On May 1, 1915, the RMS Lusitania sailed from New York, bound for Liverpool. On May 7, it was torpedoed by a German submarine off the Old Head of Kinsale on the southern Irish coast. The ship’s captain, William Thomas Turner, believing himself to be the last living person on board, climbed the halyards to keep from being washed away and to remain with his ship to the end. Eventually, he clung to a floating wooden oar and then a chair as the ship sank beneath him. Only later, when viewing the scene from some remove, did Turner discover to his horror that others had remained on board and were sucked under as the great vessel sunk below the waves. Turner had been denied the grace of being the last on his ship and going down with it too.

Turner remained in the water for hours and was eventually discovered and pulled to safety by the crew of the small steamer Bluebell. Once on board, he sulked until they arrived in Queenstown later that night. His survival and rescue was unwelcomea matter of personal ignominy. Although the idea of a captain going down with his ship or being the last living person to leave her is not specified in or by international maritime law, it weighed heavily on Turner.

There is certainly a moral obligation for the captain to stay to the last. There is also a reasonable expectation that he will remain on board to best exercise his responsibilities and attend to the safety of his passengers and crew and their orderly and safe evacuation after an abandon-ship order has been given. The captain’s presence and authority are, after all, necessary to maintain discipline in emergency situations.

But that is different from a legal obligation to remain aboard, much less to perish with the ship. Consider the case of Captain Edward Smith of the RMS Titanic, which, it's well known, struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic in April 1912. A few minutes before Titanic went down, Smith was seen walking to the wheelhouse. His body was never recovered and he is believed to have gone down with his ship, even though he could have tried to get on a lifeboat or taken other steps to save himself.

After loss of the Titanic and as a result of it, leading maritime nations sought to codify customary practices. In 1914, they negotiated an international treaty on Safety of Life at Sea, but the outbreak of World War I prevented it from being implemented. In 1948, the United Nations established the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization, later renamed the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Its International Safety Management Code has been adopted by most maritime nations, including the United States of America, Canada, and Italy. Like the earlier treaty, it is highly specific with respect to technical specifications and equipment, but strikingly vague in its treatment of the captain’s responsibilities.

The code recognizes that no two shipping companies or shipowners are the same and that ships operate under a wide range of different conditions, so that rules must accordingly be “based on general principles and objectives.” The closest it comes to defining the responsibilities of a ship’s master in a crisis is a section that provides:

5.2  The Company should ensure that the safety management system operating on board the ship contains a clear statement emphasizing the master’s authority. The Company should establish in the safety management system that the master has the overriding authority and the responsibility to make decisions with respect to safety and pollution prevention and to request the Company’s assistance as may be necessary.

An individual company could, in theory, provide a “clear statement” that requires a captain to remain with his ship until it sinks. But the code’s language is advisory, rather than mandatory. Individual countries might likewise make these duties more explicit. For example, Canadian law obliges the master of Canadian vessels anywhere and foreign ships in Canadian waters to take “all reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the vessel and of persons who are on board.”

So it could be fairly stated that, under Canadian law, if a captain left his ship while passengers and crew remained on board and the decision to leave could not be justified as a reasonable step “to ensure the safety of the vessel and of persons who are on board,” then the captain could not be said to be properly exercising “overriding authority and the responsibility to make decisions with respect to safety,” as required by the ISM Code and could also be in breach of the Canadian legislation.

And yet, vague though the law may be on this point, the unwritten expectation that captains will stay with their ships continues to shape their actions in crises, the public response, and legal verdicts.

In 2012, Captain Francesco Schettino, master of the Costa Concordia, grounded his ship on the Italian island of Giglio. The cruise ship, bearing over 4,000 passengers and crew, appeared to be wrecked largely as a result of Schettino’s recklessness. He then left his stricken and listing ship for a lifeboat while hundreds of passengers and crew struggled to get to safety. He was ordered to get back on board to assist with the evacuation of passengers by an officer of the Italian Coast Guard. Schettino claims that he accidentally slipped and fell into the lifeboat, but a crewman who testified at the trial said the captain deliberately leaped into the boat. In any event, Schettino refused the Coast Guard order to return to his vessel.

His behavior might be considered merely pathetic had the incident not led to 32 deaths and resulted in a complicated and expensive salvage and wreck removal operation. Schettino was charged with manslaughter and with “abandonment” of his ship under Italian law. Following his conviction he was sentenced to a total of 16 years in prison10 years for the deaths of the 32 passengers and crew, five years for causing a shipwreck and one year for “abandoning” his ship while hundreds of passengers and crew remained on board.

Or take the case of Captain Yiannis Avranas of the Greek liner Oceanos, who in 1991 left the ship as it started to sink off the South African coast. He claimed he did so to better coordinate the rescue efforts from a helicopter. He reportedly stated, “When I order abandon the ship, it doesn't matter what time I leave. Abandon is for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay.” One difference, though, was that all people on board Oceanos were rescued, so Avranas could claim that supervising the evacuation and rescue efforts from the relative safety of a helicopter was the best thing to do. Indeed, he made exactly that argument. Nevertheless, a Greek board of inquiry later concluded the captain and four of his officers had been negligent.

Schettino was held to be guilty according to Italian law, and Avranis was found negligent under Greek law. Their moral abandonment of their passengers and crew cannot be justified under any law or custom. Many other captains, though, have exceeded their legal obligations, remaining on board to the last or going down with their ships. Those choices reflect tradition and the individual captain's sense of duty and professionalism. They were not coerced by the terms of any law, but rather by custom and by their perception of the scope of their responsibilities.

Perhaps it was that sense of having violated obligations deeper than law that so much tormented the Lusitania’s Captain Turner. He was subjected to accusations and humiliation at a casualty inquiry. Although exonerated at the inquiry, Turner became even more reclusive and never forgave his accusers.

In a bizarre twist of fate, in the autumn of 1916 Turner was appointed relieving master of the Cunard Line vessel SS Ivernia, which had been chartered for use as a troop carrier by the British government. On New Year’s Day, 1917, the vessel was torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea off the Greek coast by a German U-boat, with 2,400 troops aboard. The ship went down fairly quickly with a loss of 36 crew members and 84 troops. Once again, Turner survived the loss of his ship to torpedoes. This time, The New York Times reported, he remained on the bridge until all aboard had departed in lifeboats and rafts, “before striking out to swim as the vessel went down under his feet.”