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Should the Master Go Down with the Ship?

By John A. C. Cartner

There has been a good deal of press on the subject of the pseudo-moral duty of the master to go down with his ship after a particularly bad maritime accident. There is a rampant folk notion popularized by the lay press – and I have even seen some lawyers of lesser ability sincerely argue the point -- in the affirmative. While vaguely amusing, when any person, lay or legal, tries to argue seriously the notion it loses any value and indeed the argument becomes an obscenity. 

I will say right here: the concept that the master should somehow or the other sacrifice himself when in the command and custody of a mere chattel which has found itself in bad straits is counterproductive, immoral, not required by any law and in some jurisdictions likely unlawful if the master with intent suicides after the fact. 

Usually calls for the master’s head on a salver are made after an accident or in which there has been either loss of life or substantial environmental injury due to superficially apparent dumb acts on the part of the master. The drumming comes in stages. The calls are made first on television by the armchair Tugboat Annie’s who have little knowledge of the maritime business and lesser knowledge about how to practice in it. Then the military armchair expert arises, often appearing as a Commander (retired), who once went to sea and who has few if any relevant or recent command credentials. Then arises -- in some cases -- a rating or an engineer from the vessel in question, who, by mere presence when the accident occurred, is obviously an expert on the vessel, its command and the master’s acts. We all know in our memories that in The Love Boat  the vessel was run by a bartender and a social director and an affable if bumbling master with no hair. The bartender and the social director were where the power lay. The Old Man wore a fresh uniform with four gold stripes and smiled a lot. 

At the end of the hang-the-shipmaster cycle a suit on some sort of official panel stands up. This bureaucratic wizard will make anti-master pronouncements and urge punishment of the ubiquitous those who will sully us – piously of course -- and with no apparent blemish on his immortal soul or off-the-rack raiment.  One can see in one’s mind’s eye these toga-clad holier-than-thou’s looking stern and holding out their thumbs, always down. 

I will say it to each class: there is no basis in domestic law anywhere governing shipmasters that the master must go down with his ship. In fairness it may be a fleeting noble thought on the part of the master to answer the expected ignoble cries. The master may in fact consider his own mortality knowing how he will be treated afterwards and in his or her anticipation of being criminalized for a what is usually and properly a civil tort.  About the closest thing to come to some sort of rule in these regards are the laws requiring the master to leave the vessel last -- after he has done all he can. He is therefore not required by law to commit suicide. It follows then that if not law requires that there must be a reason for the old mate’s tale.

In the west we abhor suicide. The armchair moralists are demanding the master do so. That is as obscene is it is impractical. The master is the person who knows more about the proximate causes of the casualty than any other person. He also knows more about the vessel and her capabilities than any other person. He is necessary for knowledge in the saving of persons and the vessel and is necessary for the inquiries following a casualty. If he is dead he is not helpful. We learn from casualties. We correct systems after them. Why ask the master to die and take with him his knowledge? Why indeed -- to meet the media cycle?

Let us take the SEWOL matter with many lives lost, including those of children In this case, as in others of similar stripe, there is the usual tendency to victimize masters at law and in press after a disaster – and the more awful the sooner the cries arise to hang the person. Not now but right now.  What that means morally is that the ignorant believe with all the fervor their little black hearts can muster that a shipmaster should sacrifice himself if another in proximity to his management as described on a piece of paper lose their lives. We are back to the same obscene and immoral argument that a master should commit suicide in a grotesque way for the sake of the dead he was unable to save. 

What happened to letting an unbiased court sort things out?  In the SEWOL matter one suspects that the master’s prison term may be reduced in the opaque ways of South Korean justice. Hold not your breath, Matey, and recall the HEBEI SPIRIT, however.  There are salient facts that the vessel may have been structurally unseaworthy unknown to the master – who had no duty to act other than a prudent master in similar circumstances.  However, the courts are swayed by the press too. Hanging the master makes a group of the jeering class feel good and pays the wages of the chattering class. It does nothing for anyone else or society except proclaim and express mob applications and drumhead trials for justice. 

However, there is the COSTA CONCORDIA.  There is no rule that says that there are no poorly-placed  masters any more than there is any rule that says that fools are all outlawed and are no longer permitted to practice life.  As in any profession,  for example surgery (hot on the commercials at prime time now), and even maritime law, there are 40-watters who slip through. The court can handle maritime  casualties and those related to them better than the press and come up with a conclusion in law that meets the law’s requirements. Is the man guilty from press reports? I do not know. We have ways we have fought for nearly a thousand years to attain the truth and to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty. Let the system work. I have faith that the Italian system will work too. This has nothing to do with the man himself. It has everything to do with the facts educed properly and applied correctly by skilled lawyers and jurists with substantial maritime expertise and experience.  Then look at it this way. Would the master of that vessel have provided so much amateur philosophizing  and media cynicism for all to see if he were dead by his own hand? I think not. 

Categories: Maritime Law
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John A. C. Cartner

John A. C. CartnerJohn A. C. Cartner

Dr. John A. C. Cartner practices maritime law domestically and internationally. He is designated Proctor in Admiralty by the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is member of other state maritime law associations.

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