Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Remember the Birkenhead

IMAGE: "The Wreck of the Birkenhead" by Thomas M Hemy

It was never codified in the annals of maritime law [NOTA BENE: Although we've managed to come pretty close]. Nevertheless, it was the heroic virtue of the captain and crew of the steam frigate-turned-troopship HMS Birkenhead, that originated the most famous of the unwritten Laws of the Sea. In 1852, upon hitting the hidden rocks off the coast of Cape Horn in South Africa, the valiant officers and crew stood in formation at attention -- made famous by the poet Rudyard Kipling as "the Birkenhead drill" -- as women and children were given first choice of what few serviceable lifeboats remained.

To take your chance in the thick of a rush,
    with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and,
    an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill
    is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies --
    soldier an' sailor too ...

By 1860, the maxim "women and children first" entered the popular lexicon, made ever more so with the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. Regarding the latter, 72 percent of the women on board were saved and 50 percent of the children, but only 19 percent of the men. (NOTE: Some estimates dispute these percentages, which may have been slightly lower in all categories, but the point of this example remains.)

What has happened to us since then?

We can blame the captain and officers of the Carnival cruise ship Costa Concordia for their unchivalrous conduct, as their ship ran aground off the coast of Tuscany ...

Frenchwoman Nicole Servel, 61, said Francis Servel, 71, gave her his lifejacket before they leapt off the sinking cruise ship.

She said: 'I owe my life to my husband – it’s obvious he saved me.' She managed to swim for shore, while Mr Servel was swept underwater and drowned.'

The horrific story was just one of many ...

+    +    +

Fights broke out to get into the lifeboats, men refused to prioritise women, expectant mothers and children as they pushed themselves forward to escape. Crew ignored their passengers – leaving ‘chefs and waiters’ to help out.

+    +    +

[Sandra] Rogers, a widow originally from Chester who has retired to Minorca, was sailing with her daughter Karen, 39, and seven-year-old twin granddaughters Emma and Chloe.

She said: ‘I want everyone to know how badly some people behaved. It was a nightmare. I lost my daughter and my grandchildren in the chaos.

‘I was standing by the lifeboats and men, big men, were banging into me and knocking the girls. It was awful. There was a total lack of organisation. There was no one telling people where to go ... And when we finally got into a lifeboat, people, grown men, were trying to jump into the boat. I thought, if they land in here we are going to capsize.'

VIDEO: Raw footage from a passnger of the Costa Concordia of panic on board ship, and an eyewitness account from a survivor. (Content advisory.)

... but the problem runs deeper than that, as we shall take pains to explain further on.

It is said that a captain is the last to leave his ship, and if need be, obliged to go down with her. Such was hardly the case here. (The translation is provided by Reuters via CBS News, and we simply cannot resist the urge to show you all of it.

Coast Guard: "Listen Schettino, there are people trapped on board. Now you need to go on your life boat, under the bow of the ship on the side. There is a ladder. You need to climb up the ladder and board the ship. Get on board and report to me how many people there are. Is that clear?. . . . "

Schettino: "At this moment the ship is tilted."

Coast Guard: "I understand. Listen, there are people who are coming down the ladder on the bow. Go back in the opposite direction, get back on the ship, and tell me how many people there are and what they have on board. . . . Tell me if there are children, women and what type of help they need. And you tell me the number of each of these categories. Is that clear? . . . Listen Schettino, perhaps you have saved yourself from the sea but I will make you look very bad. I will make you pay for this. Dammit, go back on board!"

Schettino: "Please . . . "

Coast Guard: "There is no please about it. Go back on board. Assure me you are going back on board!"

Schettino: "I am in the life boat, under the ship, I haven't gone anywhere, I'm here."

Coast Guard: "What are you doing?"

Schettino: "I am coordinating . . . "

Coast Guard: "What are you coordinating there? Go on board! Coordinate the rescue from on board! Are you refusing?"

Schettino: "No, I am not refusing."

Coast Guard: "Tell me the reason why you are not going back on board."

Schettino: "There is another life boat ... "

Coast Guard: "You go back on board! That is an order! There is nothing else for you to consider. You have sounded the 'abandon ship.' Now I am giving the orders. Go back on board. Is that clear? Don't you hear me?"

Schettino: "I am going on board."

Coast Guard: "Go! Call me immediately when you are on board. My rescue people are in front of the bow."

The coast guard never got that call, by the way. And the above is infinitely more colorful -- this one's for you, Sofia -- in the original Italian. This writer has, at one time or another, worked for those with a similar "hands-off" approach to management, which is about as inspiring as the example above. (Not much of that in over a decade, we are pleased to report.)

There is enough failure to go around here, but it extends beyond a single cruise ship, beyond the high seas, and well-entrenched on dry land. The quest to consider women as equal to men, however noble in some areas of society, has been confused with making them the same, with biology only an arbitrary construct, a concession to the random design of the evolutionary process. This, as opposed to something more. Meanwhile, we as men can say how heroic we would respond to the situation described here. Such is all well and good. But in conversations this writer has had with more than one man who has seen combat, the truth is that a man simply does not know how he will respond. For this reason, the most astutely-trained fighter shows the most courage under fire, as his training has torn the old man to shreds, and made a new one its place. On the surface, it is a matter of choice. At its core, it is a matter of discipline.

Saint Paul admonished the men of Galatia (in harsher terms than he did women, contrary to the assumption of your "parish liturgist") as to how men and women submit to one another; in his case, in marriage. The man is called upon to lay down his live for the woman, a burden not reciprocated in kind. How do we, as Christian men, “put on the new man” in this day and age, with respect to women in general?

1 comment:

James said...

It must have been a horrible experience for the passengers there. I've been on Board ones and I know how scary it is to face such situation. Even if your life is saved may be your property can get damaged. I lost my Sapphire Ring in that journey. Gladly is wasn't a full scale tragedy because I had a good insurance.