Abandon Ship! is a formal command given in the face of danger, usually the imminent sinking of the ship.
The order can only be issued by the captain of the ship – the Master – or the person delegated to take command if the captain is unable to.
In wartime, coming under attack by an enemy vessel with no chance of escaping would be an obvious reason to abandon ship. But even in peacetime, the order might be given, for example if the ship was caught in extremely bad weather and in danger of capsizing. However the decision to abandon ship is not one made lightly: Getting into a lifeboat can be easy if the weather is fine, but rough weather or coming under enemy fire can mean that abandoning ship is to face further danger.
In history, a whistle or a bugle could sound the call, but nowadays the order is passed verbally as “All hands stand by to abandon ship”. It is usually followed by the order to “Man the lifeboats”.
In modern ships, a Muster List is displayed in prominent locations on the ship. It lists the duties each crew member is responsible for if the order to abandon ship is given. It also assigns the crew places in the lifeboats, usually two each – one on the port side and one on the starboard side.
While is not actually law that the captain must be the last to leave the ship, she or he is responsible for directing the evacuation of everyone on board. And by maritime law, if a ship is abandoned by its crew, it belongs to those left aboard.
Famous captains who went down with their ship include the captain of the Titanic and Archibald Bisset Smith, Captain of the Otaki.
In a more recent infamous incident, the captain of the Costa Concordia was widely criticized when he left hundreds of passengers on board after escaping his ship.
The Abandon Ship! exhibition follows the stories of the Richmond Castle crew, revealing that abandoning the ship was just the start of the story.