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Maritime Disasters

Sunken ships, small storms, & other cerulean crises

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

2 min read.
Maritime Disasters
I've fished the Chesapeake Bay all my life, but I've never taken a sailboat out of harbor. I'm working on a story set at sea and needed to do a bit of research about all the different ways that things can go wrong for a sailing ship at sea.

Quick Facts

  • A guy fell overboard when he was hanging off the side of his small craft to poop and his safety harness broke.
  • One of the dangers with fire aboard a ship is that you can't get away from it — even if it doesn't destroy the ship's seaworthiness, the smoke and heat are dangerous for the crew.
  • It seems ridiculous, but in crowded shipping lanes, collision is actually a real concern, and sailboats are not great at quick maneuvering. Neither are oil takers and US naval ships, apparently.
  • The Tek Sing, a Chinese three-masted ship, sank in 30 meters of water after running around on a reef in the South China Sea. When salvaged 150 years later, it was the largest sunken cache ever recovered.
  • Diving to investigate a shipwreck in sometimes just as deadly as the wreck itself.


Richard the Lionheart was headed to Jerusalem when a storm separated his ship from his fiance's. The local despot who had taken control of Cyprus from the Byzantine Empire took the fiancé's ship prisoner and plundered its treasury. Richard tried to parley, but the despot was such a jerk that Richard wound up having to conquer him instead.


Squalls are sudden violent gust of winds or, at most, a small storm. They're dangerous because they can happen without warning and swamp a boat or even break its mast (which happened to my dad once, actually). Normally the only thing to do is head for shelter at sea or on land, but sometimes you get unlucky and have to ride it out — if you can.


In 1871, 33 (!) American whaling ships got trapped in Arctic ice and had to be abandoned, which basically spelled the end of the American whaling industry. The captains expected the wind to shift and drive the ice out to sea like it always had before, but it didn't. Over 1,000 people got stranded for weeks, although somehow nobody died. (Here's the best explanation I've seen for how whaling worked, by the way.)


Rushing when sailing can be a recipe for disaster (including civil war — it's an incredible story). Trying to raise anchor and sail off when the winds and tides are going in the wrong direction is a waste of time and can even be counterproductive. Moving too fast in areas with shallow water can punch a hole in your vessel.

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy these unintuitive truths about ancient sailing techniques & technologies.

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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