Captains, and how they behave in a disaster

I’d venture to guess that Capt. Francesco Schettino — master of the sunken cruise ship Costa Concordia — missed the lecture that covered “The Birkenhead Drill.”

After hearing the tape of the commander of the Livorno, Italy, port authority repeatedly ordering Capt. Schettino (who’d “tripped and fallen into a lifeboat”) to return to his vessel, one wonders if even knowing about “The Birkenhead Drill” would’ve mattered to this individual.

For reference, in July of 1852, HMS Birkenhead sank off the coast of South Africa after striking an underwater obstruction. On board were hundreds of British soldiers from the 78th Highlanders regiment, along with their wives and children. Within minutes, it was obvious that the ship would sink and, so, the men aboard had all of the women and children placed in the three lifeboats.

With that done, the soldiers formed ranks on deck and remained in formation with their band playing until the ship sank. All of the women and children survived. The men perished, and from this incident came the seafaring ethos of “women and children first.”

Now, because of his behavior, Capt. Schettino will likely join the list of individuals whose actions stand out as examples of precisely how not to behave when things go badly at sea.

This list includes Capt. Hugues de Chaumareys of the French frigate Medusa. After the Medusa struck a reef in July of 1816, Capt. De Chaumareys jumped into a lifeboat while 147 others were left to board a cobbled-together raft. De Chaumareys initially towed the raft, but later cut it free, leaving those aboard to their fate. When the raft finally made landfall only 15 people were still alive. The painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” on display in the Louvre, depicts this incident.

In 1880, the S.S. Jeddah began taking on seawater and was abandoned by Capt. Joseph Clark and his crew. They left nearly 1,000 passengers on board, but the ship remained afloat and was towed to port by another vessel. This, after Capt. Clark had told authorities that the Jeddah had sunk.

More recently, on Aug. 4, 1991, the cruise ship Oceanos sank off of the coast of South Africa. In this incident, the captain left the ship “to better coordinate the rescue efforts from shore” while hundreds of passengers and crew members were still aboard.

Incidents like these should be part of every maritime leadership course taught. Such incidents would remind officers of the fact that, if they ever did something remarkably stupid, senseless, or cowardly, they would likely be remembered forever for their behavior — and none too fondly to boot.

The good thing about having such courses is that they could also mention that there are (far and away) many more examples of how to react properly when presented with extreme situations.

One of the most famous examples of such was Capt. E.J. Smith of the R.M.S. Titanic. Capt. Smith, at the time, was the senior captain of the White Star Line and was due to retire upon completion of the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

After striking the iceberg and realizing that the ship was sinking, he ordered that “women and children” be the first allowed into the lifeboats. He also told his officers to “Be British” — in other words, to remain calm, decisive and brave.

Although he was not strictly a mariner, there’s also the more recent event wherein a pilot landed an airliner on the Hudson river. There, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger executed a no-power, emergency landing in the only area available to him. That area just happened to be a river.

Upon landing in the river, he basically became a maritime captain and behaved in the tradition of the captain and soldiers on the H.M.S. Birkenhead. Fully aware of the fact that his “vessel” was taking on water and could sink at any minute, he still searched the entire length of the flooded cabin to make sure that no one had been left behind.

Ultimately, when facing a disaster, it’s better to be remembered for swallowing the bladder and bowel-loosening fear always present at such times and behaving like Captains Smith and Sullenberger.

At least then, you’re able to face your peers and society at large with your dignity intact and, far more importantly, tell the person you see in the mirror every morning that, in a tough situation, you did the right thing.

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. Send comments to

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