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Rats Leaving a Sinking Ship

Legend has it that rats will leave a sinking ship, but is this true? Ah-har me hearties and shiver me timbers! It's an old folklore legend which may have some truth in it, but how can we be sure?

Also, the expression "like rats leaving a sinking ship" has become a well-known phrase with allegorical associations, often applied to human situations, for example where people are abandoning something before it gets too bad. For example, in the dot com bubble, wise investors would sell their share of the doomed company shortly before its catastrophic failure. Or, when the UK government had run the economy so badly that the country was going bankrupt, they committed economic suicide by increasing the tax rate, and then even more people set about their escape, abandoning the UK. Or, for example, "Members resigned from the club, like rats leaving a sinking ship", there being overtones of the members being ascribed ratlike characteristics on account of their resignation.

In the literal sense, however, we're talking about rodents living aboard a nautical vessel, being seen to jump overboard before the ship sank, and sometimes before the ship's crew and passengers guessed the ship might come to grief.

The way the "rats leaving a sinking ship" legend is portrayed, rats are credited with an almost supernatural psychic ability to predict the future or to interpret natural lore such that they would have foreknowledge of the doom of the ship, and would leave and swim away and take their chances in the open water rather than going down with the ship. The whole idea conjures up notions of the Titanic steaming away from the quayside and the posh people on deck being shocked to see beady eyed rodents coming up from down below decks and taking a flying leap over the side into the dock and swimming ashore, as if the little critters somehow "knew" the ship was doomed.

The reality is probably quite different, and one theory I have heard is that in the old days of wooden ships sailing around the seas, rats would be seen to leave a ship, and this was a sign that the ship might be about to sink. Although seafaring folk might ascribe this to natural foreknowledge of some type, the way it might work is as follows: Generally all wooden ships of that age had rats living on board, deep in the hold and in the bilge around the keel, nesting amongst the stuff which inevitably accumulates inside a ship, and living off stuff that has been left about. Ships tend to leak, and need bailing and pumping out, but if the leaking is too severe, the water level inside the lower levels of the ship starts to rise. Rats which were comfortably nesting down there aren't going to put up with just staying at home and drowning, so they are forced up to the higher levels of the ship and may end up on deck. Once on deck, the rats might just happen to get chased by people, and the next step is... overboard. A few days later, shipwrecked sailors who survive the sinkage recount the remarkable fact that just before the ship sank, rats were seen leaving the ship!

In the types of shipwrecking scenarios where some of the sailors survive to tell the tale, it's also likely that some of the rats would survive too, assuming they also jumped off the ship.

The legend has persisted into modern times, and it must be a minor annoyance to the distinguished captains of modern luxury cruise liners that every now and then a passenger insists on asking if there are any rats onboard the floating five star hotel, as it is "unlucky" if there are no rats on a ship! Ships' captains aren't usually lost for words, and there are many possible good responses to the question. One response is where the captain calmly ushers the passenger along to the ship's casino and asks the passenger to see for themselves if there are any rats there, and, while they're about it, to check the level of ship's luck!