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Past sunken ships and their captains
02:45 - Source: CNN AP

Story highlights

Captains should stay on board until everybody is safe, experts say

The Sewol and Costa Concordia captains buck a tradition of staying with the ship

In Italy, South Korea and other countries, abandoning ship can be a crime

A captain's early departure can leave a leadership vacuum, a safety expert says

CNN  — 

When the HMS Birkenhead, a British ship carrying troops, began to sink off the coast of South Africa in 1852, the captain and military officers on board famously allowed women and children to board the lifeboats first.

The captain and many of the troops stayed on the ship until the last, perishing in the ocean as the women and children made their way to safety. Their chivalrous act of self-sacrifice is considered to have helped set the standard for noble conduct at sea.

Other displays of courage by captains and crew members who put their passengers first have punctuated the decades since, like Capt. Edward J. Smith who went down with the Titanic.

But such bravery has been conspicuously absent from two major maritime disasters in recent times.

Capt. Lee Joon-seok of the Sewol, the South Korean ferry that sunk last week, has come under heavy criticism for abandoning the ship while hundreds of passengers remained on board. Dozens of them died and more than 200 were still missing Monday.

Lee’s actions have prompted comparisons to those of Capt. Francesco Schettino who was in command of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, which crashed into a reef off the Italian coast in 2012, killing 32 people.

Witnesses said Schettino jumped into a lifeboat to flee the ship, even though hundreds of passengers were still on board. In his trial, the captain said he fell into a lifeboat when the ship listed sharply.

Schettino is now on trial on charges of manslaughter, causing a maritime disaster and abandoning ship with passengers still on board. He denies wrongdoing.

The cases of the Sewol and the Costa Concordia have raised questions about a captain’s obligations to passengers when a vessel runs into trouble.

Go down with ship?

By leaving the Sewol soon after it began sinking, Lee reneged on some of his key duties, experts say.

“The captain’s first obligation is for the safety of his crew and passengers,” Capt. James Staples, a maritime consultant, told CNN. “He should stay on board that vessel until he knows everybody is safely evacuated.

“And then the other reason he stays on board the vessel is for salvage rights. For the captain to leave the vessel in an early situation, it’s not the way it should be done.”

South Korean ferry rescue operation

An international maritime convention on the safety of life at sea makes a captain responsible for the vessel and all the people on board, but it doesn’t stipulate that the captain stay on the ship throughout the crisis.

“You don’t necessarily want a captain dying with a ship. But he has