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Staying with the Ship

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 24, 2012 03:37 PM

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Francesco Schettino, the captain of the Costa Concordia, made a big mistake when he ran his massive, $560 million ship aground off the coast of Italy earlier this month. Judging by the media coverage, though, he made an even bigger mistake when he abandoned ship early, going overboard in a lifeboat and only then calling the Italian Coast Guard. For this latter sin, scorn has descended upon him from every corner of the globe. (Hilariously, Schettino has offered the lamest excuse ever: he claims that he slipped, fell into a lifeboat, and couldn't get back out.)

Schettino violated an unofficial law of seafaring: The captain must not leave his sinking ship! There are lots of good reasons for the captain to stay on board -- at a minimum, he can help free passengers who are trapped behind their jammed cabin doors. But where does the rule itself come from? As Ian Jack points out in the Guardian, the tradition began in 1852, with the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead, a Royal Navy troopship which ran aground off the coast of South Africa. The captain stayed on board to direct the evacuation, and the soldiers gave priority to the women and children, letting them board the lifeboats first. There weren't enough lifeboats, and only 193 of the 643 people on board survived the wreck. Still, the actions of the crew were widely admired: Soon after, in one of his poems, Rudyard Kipling wrote that courage in battle was less impressive than the self-restraint of "the Birkenhead drill." There's no evidence that anyone on the Birkenhead used the exact phrase "Women and children first"; it appears for the first time in print in 1860, in a novel called Harrington: A Story of True Love, by W. D. O'Connor, a friend of Walt Whitman. During a shipwreck, one man proclaims: "Back from the boats... The first man that touches a boat I'll brain. Women and children first, men."


"The Wreck of the Birkenhead," by Thomas Henry.

Some commentators have seen Schettino's flight as emblematic of our modern, self-interested, spineless era. But there was never really a golden age of chivalric sailing. Joseph Conrad's novel Lord Jim, written in 1900, is about a Schettino-like first mate, Jim, who abandons his ship, the Patna, after it springs a leak -- only to discover, when he makes it into port, that the ship didn't sink after all; the leak was plugged, and the Patna has arrived ahead of him. Jim flees to the East to escape his shame (where, ironically, he becomes a colonial "lord"). And, in fact, Conrad's story was based on the very real shipwreck of the SS Jeddah: Twenty years before, in 1880, the Jeddah's captain and officers had panicked and fled after misjudging a leak on their ship. Conrad was fascinated by their failure to enact the "Birkenhead drill," and drew on the scandal for his novel. (After such a disgrace, he concluded, "artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge" are all but inevitable.)

George Bernard Shaw, ever the skeptic, thought the romance of "Birkenhead drill" the height of distasteful, childish myth-making. After the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, Shaw wrote a take-down of the drill for England's Daily News and Leader. "Why is it," he wrote, "that the effect of a sensational catastrophe on a modern nation is to cast it into transports, not of weeping, not of prayer, not of sympathy with the bereaved... but [into] an explosion of outrageous romantic lying?" The whole captain-goes-down-with-his-ship, women-and-children-first schtick, Shaw argued, was just a childish and romantic fairy tale, an indulgent and impractical story we tell ourselves instead of thinking about what really happened. ("How the [lifeboat] is to be navigated and rowed by babies and women occupied in holding the babies," he points out "is not mentioned.") We're like children at story-time: When we hear about a shipwreck, we immediately want to know that someone shouted "Women and children first!":

All the men must be heroes (except the foreigners, who must all be shot by stern British officers in attempting to rush the boats over the bodies of the women and children), the Captain must be a superhero, a magnificent seaman, cool, brave, delighting in death and danger, and a living guarantee that the wreck was nobody's fault, but, on the contrary, a triumph of British navigation.... The officers must be calm, proud, steady, unmoved in the intervals of shooting the terrified foreigners.... Everybody must face death without a tremor; and the band, according to the Birkenhead precedent, must play "Nearer, my God, to Thee"....

It was appalling, Shaw felt, to use a shipwreck as an occasion for treacly nationalism.
Shipwrecks, Shaw argued, are actually senseless, terrifying, human tragedies, often the result of absurd stupidity and negligence -- so why do we insist on turning them into cheesy melodramas full of heroes and villains? "What," he wrote, "is the use of all this ghastly, blasphemous, inhuman, braggartly lying?" It only seems heroic for the captain to go down with his ship, he pointed out. In fact, it would've been truer heroism to simply avoid wrecking the ship in the first place -- to be one of those "British captains who have brought their ships safely through icefields by doing their plain duty and carrying out their instructions." "Sentimental idiots, with a break in the voice," Shaw wrote, "tell me that 'he went down to the depths:' I tell them, with the impatient contempt that they deserve, that so did the cat." By thinking of the doomed, idiotic captain as a hero, we "substitut[e] sensational misfortune for inspiring achievement."

The essay, in fact, got Shaw into a running debate with Arthur Conan Doyle in the pages of the newspaper; Conan Doyle defended the news coverage of the Titanic. "As to the general accusation that the occasion has been used for the glorification of British qualities," Doyle wrote, "we should indeed be a lost people if we did not honor courage and discipline when we see it in its highest form." The stories of heroism then being published in the papers, he wrote, constituted not only an accurate account of events, but a "wonderful epic." Unfortunately, continuing revelations about the actual conditions of the evacuation forced him give up the debate. (And, it's worth pointing out, time has only substantiated Shaw's distrust of the "Birkenhead drill" myth. It's hard not to feel its absurdity when you read this testimony, from Titanic fifth officer Harold Lowe, pointed out in Jack's Guardian piece: "I saw a lot of Latin people all along the ship's rails. They were glaring more or less like wild beasts, ready to spring.... Manhood met brutehood undaunted, however, and honest fists faced iron bars, winning at last the battle for death with honor." That said, the "drill" was certainly effective in other ways: 75% of the women on the Titanic survived, but only 20% of the men.)

None of this, of course, changes the fact that Schettino should have stayed on board and done his job; if he hadn't abandoned his post, it's entirely possible that he could have saved some lives. But the world isn't calling him the "chicken of the sea" for entirely practical reasons. For us, a shipwreck isn't just an event. It's also a drama. And, unfortunately for Captain Schettino, there are only two kinds of characters in shipwreck dramas: You're either a hero, or a villain.

[Bonus link: Radiohead, "Idioteque" -- Women and children first!]

Update: For those of you who are really interested, here's a sober, no-drama assessment of what went wrong from an actual captain, Bill Doherty: "Costa Concordia and the Human Element." Key quote:

When safety and security response systems rely on individuals to initiate situation reporting (SITREPs), unless properly trained, mentally prepared and appropriately supported, the weakest link in the system chain will break and potentially comprise life and/or environment. In dealing with Critical Incidents, one of the first things we have learned by past incidents is that it is crucial to inform higher-level support systems immediately to ensure all aspects of a Critical Incident Management System (CIMS) are enacted in a timely and appropriate manner....

At this point, it looks like no lives were lost upon the grounding incident or the immediate minutes following the ship running aground. This is important, as it denotes that in this incident, every life lost was preventable and directly tied to the response/ rescue operation. To put it bluntly, passengers on the Costa Concordia died due to a failure of ship's Master and key company officials to follow specific elements of the International Safety Management (ISM) and the interface with local port-state authority.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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