The captain goes down with the ship” is an idiom and maritime tradition that a sea captain holds ultimate responsibility for both his ship and everyone embarked on it, and he will die trying to save either of them. Although often associated with the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 and its captain, Edward J. Smith, the phrase predates the Titanic by at least 11 years.[1] In most instances the captain of the ship forgoes his own rapid departure of a ship in distress, and concentrates instead on saving other people. It often results in either the death or belated rescue of the captain as the last person on board.
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History

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The concept is closely related to another protocol from the nineteenth century, “women and children first.” Both reflect the Victorian ideal of chivalry in which the upper classes were expected to emulate a morality tied to sacred honour, service, and respect for the disadvantaged. The actions of the captain and men during the sinking of HMS Birkenhead in 1852 prompted praise from many due to the sacrifice of the men who saved the women and children by evacuating them first. Rudyard Kipling‘s poem “Soldier an’ Sailor Too” and Samuel SmilesSelf-Help both highlighted the valour of the men who stood at attention and played in the band as their ship was sinking.

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Social and legal responsibility

The idiom literally means that a captain will be the last person to leave a ship alive prior to its sinking or utter destruction, and if unable to evacuate the crew and passengers, the captain will not evacuate himself.[2] In a social context, especially as a mariner, the captain will feel compelled to take this responsibility as a type of social norm. Shirking this responsibility in a crisis would go against societal mores because of the offender’s lack of ethics.

In maritime law the responsibility of the ship’s master for his ship is paramount no matter what its condition, so abandoning a ship has legal consequences, including the nature of salvage rights. So even if a captain abandons his ship in distress, he is generally responsible for it in his absence and would be compelled to return to the ship until danger to the vessel has relented. If a naval captain evacuates a vessel in wartime, it may be considered a capital offence similar to desertion unless he subsequently returns to the ship at his first opportunity to prevent its capture and rescue the crew.

Abandoning a ship in distress may be considered a crime that can lead to imprisonment.[2] Captain Francesco Schettino, who left his ship in the midst of the Costa Concordia disaster, was not only widely reviled for his actions, but was arrested by Italian authorities on criminal charges.[3] Abandoning ship is a maritime crime that has been on the books for centuries in Spain, Greece and Italy.[4] South Korean law may also require the captain to rescue himself last.[5] In Finland the Maritime Law (Merilaki) states that the captain must do everything in his power to save everyone on board the ship in distress and that unless his life is in immediate danger, he shall not leave the vessel as long as there is reasonable hope that it can be saved.[6] In the United States, abandoning the ship is not explicitly illegal, but the captain could be charged with other crimes, such as manslaughter, which encompass common law precedent passed down through centuries. It is not illegal under international maritime law.

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