Women and Children First: Law or Convention?

Anybody who has seen James Cameron's Titanic, about the 1912 sinking of the eponymous ocean liner knows that when a ship is sinking, women and children have first dibs on the lifeboats. The recent capsizing of a cruise ship off the coast of Italy, which killed at least 11 passengers, has inspired many to ask if "women and children first" is an official rule or just a popular convention. Here's the scoop.

During an evacuation, men may choose to give up their seats on lifeboats to women and children, but there is no official maritime rule that mandates they must do so. An article from the BBC helps explain the process that crews follow when a ship is in danger of sinking.

Upon boarding, all passengers are assigned a lifeboat based on the location of their cabins. If an accident should occur, it is the captain's decision whether or not to evacuate the vessel. The BBC quotes Rob Ashdown, operations director at the European Cruise Council, who says men on a sinking ship have no legal obligation to step aside.

The tradition, as an explainer from Slate speculates, may have begun when the HMS Birkenhead sank in 1852. "The soldiers reportedly stood at attention while the women and children were loaded into life boats. The overwhelming majority of the men died in an act that contemporary writers called "a piece of pure and exalted manhood."

In the case of the recent disaster involving the Costa Concordia, the captain, Francesco Schettino, abandoned the ship while thousands of passengers were still aboard. Schettino gave an unusual explanation for his departure. The New York Times reports that Schettino told an Italian paper, "I didn't even have a life jacket because I had given it to one of the passengers. I was trying to get people to get into the boats in an orderly fashion. Suddenly, since the ship was at a 60 to 70 degree angle, I tripped and I ended up in one of the boats. That's how I found myself there."

Whether or not that explanation stands up in court remains to be seen. But this is hardly the first time evacuation of a wrecked ship descended into chaos. A 2010 article from the Los Angeles Times explores the psychology of passengers on a sinking ship: who survives depends a lot on how long it takes for the ship to go down.

In 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The ship sank in 18 minutes. "The bulk of survivors were young men and women who responded immediately to their powerful survival instincts," the Times writes. Contrast that with the Titanic, which took around three hours to fully sink. Most of the survivors were women and children.

The conclusion: When panicked passengers have little time to assess the situation, it's every man (or woman) for him or herself.