Yet there he was, captured on video on the day his ferry sank with hundreds trapped inside, being treated onshore after allegedly landing on one of the first rescue boats.
Lee had more than 40 years' experience at sea and could speak with eloquence about the romance and the danger of a life spent on ships.
But his reputation now hinges on the moments on April 16 when he delayed an evacuation and apparently abandoned the ferry Sewol as it went down.
The disaster left more than 300 people missing or dead, most of them teenagers.
Lee was not on the bridge when the ship turned. But he is facing charges of criminal negligence and deserting passengers.
"He was generous, a really nice guy," Oh Yong-seok, a 57-year-old helmsman, said of a boss who always asked about his family and was happy to hand out personal and professional advice. "He was probably the nicest person on the ship."
Last week, the handcuffed captain was paraded before cameras, his face hidden beneath the dark hood of a windbreaker.
His fall from grace stands in stark contrast to Lee's striking portrayal, in interviews given to local media over the last decade, of a resilient and adventurous life spent at sea.
It gives a chilling irony to his appearance on a 2010 travel show aired on cable broadcaster OBS, in which he captained the Ohamana, another ferry that travelled the same Incheon-to-Jeju route as the Sewol.
"For those who are using our Incheon-to-Jeju ferry, I can tell you that the next time you return, it will be a safe and pleasant" experience, Lee said, dressed in a white captain's uniform with gold epaulettes on the shoulders.
"If you follow the instructions of our crew members, it will be safer than any other means of transportation."
Lee, 68, began his life at sea by chance, landing a job on a ship in his mid-20s. He worked on ocean freighters for 20 years before becoming a ferry captain, he said in a 2004 interview with Jeju Today, an internet news organisation. He was then captain of another Incheon-to-Jeju ferry.
"The first ship I sailed on was a hardwood ship that flipped over in waters near Okinawa, Japan.
"The Japanese Self-Defence Forces saved me with their helicopters," Lee recalled. "If I hadn't been saved then, I wouldn't be here today."
Lee said there were times he thought about giving up sailing.
"When I got caught in a storm at sea, I told myself I would never get on a ship again. But the human mind is cunning. After getting over one crisis, I would forget such thoughts, and I've been sailing on ships until this day," he said.
With a poetic flair, Lee spoke of the countless sunrises and sunsets he'd seen at sea.
"When the sun rises, the sea seems to bubble up and roar, but at sunset it's calm and quiet," Lee said. "I become solemn and I think about past memories."
Lee also spoke of his pride in his work, even if it meant time away from his own family.
"I take comfort in carrying people on the ferry who are visiting their hometowns, helping them so they can spend happy times with their family - something that's not granted to me," Lee said. "Today or tomorrow, I will be with the ship."
The Sewol was a nearly 7,000-ton ship with a capacity of 921 passengers. Its owner, Chonghaejin Marine, had three captains, including Lee.
They took control of Sewol on just 10 days each month when another captain went on vacation, said an official at Incheon Regional Maritime Affairs and Port Administration.
An unidentified Chonghaejin official told Yonhap news agency that Lee had the longest sailing career of the three captains.
Yonhap said Lee was believed to have joined Chonghaejin in November 2006 and to have sailed the route between Incheon and Jeju during his entire time with the company.
Crew members interviewed knew little about the captain's personal life.
"Although we had no conversation about personal stuff, he was a nice guy," said Park Kyung-nam, another helmsman on the Sewol. He described a patient captain who would help crew members learn about parts of the ship they were not familiar with.
Park and Oh were both on the bridge with the captain as the ship was sinking.
Both wondered whether the captain's age or the fact that he crashed into a door on the bridge, possibly injuring himself, may have been why he left the ship when he did.
"The captain is very old," Oh said. "But he should have made sure that the crew could escape before he escaped."
Jang Ki-joon, director of the orthopaedic department at Jindo Hankook University, said he treated Lee after his rescue, and he had only light injuries. "Pain in the left rib and in the back, but that was it," he said.
He wore no crisp uniform, no epaulettes. He looked no different from passengers in a video of him being treated. At the time, Jang said, he had no idea Lee was the captain. Lee had said he feared passengers would be swept away by the ferocious currents if they leapt into the sea.
He has not explained why he left the vessel.
"The current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without [proper] judgment and if they were not wearing a life jacket - and even if they were - they would drift away and face many other difficulties," Lee told reporters. "The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time."
The transcript shows crew on the ship worried there were not enough rescue boats at the scene to take on all the passengers.
Witnesses said the captain and some crew took to rescue boats before the passengers.
Captain Lee and his surviving crew members have been pilloried in the media for abandoning the ship while hundreds were still trapped inside.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said their actions were "tantamount to murder".
She said: "The conduct of the captain and some crew members is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense. It was like an act of murder that cannot and should not be tolerated."
There has been particular criticism of Lee's decision to delay the evacuation order until the vessel was listing so sharply that escape was almost impossible.
Prosecutors have raided a host of businesses affiliated with the ferry operator Chonghaejin as part of an overall probe into corrupt management.
More than 70 executives and others connected with Chonghaejin and its affiliates have been handed 30-day travel bans while they are investigated on possible charges ranging from criminal negligence to embezzlement.