In ‘Lord Jim‘ by Joseph Conrad, Jim, a romantic who had always dreamed of fame and recognition, is an officer on board the PATNA, a ship taking Muslims to Mecca.
One night the ship shuddered – as if it had hit some submerged object – and panic and chaos ensued. Jim found himself at the rails looking down to see the captain and some of the other officers getting into a lifeboat. They made signs for him to join them and before he knew what was happening he found himself in the water beside the boat. He had jumped.
The rest of his life was an attempt to erase, atone for, put behind him this instinctive act of panic/cowardice, this jump from duty, this loss of honour.
It’s a book I’ve read and re-read and found it becoming all too real in the recent news account of what happened to the cruise liner Costa Concordia off the tiny island of Giglio with characters who might have stepped straight out of Conrad’s pages: – Francesco Schettino, the showboating captain who sailed too close to the island, ran onto rocks then in the confusion that followed abandoned the stricken ship, breaking the moral code that naval officers live by; Gregorio De Falco, the Livorno coastguard, the voice of outraged decency. When Schettino made a belated distress call from the safety of the lifeboat, De Falco told him, “Get back on board for fuck sake! There are already bodies, Schettino. Go!”
And when Schettino said he couldn’t do anything because it was dark and “all the officers are on the rescue boat with me” De Falco asked
“Why did you allow them to get off?”
” We abandoned ship, ” Schettino said.
“With 100 people still on board you abandoned ship?” De Falco yelled. “ Vada a bordo, cozzo!”
A year later, 15 April, 2014, close to Jeju island, the SEWOL, a ferry boat carrying 476 passengers, mostly school children on a 4 day field-trip, capsized and sank with the 69 year old captain in his cabin leaving an inexperienced 25 year old 3rd mate at the helm.
The ferryboat inexplicably made a sudden sharp turn, the cargo shifted and the ship began to tilt.
It took 2 hours to sink and for that period the passengers were urged to stay in their cabins.
Only 2 0f the 40 lifeboats were deployed.
The captain and his crew escaped safely from the sinking ship as did the teachers in charge of the children. Most of the children were not so fortunate.
Later, the captain, under arrest and hidden inside a hooded anorak, mumbled that he accepted responsibility, that he told passengers to stay put in their cabins because there were no signs of rescue boats and the water was too cold and too full of strong currents for them to survive.
” The conduct of the captain was wholly unfathomable…. it was like an act of murder that cannot and should not be tolerated,” said Ms Park, South Korea’s first woman president
The teacher who organised the trip and who escaped from the sinking ship commited suicide, hanging himself near the school and leaving a note that said ‘Surviving alone is too painful….I will once again become a teacher in the afterlife for my students whose bodies have not been found.’