While doing some more research, I came across this updated article by Craig H. Allen, a Coast Guard Attorney, presently serving as commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter Resolute.
"In accordance with both the lore of the sea and the law of the sea, it is widely believed that a ship's captain, in the event of disaster, must go down with his ship - or at least he is expected to be the last one to step off its awash decks.
The master of the cruise ship M/V Oceanos, who in the fall of 1991 off the coast of Africa, breached this custom by fleeing his sinking ship while hundreds of passengers remained aboard, soon learned the dishonour that attends such a too-hasty abandonment.
The master's actions during the sinking of the Oceanos raised a number of questions among captains of both merchant marine and naval vessels.
- What is the captain's duty to his ship and to his passengers and crew following a casualty which threatens to sink the vessel.
- What is the source of that duty and how is it enforced.
- Finally, does the order to abandon ship extinguish any further duty by the captain to the ship and it's passengers and crew?
At Lloyd's of London, the famous marine insurance organization founded in 1689, the ship's bell from HMS Lutine is traditionally rung to announce maritime disasters. In August of 1991, the Lutine bell was no doubt tolled to announce the demise of the Greek cruise ship Oceanos which had sailed from East London to Durban, South Africa, with 571 passengers and crew members. The 7,554 ton vessel was commanded by Captain Yiannis Avranas, a Greek licensed master with 30 years seagoing experience. On August 3, while engulfed in a gale, the ship began taking on water after a main engine explosion damaged the hull. Powerless, the ship drifted in 80 knot winds and 30 foot seas, with flooding waters rising deck by deck within. A growing list developed, eventually taking the ship to the bottom.
Miraculously, all 571 souls aboard the Oceanos survived - a tribute to the courage and professionalism of the South African Air Force. Helicopter crews operating out of Cape Town and Durban reportedly hoisted more than 170 passengers from the deck of this sinking vessel in conditions that were described as harrowing. Private vessels rescued 400 more survivors from the ship's lifeboats.
Much public attention was focused not on the heroic rescuers, however, but on the ship's master and his actions. Almost immediately, survivors began to tell a tale of cowardice and betrayal. The captain, they reported, abandoned his ship in the first helicopter, leaving 160 passengers on board. A navy diver who had been lowered to assist the passengers in getting into hoisting slings reported that Captain Avranas stepped ahead of elderley passengers and demanded to be hoisted next. The diver, believing he had misunderstood him, turned to assist the passenger, only to find that the Captain had already donned the sling and was being hoisted off. This comes from reports published after the rescue.
Incredibly, Robin Boltman, a magician hired to entertain the ship's passengers during the cruise, oversaw the evacuation following the captain's hasty departure. At first using music and comedy to keep up morale among the remaining passengers while awaiting rescue, Boltman and his fellow entertainers later guided the passengers to the sloping, spray-soaked deck when their turn to be hoisted finally came. Then, recognizing that a string of lights was going to interfere with the helicopters access to the ship, Boltman climbed aloft to cut the lights away. Throughout the rescue, he coordinated the operation with helicopters, using the ship's radio. In the end, it was Robin Boltman, not the ship's captain, who was the last to leave the Oceanos.
When questioned about his conduct, Captain Avranas was predictably defensive. "When I order abandon ship, it doesn't matter matter what time I leave," he said. "Abandon ship is for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay." Many observers in the maritime industry disagreed. Bill Fowler, a maritime historian at Mystic Seaport, Conn., observed that, "It is very, very unusual for the captain to leave his vessel in a moment of crisis. He has to set the example of courage and moral standing."
Frank Branyard, curator of the American Merchant Marine Museum at Kings Point N.Y., and author of several books on shipping was less restrained. Captain Avranas, he observed, exhibited cowardice and panic. "Anyone who loves the sea and knows the sea understands that the captain is responsible for the safety of his passengers." Captain Avranas should be deprived of his license and face criminal prosecution, Branyard said, for "betraying the responsibilities of a ship's master that date from the earliest days of navigation."
This is an excerpt, and I have not reproduced Craig Allen's article in full. It is available on the internet for all to read in it's entirety.