard.
In Italy, as in most maritime countries, a captain abandoning his ship during a wreck is considered a criminal. While it may not be a legally declared criminal act in some other countries (the U.S. for example), it is still considered a shameful act, if the captain were to leave his ship and risk the safety of his passengers.
Unfortunately, there have been other occasions in history, when a captain of a sinking ship chose to abandon ship before helping his passengers.
The Master, Yiannis Avranas, of the Greek cruise ship M/V Oceanos did something similar, in 1991, after it started taking on water as the result of an engine explosion that damaged the ship's hull. The ship was on its way to Cape Town in South Africa and had 571 passengers and crew members on board.
The South African Air Force and Navy rescued all the people onboard but reported the captain abandoned the ship on the first available helicopter. He, apparently, even stepped ahead of an elderly passenger.
The captain of the cruise liner Yarmouth Castle was guilty of a similar offence, in 1965. Like Schettino, though, he was forced to return by the captain of the Bermuda Star, which had come to the rescue of the sinking ship.
Fortunately, the seas have examples of bravery as well. If the above cases pointed to instances of cowardice and shame, there are incidents where the heroism of the captains onboard sinking ships has become legendary.
The most famous example, perhaps, is the Titanic, which sank in 1912. The captain, E.J. Smith, though blamed for the accident, is also remembered for having kept his cool throughout the rescue operations. He ensured the guidelines were followed and stood by the ship till the end.
Another example of maritime bravery is that of Italian captain Peiro Caalmari, the Master of the passenger ship Andrea Doria, in 1956. He remained with his stricken ship until all passengers were rescued. He vowed to wait on the ship till the tugs arrived. He agreed to leave only after the last of his crew similarly refused to leave without his captain.
A similar case was reported in 1952, when the freighter Flying Enterprise was hit by a storm and started sinking. The captain, Henrik Kurt Carlsen, refused to leave the ship and stayed onboard for seven days, while the tugs attempted to save his vessel. Carlsen was rescued just moments before a second storm took the ship to the bottom.