When the Ship Goes Down, the Captain’s Nowhere to be Found

Posted on January 19, 2012


You’re probably familiar with the story of the cruise ship crashing into rocks near the coast of a small Italian village. The captain has drawn fire for apparently deviating from the planned course in an attempt to come closer to shore, possibly to try and give a friend high-five while passing. The comedy of errors doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of the captain: he insisted the rocks weren’t on his maps, although experts insist they were; he told the Coast Guard he dropped anchor before abandoning ship, which turned out to be a lie; he refused to go back to the ship when the Coast Guard ordered him to turn around after learning he left before all the passengers had been evacuated; and he’s made matters even worse by now insisting he didn’t abandon ship but actually tripped and fell into a lifeboat and had no way of getting back onto the ship.

The image of the bumbling and cowardly Italian captain has eroded the standard of Italian bravery and resourcefulness so painstakingly established through the years by the Super Mario Brothers.

It’s hard to judge the man because I don’t know how I would act in the same emergency situation, but I can judge his inability to tell such unforgivably weak lies, especially when he’s had a few days to come up with something interesting. Couldn’t he tell us he was lured to shore by the beautiful singing sirens of Greek mythology or attacked by the Kraken or really, really drunk?

In his defense, the Italian version of “women and children first” is translated a little differently and can be understood to mean, “lover of women and father of illegitimate children first.”

Many of us judge the captain for cowardice and incompetence by holding him to the standard of our English adage: The captain always goes down with the ship. I’ve done some research and found the Italian version of the saying has multiple English translations that may hold the captain to a much more forgiving standard.

The captain goes to town when the ship goes down.

When the ship goes down, the captain’s nowhere to be found.

Some Italian scholars have offered an even more nuanced series of definitions:

The captain always goes down with the ship…as long as the ship goes down between 10:00AM and noon or 2:00PM and 4:00PM. All bets are off in the evenings, on weekends, during the afternoon work siesta, or when AC Milan is playing.

The captain always goes down with the ship…although if the ship doesn’t go down completely and merely lists to its side and part of the ship is still visible above the water, the captain has the option of leaving early to grab dinner but should bring back food for others.

The captain always goes down with the ship…unless he suspects he might find a more scenic vantage point on shore from which to oversee the evacuation.

The captain always goes down with the ship but could fulfill the spirit of this requirement by going down with a life boat into the water, rowing to shore, and sending the Coast Guard back to the ship while he drinks wine.