Captain Francesco Schettino, master of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, should probably stop digging the hole he is in.
The transcript of his heated discussion with Italian coastguard officer Gregorio De Falco has already gone viral. He is being mocked throughout the world for leaving his stricken ship before all the passenger and crew were safely off or accounted for. In the maritime world, that’s about the worst thing a ship’s master can do.
Having first claimed he was co-ordinating the rescue from a lifeboat, now he says he tripped “… and I ended up in one of the boats”.
Captain Schettino isn’t the first ship’s captain to abandon his passengers and crew to their fates, and he probably won’t be the last. This kind of thing is as old as shipping itself. Some notable incidents:
1816, Medusa, Hugo de Chaumareys The French frigate Medusa, commanded by De Chaumareys and with 400 men, women, and children on board, ran aground off the coast of Senegal. The captain – one of the first off the stricken ship – along with his officers and certain favoured passengers, commandeered the lifeboats, leaving 147 other passengers and the rest of the crew to construct a makeshift raft. At first the boats towed the raft but soon cut it loose. When the raft finally made landfall 13 days later, it had just 15 survivors aboard. The rest were dead from exposure and murder as the panicking men fought each other with machetes. The survivors had resorted to cannibalism to survive.
1880, SS Jeddah, Captain Joseph Clark The pilgrim ship SS Jeddah was en route to Arabia with 778 men, 147 women and 67 children on board when it began leaking heavily. Certain the ship was about to sink, Captain Clark and his crew took to the boats. They were soon picked up by a passing ship and taken to Aden where the crew reported that the SS Jeddah had sunk with heavy loss of life. They must have been quite alarmed, then, when the Jeddah was towed into Aden a few days later with all the pilgrims still aboard. The ensuing fallout was devastating.
1965, Yarmouth Castle, Captain Byron Voutsinas The Yarmouth Castle was on a weekend cruise from Miami to Nassau with 372 passengers aboard when a fire broke out in a cabin that had been used as storeroom and quickly got out of control. The captain ordered the ship to port and stopped the engines. When the bosun arrived on the bridge to find out what was going on, he allegedly found Captain Voutsinas slumped in the corner, holding his head in his hands and mumbling “Bosun, we’re lost, we’re lost”. Although the captain participated in the early firefighting effort, witnesses were shocked to see him climbing into one of the first lifeboats with just four passengers and a handful of senior crew, including the bosun. The boat made its way across to a Finnish freighter, the Finnpulp, which had come to render assistance. Master of the Finnpulp, Captain John Lehto, was outraged to see Voutsinas in the boat, refused to allow him aboard and ordered him and his crew back to the burning Yarmouth Castle. Ninety people were killed – 88 passengers and two crew.
1991, MTS Oceanos, Captain Yiannis Avranas The Oceanos was ploughing along in gale conditions off South Africa’s Wild Coast when it began taking water into the engine room, causing a power failure. The leak could not be contained and the crew prepared to abandon ship although the lack of power meant that no alarm was raised. Captain Avranas was plucked to safety by a South African Air Force helicopter while some 160 passengers, including elderly people, were still aboard, leaving various of the ship’s on-board entertainers to handle the rescue. He later claimed that he had left to co-ordinate the rescue attempt from shore, a remark that was met with outrage and howls of derision. All 571 people aboard were rescued without loss of life.
What happened next?
Medusa Five of the survivors died within weeks. A court-martial acquitted De Chaumereys of desertion.
SS Jeddah An inquiry was convened to get to the bottom of the scandal. The report notes that “The master does not appear to have taken his passengers into his confidence or to have endeavoured in the least degree to raise their hopes in any way.” On the captain’s behaviour, it concludes: “The Court considers that in this the master showed a want of judgment and tact to a most serious extent, and that he caused disorganisation and discontent, not to say despair, at a time when none of these feelings should have been engendered.”
Yarmouth Castle The disaster led to a new law – Safety of Life at Sea law (SOLAS) – being passed in 1966, which made fire drills and safety inspections mandatory and outlawed the use of wood in structural parts of ships. No action was taken against Voutsinas or his crew.
Oceanos According to Ships Nostalgia, the Greek Maritime Board found Captain Avranas and a number senior crew members guilty of negligence. It is not clear if there was any penalty – other than a savaged reputation and lasting ignominy, courtesy of the Internet.
Sounds like the ‘ol captain is no candidate for pirates of the mediterranean! Doesn’t really inspire much confidence in those already wary of sea voyages does it!