A Tale of Two Captains

In April we will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and even if you haven’t seen the glossy James Cameron film, in the coming months you will hear a lot about the “unsinkable ship” that hit an iceberg 450 miles south east of Halifax and sank, taking with it over 1, 500 lives. (By the way, the last known survivor, Millvina Dean, who was a baby on the Titanic, died just two years ago at 97.)

Beyond the sheer horror of the event itself, I have always been struck by the nobility of the men who perished, starting with Captain Edward John Smith, the captain who gallantly went down with his ship. Other men willingly stepped aside, as was the custom of the time, to let “women and children go first” into the lifeboats. According to witnesses, the men in the ship’s band tried to calm the panicked passengers by continuing to play until the very end; survivors reported that their last song was the old hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.”

If you’ve been reading the newspapers in the last week, you can probably tell where I’m going with this because you know what happened on the cruise liner, the Costa Concordia. According to the CBC, Francesco Schettino, the Concordia’s captain, steered the ship too close to shore in order to “make a bow” to the people on an island, (what the non-nautical among us might describe as showing off) and then after the cruiser struck a rock and started to sink, the captain was among the first to jump ship.

It’s hard to say this with a straight face, but Captain Schettino claimed that he tripped and fell into a lifeboat. (I’m not making this stuff up.) To make matters worse, when he was found by the Coast Guard, Mr. Schettino actually refused their order to return to the ship to aid the stricken passengers. He is now under house arrest and facing charges of manslaughter.

If 13 passengers hadn’t died, this might pass as something out of “The Office.” I can almost hear Michael Scott’s explaining how he tripped and just happened to fall into the lifeboat.

It’s too easy to contrast the Titanic and Costa Concordia disasters, two nautical tragedies that took place a century apart. Over the course of 100 years we have made great strides in our efforts to become a more open and equitable society. Consider, for example, the plight of the people in the Titanic’s steerage compartment as just a small reflection of the social inequality that was all too common in 1912. While we have made progress with issues such as race, class, gender and orientation, along the way, we may have unintentionally lost sight of something important, something about the role and responsibilities of men.

The great strides women have made in terms of equality do not absolve men of the best traditions associated with manliness. Men have traditionally been called upon to deny themselves, to put the needs of others before their own. In light of this, it would be an overstatement to say that Captain Schettino represents modern man, but there is something in his actions that should deeply disturb all of us.

Before Dr. Adam Cox spoke here last fall, he did something unusual. He left the Laidlaw Hall stage and went straight into the audience in order to shake one boy’s hand, while boldly proclaiming, “Strength and honour!” This move surprised me; it seemed like something out of “Gladiator.” I was waiting for Adam to begin his speech with,

“My name is Maxiumus Desmus Meridius. Commander of the Armies of the North. General of the Felix Legions. Loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son. Husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” (Forgive me but I’ve been waiting 10 years to use that line!)

Today we understand that putting others first does not imply a social hierarchy, but it is a mandate for us to care for others. We can still recognize that there is such a thing as honour, and we will be called to test that honour at any moment because our lives are a series of unchartered events. There are rocks and shoals everywhere, and we are eventually measured, not by the hazards that come into our lives, but by the way we deal with them.

Looking out at all of you this morning, I see unlimited potential. I know that right here, right now, there are daily opportunities for us to exercise our courage muscles and to promote a sense of honour. Remember the Old Boys who graced this room on Remembrance Day. Honour was very much at the core of what drove them, back when they were boys, to put themselves in harm’s way. It was about service to others. What they did, they did not for themselves, but for the greater good.

Today we, too, have a choice. We can choose to follow the lead of Captain Smith or Captain Shettino. The decision is yours. The right choice, of course, begins by putting others first.

When you next hear the call to “man up,” I hope you’ll remember — not those goofy beer commercials where they threaten to take away your “man card” — but those honourable Old Boys who put themselves on the line for God and country.


3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Captains

  1. You should also compare the action of Costa Concordia’s skipper to the crew of USAir 1549 that landed on the Hudson River 3 years ago. Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles waded through icy water in the cabin to make sure everyone was evacuated before they left the plane. Capt. Sullenberger was the last to leave the plane.

  2. Two interesting things I feel like mentioning:

    1) Captain Smith actually wasn’t much of a hero. That perception
    comes from the film “A Night To Remember”. In real life, his conduct
    wasn’t as bad as Schettino’s, but it wasn’t exactly exemplary. All
    the major decisions that night — filling the boats with women and
    children, lowering them away, firing rockets — came from his
    officers, and Smith has been described as having a bit of a quiet
    breakdown. He had been at sea for forty years (and was the
    highest-paid captain at the time), never faced a disaster, and was
    days from retirement. Titanic’s lifeboats were capable of carrying
    about 1200 people, but were only lowered with a little over 700,
    meaning about 1/3 of the people who perished could have been saved by
    better leadership. Maybe this isn’t the best analogy, but I prefer to
    think of Smith as a nautical Joe Paterno: all his problems stemmed
    from basic negligence and unwillingness to face the facts of what was

    In my opinion, the real hero of the Titanic disaster was Arthur
    Rostron, captain of the Carpathia. Upon hearing about the Titanic, he
    immediately turned Carpathia around and sailed at full steam
    (literally the fastest the ship had ever traveled) through the same
    ice field that sank Titanic to the disaster location. The measures
    that he ordered were largely responsible for the successful nighttime
    rescue of the crew and passengers who survived the sinking (and who
    would have been stranded in the middle of the ocean otherwise).

    2) No one (at least in the American papers) has compared the sinking
    of the Costa Concordia with the Andrea Doria, which I find a little
    similar. While the captain of the Andrea Doria, Piero Calamai,
    conducted himself about as well as could be expected, his crew
    immediately abandoned ship without taking care of their passengers.

  3. Jim, not sure of the validity of this quote but here you go:

    “Late in his life, Sir Winston Churchill took a cruise on an Italian ship. A journalist from a New York newspaper approached the former prime minister to ask him why he chose to travel on an Italian line when the Queen Elizabeth under the British flag was available.
    Churchill gave the question his consideration and then gravely replied:

    ‘There are three things I like about Italian ships. First, their cuisine, which is unsurpassed. Second, their service, which is quite superb. And then – in time of emergency – there is none of this nonsense about women and children first.’ (From “The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill” by James C. Humes)

    Pity, it seems sometimes, that long are the days of the bravery of Publius Horatius Cocles and Gaius Mucius Scaevola…

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