Study exposes sea disaster truths
Forget notions of women and children first - the vast majority of maritime disasters are more Costa Concordia than Titanic, research has shown.
A study of 18 tragedies at sea has revealed that when ships sink, crew members are more likely to survive than passengers, and men fare better than women.
On average, only half as many women as men survived the incidents, which spanned three centuries between 1852 and 2011. And children were the least likely to survive of all. British gallantry at sea is also exposed as a myth, with fewer women surviving on British ships than those of other nationalities.
The Titanic disaster served as a "prime example of chivalry at sea," said the Swedish researchers. After the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic in April 1912, men stood back while women and children were given priority access to the limited number of lifeboats.
In the end, 70% of the women and children were saved compared with only 20% of the men. Famously, Titanic's captain Edward Smith went down with his ship. But the kind of heroism displayed on the Titanic was an exception rather than the norm, the findings show.
A more typical example of a disaster at sea was the loss of the cruise liner Costa Concordia. A total of 32 people died in January this year after the ship struck a reef off the Tuscan island of Giglio. There were reports of crew members panicking and men pushing past children as they tried to save themselves. The Costa Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, was later charged with manslaughter and abandoning his ship. In the media, he was branded "Captain Coward".
The new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the captain plays a crucial leadership role when disaster strikes a ship. Economists Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson, from Uppsala University in Stockholm, analysed a database of 18 maritime disasters spanning three centuries from 1852 to 2011. In total they involved the fate of more than 15,000 passengers and crew of 30 nationalities.
Women had a survival advantage in just two disasters, the research showed. They were the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of the troop-carrying paddle steamer HMS Birkenhead, which struck a rock off the coast of South Africa in 1852. In 11 of the shipwrecks, women were more likely to die than men, and in the remaining five the survival rates of men and women were about equal.
Generally women fared worse, not better, if they were on board a British ship. The average survival rate of women on British ships was up to 15.3 percentage points lower than ships of other nationalities. "This contrasts with the notion of British men being more gallant than men of other nationalities," the researchers wrote.
They concluded: "Our results provide a unique picture of maritime disasters. Women have a distinct survival disadvantage compared with men. Captains and crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers. Taken together, our findings show that human behaviour in life-and-death situations is best captured by the expression 'every man for himself'."