In A Nutshell
It’s an idea that captures the age-old spirit of chivalry. Aboard a sinking ship with no escape save the lifeboats . . . it’s an unwritten rule that women and children go first, and the captain always goes down with his ship, right? Wrong. It turns out, the “women and children first” rule is one that only started with the Titanic. Not only that, but the captain, along with his crew, are statistically the most likely to survive a sinking ship.
The Whole Bushel
We like to believe that the ideas of chivalry still exist. There’s something romantic about the notions of putting others before yourself, whether they’re man, woman, or child. So it’s not surprising that the idea of saving women and children first from sinking ships should be so ingrained in the human ideal.
It’s a notion that gained popularity with the Titanic. It’s been well documented that more women and children survived the sinking of that ocean liner than men. But as it turns out, that’s the exception rather than any sort of rule.
A study by researcher Mikhael Elinder at Sweden’s Uppsala University examined the survival rates of 18 shipwrecks from 1852–2011. Their data pool included over 15,000 passengers and 30 different nationalities, was was limited to wrecks were at least 5 percent of the passengers died and 5 percent survived.
The results were surprising: They discovered that women were about half as likely to survive as men.
It turns out that the episode aboard the Titanic that turned a single act of chivalry into a myth that spans the naval world was the exception, not the rule. It was the captain who gave the specific order to allow women and children to board the lifeboats first; it wasn’t just an unwritten thing that everyone did.
Aside from the Titanic, there’s only one other major, documented example from history of a ship’s captain giving the order to save the women and children first. That honor goes to Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, a commander on board the Royal Navy’s HMS Birkenhead. The ship went down in the shark-infested waters off the coast of South Africa, and the commander gave the order to save the women and children first. There were only three lifeboats, but no woman or child lost their life during that shipwreck—365 soldiers died instead.
In future naval catastrophes, women fared far less well, however. When looking at the 15,000 people that survived their sinking ships, only 17.8 percent of the total women survived, while 34.5 percent of the men survived. The only two instances where women fared better than men were the Titanic and the HMS Birkenhead—both instances where the captain’s orders specified women and children were to be allowed into life boats first. And in the case of the Titanic, it’s documented that the captain had to threaten to shoot men who made a run for the lifeboats before a woman or child.
Ironically, overall women had the lowest chance for survival on British ships—even though the two captains that gave the iconic “women and children first” orders were British.
And as for the myth of the captain going down with the ship? The study also found that crew members were 18.7 percent more likely to survive a ship sinking than passengers. And the captains? In the 16 disasters studied (not including the HMS Birkenhead and the Titanic), only 9 of the ship’s captains died with their sinking ships.