"The captain goes down with the ship" is a concept that expresses the idea that a sea captain holds ultimate responsibility for both his ship and his passengers and will die trying to save either of them. The idiom has multiple variations. It may be expressed as "the captain always goes down with the ship" or simply the "captain goes down with his ship." Although the idiom is often associated with the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 and thus Captain Smith, it predates the Titanic by at least 11 years.[1]


The concept is closely related to another protocol from the nineteenth century, "Women and children first." Both reflect the Victorian ideal of chivalry in which the upper classes were expected to emulate a morality tied to sacred honor, service, and respect for the disadvantaged. The actions of the captain and men during the sinking of HMS Birkenhead in 1852 prompted praise from many due to the sacrifice of the men that saved the women and children by evacuating them first. Rudyard Kipling's poem "Soldier an' Sailor Too" and Samuel Smiles' Self-Help both highlighted the valour of the men who stood at attention and played in the band as their ship was sinking.

A notable example was Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, onboard the stricken aircraft carrier Hiryu, who instead of getting rescued insisting on sinking with the ship during the Battle of Midway 1942. The ship's master, captain Kaku, likewise refused to be rescued and opted to sink with the ship.


The idiom literally means that a captain will be the last person to leave a ship alive prior to its sinking or utter destruction, and if unable to evacuate his crew and passengers, the captain will not evacuate himself. In maritime law the responsibility of the ship's master for his ship is paramount no matter what its condition, so abandoning a ship has legal consequences, including the nature of salvage rights. So even if a captain abandons his ship in distress, he is generally responsible for it in his absence and would be compelled to return to the ship when danger to the vessel has relented. If a naval captain evacuates a vessel in wartime, it may be considered a capital offense like desertion, mutiny, or sedition unless he subsequently destroys the ship or permits it to sink.

In many countries, abandoning a ship in distress is considered a crime that can lead to imprisonment. For example, Italian authorities arrested captain Francesco Schettino after leaving the ship in the midst of the Costa Concordia disaster.[2]

Metaphorical useEdit

When used metaphorically, the "captain" may be simply the leader of a group of people; "the ship" may refer to some other place that is threatened by catastrophe; and "going down" with it may refer to a situation that implies a severe penalty or death. It is common for references to be made in the case of the military and when leadership during the situation is clear. So when a raging fire threatens to destroy a mine, the mine's supervisor, the "captain," may perish in the fire trying to rescue his workers trapped inside, and acquaintances might say that he went down with his ship or that he "died trying."


  1. "...for if anything goes wrong a woman may be saved where a captain goes down with his ship." The Night-hawk: a Romance of the '60s, p. 249, Alix Jones, Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, 1901.
  2. Thuburn, Dario (14 January 2012). "Captain arrested, 41 missing after Italian cruise disaster". Agence France-Presse. Archived from the original on 15 January 2012. Retrieved 15 January 2012. 

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