Thoughts On A Shipwreck

There are few disasters as riveting as a shipwreck. Thankfully they are very, very rare these days. This weekend was one of the exceptions, as the cruise ship Costa Concordia struck a reef off the coast of Italy and sank in shallow water near Isla di Giglio.

It’s too soon to know the full story of why the ship was off course and steering into the narrow channel. There are probably explanations of why the crew members initially told passengers to sit tight, it was just an electrical problem. Truth, rumor and conjecture get hopelessly mixed in an emergency, and compared to other events like an airplane crash or a building fire, a shipwreck happens in slow motion. Maybe there was an electrical problem which interfered with navigation and steering, and at the moment, some crew members had no better information themselves. Hopefully the truth will come out soon.

What is immediately disturbing though is reports that the captain left the vessel almost immediately after the collision, and that men among the passengers did not give place to “women and children first” as the call went out. What was expected as the duty of a gentleman in 1912 – as husbands and fathers, let alone unaccompanied men, gave up their places on the lifeboats of the Titanic – seems to be slipping away as the constant drumbeat of women-and-men-are-no-different erodes the biblical norms in our culture.

This “every man for himself” behavior happens when men are not taught from early years that their first responsibility in a disaster is not to preserve themselves, but to make sure that they use their strength and leadership to save others first. The greater the honor and position, the greater the responsibility — Jesus said,

For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more (Luke 12:48), and

Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends, (John 15:13).

That’s what makes the captain’s action the most shameful. No one expects him to go down with his ship (and in the shallows, he’d have to dive overboard to make the gesture). We do expect that the commander makes sure his passengers and crew are accounted for before saving his sorry hide himself.

How should a young man look at an emergency?

1. First, a man needs to stay calm. When people lose their composure, they act foolishly and do things like run past escape routes, ignore empty lifeboats, and trample other people.  When men panic, it can frighten other people into losing their cool, too. Rudyard Kipling wrote about steadfastness in the face of catastrophe and he started his manifesto for manhood with the words,

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too; …

It’s that important.

2. Figure out where you can help.  A young man by himself needs to look for someone who needs assistance. It might be an older adult or a family with children or a young person without a guardian. It may be someone injured or in need of comfort. Occasionally it might be help with the crew, holding a door or helping carry a piece of equipment or rescue supplies.

A young man with companions needs to look out for their needs.  Are you able to assist your mother, sisters, younger brothers, grandparents? Then do so as your primary responsibility. 

But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8)

3. Women and children first.  The reports from the Costa said part of the problem was men unwilling to be separated from their families. This is totally understandable and indeed, honorable, if there’s clearly room for all. In this case, the list of the ship made it impossible to launch many of the lifeboats and rafts.  The blessing was that the ship was plainly just a few hundred yards from the shore, and even a non-swimmer in a life vest should have been able to paddle his way to safety in the calm conditions. (Remembering Rule 1, stay calm.)

How to manage this? I think the key was probably to recognize separation was almost certainly just temporary. If the men had agreed with their wives on how they would make contact on shore, they could have escaped by separate ways with less anxiety. In this case, agree to stay with the group as much as possible, or if separated there too,  leave word with the police on shore when you make land. In other circumstances, you might agree to meet at the car, or the restaurant across the street, or at the mailbox at the corner – any landmark in the area, a little ways from the emergency. Beside the anxiety over possible loss of life, the simple worry of being lost and alone is frightening.  Having a plan, even one improvised at the moment, is a great comfort.

Emergencies do happen, and we’ve found a young man with a clear head can be a rock to those around him. It can mean the difference between life and death sometimes, without rushing into the teeth of danger but just by finding the safest way out of it.  This disaster, with its great drama but limited tragedy, is a terrific opportunity to talk about how to handle the ultimate stress as a real man should.


PHOTO: Roberto Vongher, Wikipedia 


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