Imagine a giant ship slowly sinking into the sea, with the men of course standing back allowing women and children to board the lifeboats and themselves to stoically be engulfed by the frothy waves.
However, the idea of male chivalry at sea is a complete myth, according to two Swedish researchers.
Mikeal Elinder and Oscar Erixon, economists at Uppsala University north of Stockholm, have studied 18 of the world’s most famous maritime disasters since 1852 and found that men had nearly twice the chance of surviving a shipwreck as women.
“There is this popular culture myth promoted through the Titanic film and others, where women and children are led to the lifeboats and the men stand back,” Erixon said on Thursday
In reality, “it really does not usually go well for women in shipwrecks,” he said.
Out of the 15,142 people onboard the 18 ships sailing under eight different national flags when they went down, only 17.8 percent of the women survived, compared with 34.5 percent of the men, the two researchers explain in their 82-page study titled: Every man for himself — Gender, Norms and Survival in Maritime Disasters.
Case in point: When an Estonian passenger ferry headed from Tallinn to Stockholm sank in the middle of the Baltic Sea in 1994, 852 of the 989 people onboard perished, with only 5.4 percent of women surviving, compared with 22 percent of men.
“I was shocked when I saw the numbers from Estonia,” Erixon said.
In fact, out of the 18 maritime disasters studied, Erixon and Elinder found that while the survival rates were about the same for men and women in some cases, women survived to a higher extent in just two cases.
The most famous maritime catastrophe of them all — the Titanic — is one of the exceptions to the rule: Seventy percent of the women survived that tragedy compared with a 20 percent survival rate for the men, according to the study.
The other exception was the 1852 wrecking of the British Birkenhead off Danger Point outside Cape Town, South Africa, where all the women survived but only 33.5 percent of the men did.
“The Birkenhead is where the myth originated, this idea of women and children first,” Erixon said.
In both those cases, however, the captain had given orders to get women and children off the sinking vessel first, and most significantly, in both cases, men onboard were threatened by armed crew members to keep them away from the lifeboats.
Erixon brushed aside the suggestion that more chivalry might be shown on British vessels, pointing out that overall “women have lower survival possibilities on British ships than ships of other nationalities.”
“That fact sort of busts the myth about the British gentleman,” he said.
The study showed that while there are a number of examples of people acting heroically in the face of catastrophe, in most cases the survival instinct kicks in and it is “every man for himself,” he said.