Five years ago this January the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground at 11:45 PM with 4,252 souls on board. The engine compartments were quickly flooded, and the ship eventually capsized and sank. Miraculously, all but 32 of the souls on board were rescued. That so many were rescued is astounding given that the ship capsized at night, before the required lifeboat drill had been conducted, and with water temperatures estimated in the mid to upper 50s. It is even more miraculous given the astoundingly bad decisions the captain made after running aground, including*:
- Delaying reporting the collision to the Coast Guard, and concealing the nature of the problem from the Coast Guard when contacted nearly 30 minutes after running aground.
- Delaying the order to muster to the lifeboat stations until nearly 45 minutes after the collision, and delaying the abandon ship order until nearly an hour and ten minutes after the collision.
Almost immediately after the shipwreck there were a series of articles complaining that something was missing in the Costa Concordia shipwreck. That something was the romantic gesture made by men on the Titanic 100 years earlier. Unlike on the Titanic, men on the Costa Concordia evacuated the ship along with women and children. This, along with what appear to be three endlessly repeated anecdotal accounts (out of over 4,000 survivors) that some individual men were less than courteous when entering the lifeboats, lead to complaints that the men who survived the shipwreck were collectively a group of brutes and cowards, who had deprived us all of a grand romantic gesture. As National Review Editor Rich Lowry complained in the opening of Dude, where’s my lifeboat?
When they make the movie about the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that grounded off the coast of Tuscany, there won’t be romantic tales about its captain.
Lowry’s article was a complaint about the lack of romance accompanying the Concordia disaster. While on the Titanic men dressed up in preparation for their deaths and the band romantically played on, on Concordia men focused on getting their loved ones to safety. As Lowry laments in closing, what the Concordia lacked was a romantic “grace note” as the ship went down:
The Titanic went down, they say, to the strains of the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” as the band courageously played on. It lent a final grace note to the tragedy. Today, we don’t do grace notes. We’ve gone from “Women and children, first,” to “Dude, where’s my lifeboat?” As the women of the Costa Concordia can testify, that’s a long way down.
That grace note that Lowry pines for however would have come at the cost of a much larger loss of life for men, women and children. Lowry doesn’t come out and say that more deaths would have made Concordia more satisfying to his chivalrous sensibilities, but I see no other way to interpret his gruesome demand for more romance and flair on a shipwreck where it is clear that the vast majority of the men on board handled themselves admirably. There is simply no way that the average man could have handled himself otherwise and have 99.25% of the lives saved.
What Lowry and many others specifically lamented was the lack of a “Women and Children First” (WACF) evacuation policy. This is the romantic gesture that made Titanic, with its loss of 1,513 lives, the gold standard of feel-good shipwrecks. For those who might think I’m being unfair to Lowry and others like him, I should point out that there are no serious arguments that the romantic policy enacted on the Titanic would have saved lives on Concordia. If the goal is to save lives, the best policy is to carry excess lifeboat capacity and load passengers on the lifeboats as they arrive at the muster stations. This is the policy that was (belatedly) followed on Concordia, and this is what left Lowry and others feeling so cheated.
In fact, the romantic gesture Lowry and others crave would have created chaos on the dark, sinking Costa Concordia and have cost many lives. Of course, as far as romantic gestures go more deaths, especially the deaths of more men, would be more satisfying to the spectators. Yet this gruesome desire to emotionally feast on the deaths of hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of men would come at great cost not just to the men who died, but to the women and children on board as well. WACF may make sense in some very extreme exceptions, but as a rule it greatly hampers evacuation in a time of danger, stress, and confusion. The reason is that in times of danger women and children quite understandably:
- Want to ensure the survival of all of their loved ones, including men.
- Don’t want to separate from the men who are protecting them.
WACF greatly slows the process of evacuation, as women tend to refuse to be separated from their men. In the prototype for WACF, the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead, the women had to be forcibly picked up and dropped into the lifeboats, as the Daily Mail notes:
When the ship foundered, the soldiers’ commander told his men to ‘stand fast!’ and allow women and children to make use of the few lifeboats on the vessel.
Some women did not want to go on their own — they had to be torn away from their husbands, carried over to the bulwark and dropped over the ship’s side. Most of the soldiers and sailors aboard drowned or were eaten by sharks, but all the women and children survived, and the chivalric ethos became known as the Birkenhead Drill…
The same thing greatly hampered the evacuation on the Titanic, resulting in not all of the lifeboats being launched, and the ones which were launched being sparsely filled. Chuck Anesi explains.
All 14 lifeboats, the two emergency boats, and two of the Engelhardt boats were launched. These had a capacity of 1,084 passengers. Obviously, many boats were not loaded to full capacity. There were many reasons for this; at first, many women and children were simply unwilling to be lowered 65 feet from the boat deck to the water. Some of the men put in boats were put there simply to show it was safe, and allay the fears of other passengers.
This chaos not only lead to the needless deaths of over five hundred men, but the deaths of 52 children and over 100 women.
…there was enough lifeboat capacity for ALL women and children (534 persons total), AND 550 men as well. (Total capacity of the boats launched was 1,084.) This explains why, especially as the situation became more urgent, more men were put in the boats. Indeed, if the boat crews had loaded one man for each woman or child loaded, they could have expected to save all women and children, plus as many men.
For an example of the anguish and chaos this policy caused, see the example offered in Titanic Wikia of the final life boat to be launched, Collapsible D:
Collapsible lifeboat D was the ninth and last boat to be lowered from the port side. Second Officer Lightoller had managed to fit the collapsible boat into the now-empty davits of boat 1. He tried to find women to fill it with, but had trouble in finding any. Finally, he said, he managed to fill the boat with 15-20 people…
The Sun on April 23rd, 1912 gave the account of Mrs Hoyt, one of the women who was on board that final life boat. Like on the Birkenhead, she had to be physically thrown into the lifeboat because she did not want to leave her husband:
Mrs. Hoyt gave a concise account of the tragedy to her father. She did not leave her husband’s side until the last boat was being lowered and then she was torn from him and thrown into a boat.
Fortunately for Mrs. Hoyt (and her husband), Mr. Hoyt made it on board the lifeboat by diving into the icy water and swimming toward the boat:
Frederick Hoyt, who had escorted his wife to the craft and then calculated where the boat would row and thought that if he jumped and swam in that direction, they would pick him up.
The article on Collapsible D notes that there was plenty of extra room on the boat when it was picked up by a responding ship:
There were probably about 20 or 22 (not quite half-filled) in it when he had been picked up.
The foolishness that caused Mrs Hoyt to have to be physically thrown into the lifeboat, and her husband to have to swim to join her on the half empty boat can be traced back to Lancelot and the concept of courtly love. From the Daily Mail:
Mark Girouad, a great social and architectural historian, in his book on Chivalry In Victorian And Edwardian England, says the ‘chivalric’ treatment of women was part and parcel of the Victorians’ cult of the ‘gentleman’ and the ‘amateur’.
The great heroes of the Edwardian and pre-World War I days, such as Captain Scott, were passionate amateurs, and saw themselves as knights errant, women as damsels in distress.
The sacrifice made by over 1,000 men aboard the Titanic over 100 years ago, was profoundly noble. The same is true for the hundreds of soldiers and sailers who perished on board the HMS Birkenhead. But the ghoulish demands by shipwreck spectators for other men to sacrifice themselves is despicable, and something we have yet to come to terms with. The wicked worship of romantic love and adultery that began in the 12th century has not only devastated our families, but it also poses a very real risk to the safety of men, women, and children in cases of disaster.
*Captain Francesco Schettino’s lawyers claimed that he heroically decided to delay the launch of the lifeboats because he knew the sinking ship would drift back towards land and he wanted to avoid having lifeboats drift away in the night. However, his decision at the same time to tell the Coast Guard that the rapidly sinking ship merely had an electrical problem makes this argument difficult to take seriously.