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Maritime Disasters

Ever-greater numbers of people traveled and worked at sea in the 1700s and 1800s. Ship design, navigation, and life-saving methods all improved dramatically. But crossing an ocean was a far riskier journey than it is today. Storms on the high seas might be the most terrifying of the dangers, but thousands of men and women lost their lives within sight of shore. Voyages grew safer in the 1800s, but storms, fires, and rocky coasts still threatened seafarers.

The Ocean Monarch was one of nine large packet ships built by the famous shipbuilder Donald McKay in Boston for Enoch Train's White Diamond Line of Boston-Liverpool vessels. The Monarch measured 179 feet in length and 1,301 tons and was launched in July 1847. On August 24, 1848 the vessel cleared Liverpool for Boston with 396 passengers, including 322 Irish emigrants. Just a few hours later a few miles off the coast of Wales, a fire around the mainmast was reported, probably started by a passenger smoking. The Monarch stopped and dropped two anchors to gain control of the fire, but it spread too quickly, starting a panic among the passengers.

Commander Thomas Littledale of the yacht Queen of the Ocean was first on the scene. Returning to Liverpool with a group of friends after the Beaumaris regatta, he managed to rescue 32 people from the burning ship, including Captain Murdoch. Other ships picked up another 188 persons; the ship and 178 passengers were lost when the ship sank at its anchors in 85 feet of water. The dramatic loss of the Ocean Monarch and so many of its passengers so close to shore so soon after departure, as well as its thrilling rescue, touched off an international wave of sympathy and a media storm on both sides of the Atlantic.

The British bark Ayrshire ran aground off Squan Beach, New Jersey, in January 1850. The sea was too rough to launch a surfboat, and the local wreckmaster decided to use his station's life-car instead. Hauled between the shore and the wreck on ropes, the enclosed boat made 60 trips to the wreck over two days and rescued all but one of Ayrshire's 166 passengers and 36 crew.

Many of the passengers on the Ayrshire's final voyage were likely Irish laborers, farmers, and families fleeing famine in Ireland. Almost one million people between 1846 and 1851 died because of the failures of the potato crop and poor distribution of what remained. Hundreds of thousands more sailed for the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia. Ships traveling the busy sea lanes leading to New York frequently came to grief on the shores of Long Island and New Jersey. In the 1840s, an average of three vessels a month wrecked in these coastal waters.

For those who could afford it, there was no more romantic or peaceful way to travel abroad than on a transatlantic ocean liner. Even in the late 1960s, when jet travel was beginning to make ocean travel obsolete, it remained a remnant of a more gracious, less frantic age, when time was not the tyrannical monarch of a person's life and a little bouillon calmed both the stomach and the nerves.

Those leviathans of the North Atlantic and the South Pacific were self-contained cities, and like the great cities of the world, each had its own personality. The Cunard Line, for instance, was definitely British and guarded the doors between first, cabin and tourist class. On the French Line, sybaritic considerations-a shortage of men for the after- dinner revels in first class, for instance-sometimes relaxed those same barriers. The Italian Line was similarly relaxed, as was the round-the-world Moore-McCormick Line.

But what distinguished these liners from the dull world as it was was a sense of opulence married to a sense of fun. Although the present resurgence of cruise liners is a welcome testament to people's need for the sea, they are really pale imitations of the real thing. Floating summer camps, they cannot begin to approximate the dignified feeling of comfort and relaxation unto relief that life aboard the grand transatlantic liner offered its passengers.

Perhaps it was the long tradition of sailing that reaches back to the Phoenicians that made it so comfortable and even insular. There was a feeling of being cared for that was almost familial, and perhaps that was necessary, for the sea has been, and always will be, the master of all it surveys, borders on, or floats.

Aboard one of these posh, floating metropolises, one never really felt threatened by the sea, only occasionally tormented. Storms at sea were only fun for the very stalwart, and there were those to whom even the gentle sway of the grand saloon was too much for their centers of equilibrium. Seasickness is not fun, as anyone who has experienced it will attest. But that was the only drawback to this supremely romantic and restful way of travel.

Still, disasters did occur at sea. Interestingly enough, only one - the Andrea Doria/Stockholm collision - occurred in the last three decades of transatlantic-transpacific travel. Unlike air crashes, disasters at sea have rarely killed everyone aboard. Except in cases of wholesale stupidity and criminal neglect, as in the events involving the Titanic or the General Slocum, adequate lifeboats and life preservers are provided, and mandated safety precautions and drills assure passengers that there is at least some chance of surviving a disaster at sea.

Storms have, naturally, been the scourge of sailors since the Phoenicians. Some of the earlier maritime disasters were caused by hurricanes. The sinking of the entire Spanish Armada in the English Channel in 1588, with its staggering death toll, and the equally dramatic demise of the English Armada off the coast of Labrador in 1711 were, at least partially, the result of storms.

But even in these cases, the enormous loss of life would have been avoided had it not been for the misjudgment of commanding officers. In fact, as in all disasters involving the transportation of large numbers of people, be it by rail, air or sea, so-called human error has proven to be the most pervasive culprit. Captains have driven their ships into storms and onto reefs, ignored warnings and sped recklessly through fogs. And their ships have sunk, sometimes with them aboard.

In addition, this incompetency, recklessness or downright stupidity has often been compounded by cowardice. The nameless captain who slammed the Portuguese packet St. James onto the rocks of South Africa in 1586 (see p. 272) leaped into the first lifeboat, leaving all of his passengers behind; the crew of the French liner La Bourgogne, after colliding with another ship because its captain refused to slow down in a heavy fog, saved themselves by deliberately drowning hundreds of passengers (see p. 270). In still other circumstances, such as the fire aboard the General Slocum and the Dona Paz (see p. 288), the parsimonious shortcuts taken by profit-motivated steamship companies accounted for needless deaths.

But these are the bizarre extremes. Although the tragedy of the Titanic proved conclusively that there is no such thing as an unsinkable ship, most passenger liners, lake steamers and even ferries have the good manners to take their time in sinking, thus giving their passengers a reasonable chance of surviving. And with increasingly precise navigation equipment developed by the middle of the century, sea travel has become one of the safest and most gracious ways of travel yet evolved.

A pity, then, that speed proved to be the one barrier reef upon which all the ocean liners of the world except one would founder. The Queen Elizabeth II, at a whopping premium and with an assurance that passengers only need to take their time across the North Atlantic in one direction and can wing themselves back by Concorde, still plies the sea-lanes between New York and Southampton. But that is it, at least for now.

Gone are the riotous midnight sailings of the 1920s, the heart-stopping thrill of immigrants and returning expatriates at seeing the Statue of Liberty rise up in a morning mist as the ship on which they sailed eased in on the early tide to New York Harbor; gone are pulse-slowing, leisurely ways to get from here to there.

And yet, the lure of the sea persists. Though the era of the transatlantic and transpacific voyage has all but ended, shipboard life has not. It survives in a plenitude of cruise lines and their cruise ships, wandering from island to island in the Caribbean and the South Pacific, from port to port in the Mediterranean and up and down the west coast of Europe and Africa and both coasts of South America.

Life aboard many of these ships is considerably more frantic and not necessarily as luxurious as it was on the leisurely, five-day crossings of the Atlantic aboard the great ships of the great lines, but there are similarities. Nonstop eating is possible, at no extra charge, and nonstop entertainment is available at any hour and for almost any taste. Graciousness is still there, too, but fun is the focus.

The newest of these cruise ships are, with their multiple above-the-waterline decks, more floating hotels than seagoing craft. Vestiges of the past still survive here and there: The old SS France has become the Norway, for instance, and thus the merging of two time periods and two worlds is possible on one of this elegant ship's cruises. Tour companies run smaller ships and boats for river cruising, particularly through Europe in the summer, and these are more personal and time-insensitive ways to satisfy the urge to be on the water, at least temporarily.

The safety record of all of these present-day ships has been admirable, with a few exceptions. Fires have broken out on certain cruise ships, forcing them to abort their cruises and discharge their passengers in unexpected ports. Others have experienced mechanical breakdowns and have drifted helplessly until repairs have been made or rescue ships have arrived. But there have been no major disasters resulting in the sinkings of this new fleet of pleasure ships.

The same cannot be said for contemporary ferries. Though the Herald of Free Enterprise and the Scandinavian Star were the finest of their class, they were not immune to human error, which sank both of them. The bizarre grounding of the Express Samina on a plainly marked rock outcrop while the captain and crew were watching a soccer match on television was yet another example of destructive carelessness.

The situation of ferries in Africa, Haiti and Indonesia is another matter, however. Old, poorly maintained and overloaded, they still carry those who cannot travel from place to place any other way. But regularly, it seems, they capsize and sink, in direct contradiction of the technological progress and safety record of much of the rest of the world.

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