Why Do Captains Go Down With Their Ships When it Sinks

by | Last updated Nov 24, 2023 | Seaman's Life | 2 comments

The axiom “Captain goes down with his ship” is an old maritime tradition in the seafaring world. Perhaps, the most famous act was made by Captain Edward J. Smith of the RMS Titanic which sank in 1912.

The Captain holds the overall responsibility on a ship. His decisions are for the utmost safety of the passengers, his crew, the cargo, and the environment. Because of this, he is somewhat “tied” to his vessel.

But is he really expected to go down with his ship when it’s sinking?

The Truth Behind the Legend

Tradition holds that every woman and child should be taken first to safety during emergencies. We see this in movies or even in real scenarios when people are in grave danger.

In fact, this act of chivalry has been around for a very long time.

In the movie Titanic, we last saw Captain Smith in the wheelhouse when the waters came engulfing him. Everybody could have thought that he had enough time to board one of the lifeboats.

Unfortunately, he chooses to stay in his ship and sink with it. This scene may have sparked the impression that Captains must go down with their ships.

Real Scenarios

In a real distress situation, nobody really knows when the ship will sink. There is a time constraint between evacuating the passengers and her crew, and the ship going down into the deep. Everybody is aware of this fact.

Since the Captain holds moral obligation and legal responsibility for his passengers and crew, he must ensure that all of them are safe before he boards any lifeboat.

This means he must leave the vessel last even if he is the first person to announce abandon ship.

Unfortunately, there are situations where saving the entire people on board is impossible. Being bound with that sense of duty, he may die trying thus choosing to be with his ship.

The surviving crew and passengers would then tell the tale of their ship Captain not leaving his vessel because he was willing to go down with her.

The word of mouth then passes on from time to time leaving that impression to the next generations of sailors.

The cruise vessel Costa Concordia with her starboard side listed underwater during the night.

Legal Responsibility

Every nation has different rules on the law of the sea but converges on the idea that the Captain holds utmost responsibility for his ship and everything in it- passengers, crew, and cargo, no matter the condition and type of vessel he commands.

Even when a search and rescue party from outside the ship is present, he is not relieved of that duty and still must consider himself last in any event of evacuation.

Abandoning his ship in times of emergency has legal consequences especially if people are still on board. Not only that it goes against the social norm and ethics for mariners, but it is also a crime that can lead to imprisonment.

A notable example is Captain Francesco Schettino, the Master of Costa Concordia, who is sentenced to 16 years in prison after being charged with manslaughter.

Other countries require their captains to abandon their vessels last. He must do everything in his power to save everyone on board. Moreover, he must not leave his ship as long as there is reasonable hope that they can save it.

“Never leave your ship until your ship leaves you.”

Notable Examples

These are some instances when we observed the captain’s moral code by going down into the deep with her, and those who chose to abandon their ship.

Going Down with His Ship

Here are a few examples where Captains went down with their ship to either try to evacuate all of their passengers and/ or crew or choose to stay on board.

  • October 2, 2015: The master of the cargo ship El Faro, Captain Michael Davidson was still on the bridge when it sank.
  • October 29, 2012: Captain Robin Walbridge stayed on his ship until it capsized during Hurricane Sandy.
  • December 30, 1950: An admiral of the Spanish navy Luis Gonzalez de Ubieta refused rescue when his merchant vessel sank in the Carribean Sea. He chose to go down with his ship.
  • October 24, 1944: Even though he could escape, Admiral Inoguchi Toshihira chose to stay in his battleship during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
  • April 12, 1912: Captain Edward Smith chose to remain in the wheelhouse of the RMS Titanic before the waters engulfed his ship.

Captains Who Chose to Abandon Their Ships

In other instances, some captains choose to abandon their ship even though people are still on board. This often led to criminal charges, social penalties, and prison sentences in addition to facing dishonor.

  • June 1, 2015: The deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in Chinese history with 442 deaths out of 454 on board. The Captain of the river cruise ship Dong Fang Zhi Xing left the ship before rescuing the passengers.
  • April 16, 2014: South Korean ferry MV Sewol sank without the order to abandon the ship. Captain Lee Joon-seok was rescued by a Coast Guard vessel and was later sentenced to 36 years in prison.
  • January 13, 2012: The Costa Concordia disaster. Captain Francesco Schettino abandoned his ship while most of the passengers were still on board. He reasoned that he was coordinating the evacuation from his lifeboat.
  • August 4, 1991: Captain Yiannis Avranas of the cruise ship MTS Oceanos abandoned the ship without informing the passengers that his ship was sinking. Fortunately, all the passengers survived.
  • November 12, 1965: Captain Byron Voustinas of SS Yarmouth Castle was on the first lifeboat when a fire broke out on board.
Ship sinking into the water. Must the captain of this vessel go down with her?


When the captain gives the order to abandon the ship, it means that the vessel itself is not the safest place anymore.

The ship may be the best lifeboat but when this “lifeboat” is not capable of sustaining lives anymore, passengers must evacuate with the help of the crew and the captain.

However, there are instances when saving all the passengers or their crew is close to impossible. Must the Captain go down with his ship and add himself to the list of casualties for the sake of duty and tradition?

Surely, a ship is not worth more than a person’s life.

May the winds be in your favor.



  1. Gary

    This is very interesting, thanks. I have a question for you and I hope you can answer me.

    • Gibi

      Thank you. What is your question?


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