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 prison—10 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.