By a quirk of fate, the contrasting roles played by the Masters at the centre of two of the most famous maritime incidents of recent times are being portrayed almost simultaneously in front of global audiences.

That of the Master of an American containership trying to prevent a hijack in 2009 before being dramatically rescued by the US Navy is depicted in a Hollywood film, while that of the Master of the cruise ship that so famously grounded with the loss of 32 lives almost three years later is being explored in a trial in Italy where manslaughter is one of the charges.

The first, Richard Phillips, has been widely hailed as a hero for risking his life to protect his crew on the Maersk Alabama, while the other, Francesco Schettino, has been vilified in equal measure as a villain for putting the Costa Concordia, its crew and passengers in danger and then abandoning them to save his own skin.

It is hard to think, if one accepts these widely held views of the two, of a starker contrast: on the one hand a quiet and calm man dealing as best as he can with a crisis and putting his own life in danger to protect others; on the other an arrogant coward and show-off, seeking to save himself before all others and blaming everyone but himself.

Not everyone regards Phillips as a hero, however. Some of his own crew are taking legal action against the ship owner and the company that employed them, arguing they were negligent and failed in their duty of care by putting them in harm’s way and causing them compensable physical and emotional damage. While the Master is not named in the lawsuit, by implication he too stands accused of knowingly putting his ship and crew in danger.

Whether Phillips was following or flouting company instructions in his decision to sail closer to the Somali coast than was being advised at the time will no doubt be made clearer when the lawsuit, scheduled for December, comes to court. The ship owner has denied the charges, describing the legal action against it and the seafarers’ direct employer, Waterman Steamship Corporation, as being “without merit”.

Nor can it be the case that Phillips was uniquely heroic. Other Masters and their crews have fought off would-be hijackers, some at great personal cost. Seog Hae-gyun, the Master of the chemical tanker Samho Jewelry, almost died after being severely beaten and later shot by pirates when his ship was hijacked and then dramatically rescued by South Korean Special Forces in January 2011.

He sustained serious injuries in part because his attempts to buy time for the rescuers by sailing a zigzag course and making the engines malfunction had aroused the pirates’ suspicions. He received the International Maritime Organization’s 2011 Award For Exceptional Bravery At Sea.

Meanwhile, media coverage of his trial has so far done nothing to erase the image of Schettino as a pantomime villain. The successful operation to right the wreck of his cruise ship, televised and hailed as a marvel of engineering even as the trial was taking place, has also served as a reminder of his role, whether guilty or not, in the disaster.

Like his American counterpart, Schettino stands accused of recklessly endangering his ship and those on board. The difference is in the perceived motive: Phillips is accused of taking a risky short-cut to save time and money; Schettino of “showboating” or reckless flamboyance.

But far from the pantomime villain, the Captain Coward, depicted even on T-shirts, the Master of the Costa Concordia sees himself as a hero saving his ship, his crew and passengers from a worse fate. Not many, of course, would concur with his view and the trial has already seen several of his crew testifying against him.

Whatever the truth in both these cases, the film and trial may help to relay to a wider audience an idea of not just the heavy responsibilities placed on individuals who have been entrusted with the command of ships, but also the difficulties placed in their way.

Masters have long complained about their lot. Today’s generation point to the excessive burden of work, much of it administrative; undue interference from management ashore, charterers and authorities; crews that are increasingly multi-national and often incompetent; and inadequate preparation for what has become an increasingly complex job.

Criminalisation is another bone of contention. Masters, facing the brunt of the attack by local and national authorities on the rights of seafarers implicated in alleged criminal actions such as environmental damage and drug-smuggling, can become scapegoats imprisoned in a foreign land.

While there may not be much sympathy for Schettino, the fact he and Phillips are being accused by some of their crews of reckless behaviour will no doubt remind other Masters that when things go wrong, they occupy a lonely position, caught between two often competing interests: management ashore (physically distant but technically ever-present) and the crew (physically close but distanced by the Master’s position of power).

Even worse, some might think, is the trend toward encouraging officers to question a Master’s decisions. On the evidence of a number of accidents in which Masters have been judged to have been at fault, the aviation-inspired concept of “challenge and response” is now part of mandatory training under the STCW Manila Amendments.

But Masters also have a duty that can transcend that owed to either their employers or crews. They are bound, for example, by international law to go to the aid of those in distress at sea, such as shipwreck survivors or refugees in flimsy craft, even though this may divert their ships far from commercially-dictated routes.

A Hollywood film and court cases may not, of course, provide the unvarnished truth about two extraordinary events but may go some way to suggest the position of Master comes not only with power, albeit diminished, but also peril. And that it is as easy to become a hero as a villain.

Author: Andrew Guest, a freelance journalist.            Source: BIMCO