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What would happen is someone broke “Women and children first” protocol on a sinking ship?

Posted October 27, 2018

You ship is sinking. It got itself into a fight against a mighty storm and lost and now you find yourself struggling to survive the unfortunate ordeal. Soon you will hear a bone-chilling request to evacuate to the lifeboats, which is often accompanied with a scream “Women and children first!” But what if some men don’t listen to this rule and decide to put their lives in front of women and children? What punishment would wait for them?

Now when ships have enough lifeboats for everyone “Women and children first” protocol is less relevant. Image credit: BayerNYC via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Believe it or not, “Women and children first” code of conduct is not particularly old. For one, women and children have not been sailing for a long time. Centuries ago sailing was pretty much exclusively a male activity and children were not allowed on ships either. When ships became a mean of mass transportation, all sorts of people started travelling. The first documented use for “Women and children first” code of conduct happened in 1840, when a lightning strike severely damaged and caused a fire on the American packet Poland en route from New York to Le Havre. In 1860 this rule was mentioned in novel “Harrington: A Story of True Love”, by William Douglas O’Connor.

Probably the most famous example of “Women and children first” was the Titanic. It happened in 1912, when a big passenger liner struck an iceberg and began its long and painful descent to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. While the evacuation was largely chaotic and inefficient due to panic and insufficient amount of lifeboats, “Women and children first” rule was withheld. In fact, other traditions were maintained too – crew did not evacuate and took care of the passengers while it was possible and the captain went down with the ship.

One of the most recent examples of this conduct happened in 2011, when a floating restaurant in Covington, Kentucky, tore from its moorings. 83 people found themselves stranded in the river and crew called for women and children to be evacuated first. However, fortunately, all people were rescued. But what if “Women and children first” code was broken today? What would be the punishment?

Absolutely nothing would happen. Seriously. Although it is a tradition with a long history, “Women and children first” code is not in international maritime law. There is no legal basis for this protocol and, therefore, there is no punishment. It is a manly and generous thing to do still and other people will not have a good image of you if you break this rule.

On the other hand, modern ships have very efficient rules for evacuation. They ensure that passengers will leave the trouble in the safest way possible. If the evacuation is carried out according to all the rules, no one should be left behind. The most important thing is that there are enough lifeboats for everyone and sailing in general is a much safer way to travel than it used to be.

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