Sometimes the lore of the sea gets ahead of itself. For example, is a ship captain really obligated to go down with the ship? Will a ship’s master face penalties for scooting clear of the ship’s rail leaving passengers and crew to fend for themselves?
That a captain is somehow obligated to go down with the ship is likely the stuff of fairy tales. It’s no doubt designed to encourage the person with the greatest potential of saving lives to stay aboard and help.
The criminalization of a ship captain for abandonment is pretty rare. There isn’t much law on the books. Some countries have made it a crime for a captain to abandon his ship in times of distress. News reports suggest that the Costa Concordia’s captain, Francesco Schettino, faces charges under Italian law for his reported management of the disaster. To the extent there’s a criminal penalty for a master’s early departure, it’s country driven and there’s no codified international law that addresses the issue.
In the U.S., there’s no specific federal statute that addresses captains who are itchy to get ashore. Still, much of U.S. maritime law is judge driven and there are cases that rule crewmembers owe a unique duty to their passengers.
One gruesome case from the 19th century involved an overloaded lifeboat in the icy waters of Newfoundland where the crew elected to toss the lifeboat’s male passengers into the sea. When manslaughter charges were later brought in Philadelphia against the only crewmember located in the U.S., the court’s revulsion was palpable. It wasn’t the fact that some had to die to save the others that bothered the court, it was the crew’s decision to spare themselves. It was the crew singling out passengers instead of drawing lots (“sortation”) that the court found wrongful. The court’s decision makes clear that the master and crew have a duty to the passengers and that duty went horribly awry in this case.
I could envision a scenario where the foundations of this case and the seaman’s manslaughter statute could be used to bring charges against a captain who leaves a vessel before the passengers.