In the age-old battle between man and nature, disasters at sea hold a special place in the rubber-necking canon. They have the distinct appeal of human tragedy, occasional heroics and often mysterious circumstances, all combined with the terrifying knowledge that a ship the size of a small town can sink in about 12 seconds.
Like all fears embedded in the collective unconscious, the shipwreck is a Hollywood favorite. What if a fishing boat found itself in the middle of freak vortex of storms? What if a luxury liner were capsized by a tsunami in a matter of seconds? What if a shipwreck became a ghost?
There are thousands of real-life shipwrecks in the record books. Ships destroyed by storms, gouged by icebergs, besieged by mechanical problems and blown apart by missiles or cannon balls. That last one is the most common reason a ship ends up at the bottom of the sea. But nature, sometimes aided by man's folly, can definitely take down a boat.
King Henry VIII of England watched the "fairest flower of all the ships that ever sailed" capsize in a brief windstorm in 1545. By the middle of the 16th century, sea vessels were making the transition between floating fortresses and true battleships, and England's Mary Rose was one of the first ships with a broadside (guns fitted to the side of a ship above the water line).
Leaving from Southsea, England, on a mission to intercept French ships that had been raiding the coast, she carried 700 crew members and at least 90 guns. This type of armament may have made her top heavy, because a squall landed her upside down in a matter of moments. The broadside finished off the disaster: Water immediately rushed into the gun ports, and the ship sank to the sea floor before the crew could escape. More than 650 sailors died in the shipwreck. Salvagers recovered the Mary Rose in 1982, and she now sits in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in Hampshire, England.
About 70 years later, another ship, this one Spanish and carrying treasure, went down in a surprise storm. The Atocha was part of Spain's "treasure fleet" and ran regular missions from Spain to the South American colonies. She carried supplies for the colonists and returned to Spain with payment in the form of gold and silver. Of the fleet, Atocha carried the most cargo and so carried soldiers onboard to defend her treasure from pirates. And because she carried soldiers for defense, the wealthiest of the civilians traveling with the fleet choose the Atocha as their transporter. On a run in 1622, she was supposed to leave the colonies for Spain before the hurricane season began in July, but there was more cargo to carry than expected, and it took so long to load the treasure in Columbia that she ended up beginning her voyage home in late July. At the beginning of September, after a stop in Havana, Atocha set sail for Spain.
Starting out in perfect weather, Atocha made her slow, weighted journey toward the Florida Keys. By nightfall, the sea was choppy with increased wind, and by daybreak Atocha was caught in a vicious storm that destroyed her masts, sails and rigging. Now uncontrollable, Atocha sat helpless off the Florida Keys until a massive wave picked her up and sent her crashing down onto a coral reef. She sank like a rock, tons of silver and gold pulling her to the bottom of the sea. Only five of the 265 crew and passengers survived. There were immediate attempts to recover the treasure, but since SCUBA wasn't invented until 1942, the attempts were pretty useless. In 1985, though, after a 16-year search, salvager Mel Fisher found the Atocha and her treasure in 55 feet (18 yards) of water off the Florida Keys.
Though nature can hold her own when it comes to wrecking a ship, humans often lend a hand anyway. The Titanic's designers overestimated her invincibility; the fishers on the Andrea Gail chose product over caution; the owners of the Brother Jonathan threatened to find a new captain if the current one didn't allow the ship to be overloaded with cargo.
The cargo steamship Brother Jonathan ran a route from Northern California to the Northwest and Canada for the California Steam Navigation Company. In 1865, a man named DeWolfe was her Captain, and as the ship sat at the San Francisco harbor loading cargo, DeWolfe noticed that the Brother Jonathan was sitting dangerously low in the water -- and her 190 passengers hadn't even boarded yet. DeWolfe told the owner's representative that cargo loading had to stop or else the ship wouldn't be seaworthy. The agent told DeWolfe that he could either allow the loading of all available cargo or turn the ship over to another captain. When dock hands then loaded a several-ton ore crusher, they placed it right on top of a portion of the hull that had recently been repaired after an accident.
When the ship attempted to set sail, the captain and crew discovered that she was so low in the water she was actually stuck in the mud. They had to wait for high tide and a tug to get moving, and when she did, she sailed right into a storm. By the next day, the storm had picked up and the Brother Jonathan was faring badly. The captain decided to head immediately to safe harbor. When a mate went to prepare the anchors for arrival, he saw it: an uncharted rock pinnacle just under the surface of the water. It was too late to avoid it. Within seconds, a wave lifted the ship and sent her crashing down onto the 250-foot pinnacle (now called Jonathan Rock). It tore through the hull and held the ship while the waves continued to crash into her, driving her around on the rock. The lower portion of the ship was breaking up. When the ore crusher dropped right through the weakened spot of what remained of the hull, DeWolfe issued the order to abandon ship.
The raging storm and the ship's position on the rock made evacuation almost impossible, and rescue boats couldn't get to her through the rough seas. The Brother Jonathan sunk to the bottom of ocean off the northern coast of California, and only a single lifeboat made it safely out carrying 19 people. The rest of the passengers and crew, 225 people, died in the wreck.
In peacetime, the most disastrous shipwrecks usually result from some combination of bad luck and bad planning, as was the case with the Brother Jonathan. But when the poor planning is in the form of overloading passengers instead of cargo, the consequences can be even more devastating.
Most people have never heard of the Sultana, although her wreck is the worst one in U.S. history. Other news, like the assassination of President Lincoln, overshadowed the tragedy.
The Sultana was a passenger steamship on the Mississippi River. In April 1865, the Civil War had just ended, and Sultana was carrying thousands of Union POWs back North after their release from captivity. After the war, the government paid passenger ships for each soldier they ferried home. Sultana was approved to carry 376 passengers. When she cast off from New Orleans in April, headed for Cincinnati, she was carrying as many as 2,500, most of them ex-POWs who were weak, sick or injured. She also had several troubled boilers onboard. They'd been leaking on previous voyages and were always quickly repaired. On this trip, Sultana had to repair her boilers several times before the ship docked at Memphis for a regular stop. At Memphis, the crew again repaired the boilers, and Sultana left for Cairo, Illinois, just after midnight on April 27. Most of the soldiers would disembark at Cairo.
Sultana was moving against a strong current, severely overloaded, and she was making little headway. The boilers couldn't handle her load: At about 2:00 a.m., they exploded, breaking the ship in half. The force of the explosion killed many passengers and threw others hundreds of feet into the water. The ship was immediately a ball of flames, and there were no life boats, so anyone still alive jumped into the water. Many of the soldiers couldn't swim, and those who could were weakened by their ordeal during the war. Hardly any of them survived. More than 1,500 and possibly as many as 1,900 people died. The exact number is unknown because there was no accurate passenger manifest.
The Sultana shipwreck got hardly any press -- the Civil War had just ended, President Lincoln had been assassinated a week and a half before and there was a manhunt on for John Wilkes Booth. The deaths of a shipload of soldiers just released from POW camps hardly registered in the public's awareness at the time.
Contrast the Sultana with a shipwreck that occurred almost half a century later in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, just south of Newfoundland. When the "unsinkable" Titanic wrecked in 1912, the whole world noticed. The steamship was the biggest and most luxurious passenger liner of her time, and some of the world's rich and famous had booked a room for her maiden voyage. On April 10, 1912, the Titanic left England with about 2,200 people onboard. On April 14, a lookout spotted an iceberg right ahead. Titanic reversed her engines and tried to turn away, but it was too late.
When Titanic hit the iceberg, it gouged 250 feet (83 yards) of the hull and popped out at least six rivets below the water line. Holes from those rivets flooded the first five watertight compartments at the front of the ship. Titanic could have stayed afloat if only four of those compartments had been flooded. Some surmise that Titanic would've remained afloat if she had hit the iceberg head-on instead of trying to turn, because then only the first and maybe second watertight compartments would have flooded.
The weight of the flooded compartments pulled Titanic head-first into the ocean. It ultimately took more than two hours for her to sink, with the ship breaking into at least two pieces in the process. There was a ship in the vicinity, just 10 miles away, but her wireless operator had already left his post for the night, so he didn't pick up Titanic's calls for help. More than 1,500 people died in the disaster. Many went down with the ship or died of hypothermia after jumping overboard into the frigid water. Fewer than 700 people survived the wreck of the Titanic.
It's possible that many more passengers could have survived, but Titanic didn't have enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone. She only carried enough lifeboats for 1,178 people, about half of the passengers onboard. At that time, laws about lifeboats were different -- the number of required lifeboats was determined by a ship's weight, not her passenger capacity (the disaster of the Titanic helped changed the laws regarding lifeboats). Titanic actually had more lifeboats than required by law. One of the many factors that made matters worse was that most of the available lifeboats were launched only half or a quarter full, and then only two out of the 18 launched lifeboats returned to rescue passengers from the water after the wreck.
In 1985, a crew led by Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic. She remains on the ocean floor 323 nautical miles from the southern coast of Newfoundland.
The Doña Paz shipwreck in 1987 left nothing at all to be discovered after the fact. In the worst peacetime maritime disaster in history, the Doña Paz passenger ferry collided with an oil tanker in the Tablas Strait off the coast of the Philippines. Doña Paz was allowed to carry 1,518 passengers and crew, but as many as 4,500 were onboard at the time of the shipwreck. En route from the Philippines to Manila, the passenger ship hit a tanker carrying 8,800 barrels of oil products. The collision resulted in a ball of flames that immediately engulfed both ships and incinerated almost all evidence of the disaster. More than 4,000 people died, although no one knows the exact number because there was no accurate passenger manifest. Twenty-six people survived the wreck of the Doña Paz. Many of these people reported that at the time of the collision, they saw crew members drinking beer and watching movies.
Poor seamanship may also have contributed to the wreck of another passenger ferry in 2002, this one off the coast of Gambia. The Joola, a ferry owned and operated by the government of Senegal, was licensed to carry 550 passengers. She was carrying almost 2,000 when she headed out of her allowed operating range and into a storm. Joola immediately capsized in high winds and choppy seas. Many passengers died when the ship capsized, but most probably drowned in the water waiting for rescue, which didn't come until the morning after the wreck, hours after the accident. More than 1,800 passengers died. There were only 64 survivors.
An investigation after the wreck surmised that the Joola capsized due to poor ship maintenance, too much weight and her sailing beyond the coastal waters she was approved for. But no one knows for sure. It's usually difficult to pinpoint the exact cause when a ship goes down in a storm. War-time shipwrecks, on the other hand, are typically far easier to explain.
On the morning of May 1, 1915, a warning appeared in U.S. newspapers. Germany published a notice to Americans not to travel on British ships -- Germany and England were at war, and British ships were targets. That was the morning the Lusitania set sail, and her passengers probably never saw the notice.
The British passenger ship Lusitania was heading from New York to Liverpool, loaded with civilian passengers. Six days into her voyage, a German submarine spotted her and fired a torpedo without warning. The torpedo struck the ship and caused a second explosion onboard. Britain claimed the second explosion resulted from coal dust; Germany claimed it was gunpowder. The ship sank in 20 minutes off the southern coast of Ireland, killing approximately 1,200 people and igniting a controversy that could have changed the course of history.
Britain claimed the Lusitania was a civilian ship with no military ties. Germany claimed the Lusitania was in fact carrying munitions for the Allies. When the ship sank with more than 100 Americans onboard, the U.S. population called for military action against Germany. U.S. President Wilson resisted the cries for war, and instead insisted on reparations from Germany. Although Germany maintained that there were munitions on the ship, she eventually took responsibility for the misdeed. This helped to delay U.S. involvement in World War I. Later, WWI recruitment posters would read "Remember the Lusitania."
Years after the incident, British documents revealed that the ship was in fact carrying munitions for the Allies. The Lusitania was transporting 4.2 million rounds of Remington .303 rifle cartridges, 1,250 cases of shrapnel shells and 18 cases of fuses. And according to the Discovery Channel, at the outbreak of the war in 1914 the Lusitania had been fitted with a broadside for potential use by the Royal Navy.
Another British luxury cruise liner, the Lancastria, was sunk easily by Germany, this time in the second World War. This shipwreck was the biggest maritime disaster in the history of England.
In 1939, the Lancastria had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy for troop transport. On June 17, 1940, she was evacuating British troops from France when she was spotted by several German war planes. The Lancastria was a sitting duck, anchored off St. Nazaire, France, and still taking on troops when the first bomb struck. She was ultimately hit four times, with one of the four bombs dropping straight down the smokestack and blowing the ship apart. The Lancastria took 20 minutes to sink, and with German aircraft overhead, rescue was almost impossible. It's not known how many people were onboard when the Lancastria was hit because the troops were still being loaded. The best guess is that there were about 7,000 people on the ship, and of those, 4,500 died in the wreck.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill feared that Britain couldn't handle news of the loss, so he ordered the press in England not to report the incident. Those 4,500 soldiers were listed as missing in action. About six weeks later, the story broke in several New York newspapers, and the secret was no more.
The captain of the Lancastria, Rudolph Sharpe, survived the bombing. He had also been an officer on Lusitania's crew, but had disembarked just before she was attacked. His luck ran out when he took charge of the Laconia, which was sunk by a German sub in 1942. Captain Sharpe died in that wreck.
Probably the grandest naval battle of World War II took place in 1941 and ended with the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. She was a massive ship, about 17 stories tall and 300 yards (275 meters) long, and was one of the fastest (30 knots) and most heavily armored warships of her time. On her maiden voyage, she ended up in an epic, eight-day cat-and-mouse chase across the Atlantic involving two German ships and at least six British ones.
In the first major confrontation at Denmark Strait, the Bismarck and her sister ship destroyed the British ship HMS Hood (the largest battle cruiser in the world at the time). Their 203-mm shells struck the Hood and blew up the explosives on deck, and their 380-mm shells blew right threw the deck and reached the ammunition below. The Hood was a total loss, and almost 1,400 sailors died. Also at Denmark Strait, the German ships crippled the HMS Prince of Wales, but the Prince of Wales hit Bismarck a few times, too, which would haunt the German ship and ultimately be her downfall. The Prince of Wales struck her engine room, taking out two boilers, and ruptured the fuel tanks in the bow. The Bismarck no longer had enough fuel to get back to Germany, and her top speed had dropped to 28 knots. Bismarck's Admiral Lutjens changed course and headed to the nearest German-occupied French port.
On her way to safe harbor for repairs, the Bismarck took air fire from British torpedo planes, but none of the torpedoes got through her armor. After some evasive maneuvering, Bismarck escaped the British ships, and Admiral Lutjens then took the chance of sending a message to Berlin about the battle and her status. But the message was too long -- almost 30 minutes. British ships picked it up and pinpointed Bismarck's location. They resumed pursuit and caught up with her off the coast of Ireland.
Bismarck took heavy fire from both air and sea in what would turn out to be her final battle. In total, she took 400 hits from British battleships and at least 12 hits by torpedo planes. She was crippled, but she still wasn't sinking. It was the German sailors onboard who sunk the ship when it was clear they could no longer fight or escape. Bismarck sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic with most of her crew, including Admiral Lutjens. Of the 2,200 German sailors onboard, only 115 survived the wreck. In 1989, a crew led by Dr. Robert Ballard, who also discovered the wreck of the Titanic, found the Bismarck under 15,000 feet of water just south of Cork, Ireland.
About 40 years later, Britain was involved in a much less dramatic but far more controversial shipwreck. In the early 1980s, Britain was in a dispute with Argentina over possession of the Falkland Islands. In 1982, the two countries were still going the diplomacy route. All that ended when the British submarine HMS Conqueror sunk the Argentine warship General Belgrano in the South Atlantic. Three-hundred Argentine sailors died on impact, and another 68 died from injuries or drowning.
Argentina and many British politicians claimed the Belgrano was headed away from Falkland Islands, out of the war zone, when she was attacked. In this scenario, the British sub attacked a ship that was posing no threat at all. But all official releases from the British government maintained that the Belgrano was a threat to British ships in the area. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was publicly harangued for her role in the incident.
The Belgrano shipwreck made up more than half of Argentina's casualties in the Falklands War. In response to the attack, Argentina sunk the HMS Sheffield destroyer, and weeks of naval fighting ensued. In 1985, a government leak pointed to the original Argentine claim as correct. The General Belgrano was outside the war zone when she was attacked. The Belgrano shipwreck still has not been discovered.
For more information on shipwrecks and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- "1982: British sub sinks Argentine cruiser." BBC On This Day. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/may/2/newsid_2480000/2480241.stm
- "Bismarck Legend Lives." Calcio Network. http://battleshipbismarck.info/
- "California Shipwrecks." California State Lands Commission. http://shipwrecks.slc.ca.gov/
- Death on the Dark River: The Story of the Sultana Disaster in 1865." Sultana WebRing. http://www.rootsweb.com/~genepool/sultana.htm
- "Dona Paz." Hazard Cards. http://www.hazardcards.com/card.php?id=14
- "History Of The Shipwreck Nuestra Senora De Atocha." New World Treasures. http://www.newworldtreasures.com/atochastory.htm
- "Lake Superior Shipwrecks." Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnhs.org/places/nationalregister/shipwrecks/madeira/maddwe.html
- "The Raft of the Medusa." History House. http://www.historyhouse.com/in_history/medusa/
- "RMS Lusitania." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition Copyright © 2003, Columbia University Press. http://www.answers.com/main/ntquery?method=4&dsid=2222&dekey=RMS+Lusitania &curtab=2222_1&linktext=RMS%20Lusitania
- "RMS Titanic." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition Copyright © 2003, Columbia University Press. http://www.answers.com/main/ntquery?method=4&dsid=2222&dekey=RMS+Titanic &curtab=2222_1&linktext=RMS%20Titanic
- "What caused the Joola ferry disaster?" BBC NEWS. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/2290490.stm
- "The Worst British Maritime loss ever - HMT Lancastria." Shipwrecks: Diving into History. http://www.geocities.com/shipwrecks_magazine/lancastria.htm
- "Wreck Detectives: Five Famous Shipwrecks." Discovery Channel. http://www.discoverychannel.co.uk/best_of/wreck_detectives/shipwrecks/index.shtml