- Associated Press - Thursday, January 19, 2012

STOCKHOLM — Seafaring tradition holds that the captain should be last to leave a sinking ship.

But is it realistic to expect skippers — only human after all — to suppress their survival instinct amid the horror of a maritime disaster? To ask them to stare down death from the bridge, as the lights go out and the water rises, until everyone else has made it to safety?

From mariners on ships plying the world’s oceans, the answer is loud and clear: Aye.

“It’s a matter of honor that the master is the last to leave. Nothing less will do in this profession,” said Jorgen Loren, captain of a passenger ferry operating between Sweden and Denmark and chairman of the Swedish Maritime Officer’s Association.

Seamen have expressed almost universal outrage at Capt. Francesco Schettino, accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and of abandoning his crippled cruise ship off Tuscany while passengers were still on board. The last charge carries a potential sentence of 12 years in prison.

Jim Staples, a captain for 20 years, who spoke Wednesday from a 1,000-foot cargo vessel he was captaining near New Orleans, said captains are duty-bound to stay with the ship until the situation is hopeless. When they bail early, everything falls apart.

“I’m totally embarrassed by what he did,” he said of Capt. Schettino. “He’s given the industry a bad name, he’s made us all look bad. It’s shameful.”

Capt. Schettino should have remained on board “until the last passenger is accounted for,” said Abelardo Pacheco, a Filipino captain who was held hostage for five months in Somalia and now heads a seafarers’ training center in Manila.

“That is the responsibility of the captain, that’s why all privileges are given to him but he has together with that an equal burden of responsibility,” Capt. Pacheco said.

The Costa Concordia, carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew, slammed into a reef on Friday, after Capt. Schettino made an unauthorized maneuver.

A recording of his conversation with the Italian coast guard suggests he fled before all passengers were off, and resisted repeated orders to go back, saying the ship was tipping and it was dark.

Capt. Schettino reportedly said he ended up in a life raft after he tripped and fell into the water. He is being held in house arrest as prosecutors prepare criminal charges.

Even if he’s not convicted, it is highly unlikely that he will ever command a cruise or cargo ship again because of the damage to his reputation, said Craig Allen, a professor at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.

“Some people panic, but a short time later they collect their senses and do the right thing,” Mr. Allen said. “In this case there was more than enough time for the moment of panic to pass. It was abject cowardice.”

Maritime experts said the tradition of a captain standing by his ship isn’t established in international maritime law. Some countries, like Italy, have included it in national laws.

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