It is common seafaring folklore that “the captain always goes down with the ship,” but is that really a legal necessity? The recent tragic events in South Korea, where the captain left the sinking ferry with hundreds of passengers still on board, have brought this question to the forefront. Captain Lee Joon-seok of the MVSewol, a ferry boat running between the southern island of Jeju, and the port of Incheon, allegedly was not at the helm or on the bridge during the capsizing and eventual sinking of the ferry. To add more fuel to the speculative fire, he and several crew members evacuated themselves first, telling the passengers to stay put. These actions had deadly consequences.
Currently, 273 persons are known to have died, with 31 still missing. Recovery operations continue, but no survivors are expected to be found. Many of the dead are school children, and South Korea has been mourning the loss of so many young lives. There has been much media coverage on this incident.
There is no universal answer to this question, as the law varies from nation to nation and from circumstance to circumstance.
International Maritime Law
Although this tradition of the sea is well known, it is not really the law. According to the International Maritime Organization, its rules seem to require that a captain is always responsible for the people on board. This would seem to suggest that it is not necessary to “ go down with the ship” if all the passengers and crew have been taken care of and evacuated. It is always stressed that the captain is responsible for the safety of the crew, the passengers and the ship.
Historically, the captain stayed as long as possible not only for the safety of the crew and passengers, but also because abandoning a ship affected the salvage rights of the shipping line that owned the ship. This heroic act was as much an economic consideration as a humanitarian one. The maritime salvage laws have evolved, so that consideration is not what it once was.
South Korean Maritime Law
South Korea is a member of the International Maritime Organization, and under its guidelines (guidelines, not laws), the captain may not necessarily be held responsible for abandoning ship before the passengers and crew. Obviously, this is determined on a case by case basis.
However, South Korean maritime law does make it a crime to abandon the ship during a disaster and before the passengers and crew are safe. It is very likely the captain will have to stand trial for gross negligence, abandoning ship in the face of a disaster, causing bodily injury and not seeking rescue from other ships. He was not on the bridge at the time the ferry began to sink. Even though the ferry took two and a half hours to sink – which would have been plenty of time to evacuate the passengers – they were repeatedly told to stay where they were. Once Captain Joon-seok left the ship there was a leadership vacuum which likely made a bad situation worse.
Not Really A New Problem
Even though there has been this long standing tradition of the captain being the last to leave a ship in distress, there have historically been a few instances of captains saving their own hides first. As early as 1880, a captain and some of the crew of the British steamship SS Jeddah, sailing out of Singapore, abandoned ship in a storm, expecting it would sink. It did not; another ship came upon it and rescued the ship and passengers. In a subsequent investigation, the court found the captain guilty of gross misconduct, and suspended his captain’s license for a period of three years (Read More).
As we saw more recently, with the Costa Concordia tragedy in 2012, this seafaring ideal does not always hold true. In that instance, the captain made sure he was among the first off the ship, leaving passengers to fend for themselves. As a result, 32 souls were lost, and the captain ultimately faced charges of manslaughter, causing a maritime disaster (by steering the ship so close to shore) and abandoning ship with passengers still on board. This trial is still ongoing.
Italian maritime law requires a captain to remain on the ship until the passengers and crew are evacuated, so in that case, it doesn’t look good for the captain.
The investigation into this tragedy is continuing, and more information will become available as investigators obtain statements from survivors and crewmen, look through the Captain’s record, the operator of the ferry, the safety of the ship and numerous other details. The families of those souls who were lost need to have these questions answered.