Disasters: Going, Going . . .

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The order to abandon ship automatically presupposes two rules: women and children first, and the captain is last to leave or goes down with his vessel. Romanticized in novels and films, as well as history, the maxims seem almost to have the force of law. Thus, though all 571 people aboard the Greek cruise liner Oceanos survived its spectacular sinking off the coast of South Africa last week, the ship's captain, Yiannis Avranas, has been widely castigated as both cowardly and irresponsible. Avranas, 51, left the Oceanos by rescue helicopter, while some 160 passengers, including several elderly and infirm, still awaited evacuation. He abdicated the hero's role to a South African entertainer, who not only operated the shipboard radio and made certain everyone was safe but also rescued Avranas' dog and released the captain's pet canary from its cage before becoming one of the last to quit the sinking vessel.

In reality, there is no law of the sea that requires the captain to remain to the end. Avranas, backed by his employers, argued that communications were so bad on board that the evacuation was best directed from land. But he did not help his cause with statements he made immediately after the disaster. "When I order abandon ship, it doesn't matter what time I leave," he said. "Abandon is for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay."

Avranas' "crime" was failing to fit the mold of tradition, exemplified by, among others, Captain E.J. Smith of the Titanic. Smith exhorted those who remained on board the doomed liner to "Be British!," made sure women and children left first, and did go down with his ship (along with about 1,500 others).

Such nautical chivalry, however, began only in Victorian times. Previously, women were tossed overboard in emergencies so that men could have a greater supply of rations. The modern ideal has its own rough edges. On the Titanic, "women and children first" was enforced by guns. "Children" often excluded little boys, who were expected to be little men. And immigrant women and children in steerage didn't qualify for the noblesse oblige above decks.

Going down with the ship may in some way have been an escape. After all, Smith had boasted, "I cannot conceive of any disaster happening to this vessel." Betrayal by the sea, however, can be punishment enough for a mariner. Pelted by critics, Avranas said last week, "I have lost my own ship. What more can they want?"