OUT ON A LIMB: Capt. Schettino bucks maritime tradition

It’s a long-established maritime tradition that the captain stays to see everybody off a sinking ship

He was the Captain of the Nightingale;

Twenty-one days from Clyde in coal;

He could smell the flowers of Bermuda in the gale;

As he died on the North Rock Shoal.

I first heard The Flowers of Bermuda and its story about its brave but hapless captain from a Stan Rogers album. The story is told from the point of view of a crewman on a British collier, the Nightingale. On its way to Bermuda it hits rocks and the captain’s first thought was for his crew. They eyed the captain’s “gig” as their only escape after discovering the lifeboats were smashed.

But when the crew was all assembled there;

And the gig was prepared for sea;

‘Twas seen there but 18 places to be manned;

And 19 mortal souls were we.

“But,” cries the captain, “now do not delay, nor do you spare a thought for me. My duty is to save you all now. Save ye all now if I can. See ye return quick as can be.”

So they pile into the boat, leaving the captain behind, promising to return with a rescue “quick as can be.”

Now there be flowers in Bermuda. Beauty lies on every hand, continues the narrator.

And there be laughter ease and drink there for every man;

But there is no joy for me.

For when they reach the “wretched Nightingale” they’re greeted by an awful sight: “The captain, drowned, was tangled in the mizzen chains, smiling bravely beneath the sea.”

Smiling bravely beneath the sea.

Of course, you know what turned my thought to this song was the disgraceful behaviour of the captain of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino. Now, we shouldn’t condemn this man until we get the whole story but the evidence so far does not make him look good. In particular, there’s the remarkable transcript of the Coast Guard captain doing everything he can – including swearing at the cowardly captain – to get him to get back on his ship until everyone is off.

It’s a long-established maritime tradition that the captain stays to see everybody off a sinking ship, going down with it if need be. You know the old saying, “Women and children first.” Sexist perhaps, but certainly children have to get off first.

According to the BBC, current maritime law does not say specifically that the captain has to be last off (a previous version did) but implication is still that he’s responsible for seeing all passengers off safely. The principle involved is that the captain has to direct the safe evacuation of passengers and crew. Apparently, the BBC says, Italian law requires the captain to stay on board.

It would take a stout heart to stay on a sinking ship but who could abandon it while others still remain? The captain isn’t expected to actually go down with the ship. He just needs to be the last one alive getting off.