FORGET chivalry at sea. It's everyone for themselves on a sinking ship. While the unwritten maritime law of evacuating women and children from a sinking ship before men did play out on the Titanic, new research shows this is the exception rather than the rule.
Swedish researchers have found that in maritime disasters women fare worse than men while children appear to have the lowest survival rate. Crew members are more likely to survive than passengers and only about half of captains go down with their ships.
The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today, analysed 18 maritime disasters spanning three centuries involving 15,000 passengers and crew from more than 30 countries.
Researchers Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson found that the captain's policy determined whether women received preferential treatment, suggesting a crucial role for leadership during disasters.
When the researchers embarked on the project just two shipwrecks - the Titanic and Lusitania - had been analysed for gender-based survival rates. Differences in the sinkings - the Lusitania went down in 20 minutes compared to the Titanic in 160 minutes - were thought to explain the differences in survival rates.
Basically, the slower the disaster unfolded, the more likely the unwritten rule of women and children first would be observed. But the Swedish pair's survey of 18 shipwrecks between 1852 and 2011 found that the Birkenhead drill - where women and children were given priority in lifeboats - exists more in theory than practice. Of the 18 ship sinkings studied, just five had occurred with the captain issuing a "women and children first" order.
The researchers, from Uppsala University and The Research Institute of Industrial Economics, also noted that while convention dictated crew assist passengers, they had a survival advantage because they were familiar with the ship, had emergency training and were more likely to receive advance warning.
Overall, crew had a greater than 60 per cent chance of survival, followed by captains (over 40 per cent), male passengers (about 37 per cent), female passengers (27 per cent) and children (15 per cent).
The gender gap in survival rates has decreased since World War I, possibly reflecting women's improved societal status, swimming skills and less restrictive clothing.
Ultimately the paper concludes that "human behaviour in life and death situations is best captured by the expression 'every man for himself'".