8 Worst Shipwrecks in History

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Sea life isn’t the only that lurks below, there are plenty of manmade structures that now call the ocean floor their home. Here are the 8 worst shipwrecks in the history of mankind:

8. RMS Rhone

This is a perfect example of what might happen when you don’t trust your instincts. The historical wreck of RMS Rhone can be better perceived through the eyes of its then captain, Robert F. Wooley. Rhone and Captain Wooley had accomplished quite a few successful voyages together without any major mishaps. On that fateful day, Wooley anchored the Rhone in Great Harbour, right beside RMS Conway.

At that moment, the captain was found staring at the dropping barometer, wondering whether or not a storm would strike. His instincts pointed him in the right direction, but he decided to trust the weathermen’s proclamation that the hurricane season was done for the year. And anyway, he had known the Rhone to sustain many severe storms over the years. That was part of the reason why the ship was tagged to be ‘unsinkable’.

The hurricane, which later came to be known as the San Narciso Hurricane, struck the harbor with a mild ferocity. The anchors of both the Conway and the Rhone lugged a bit in the direction of the storm, but stayed put. As the first half of the hurricane passed by, the master of the Conway gave in and decided to back off. However, Captain Wooley was still intent on sailing forward regardless of the perils that lay ahead. Since the Rhone held off the first half of the storm, he was seized with an utter certainty that the ‘unsinkable’ ship can easily wade through the latter half as well. 

Thus, after hauling the cargo and the passengers of the Conway onto the Rhone, Wooley set sail. As he was carefully maneuvering the ship around the Blond Rock, a shallow underwater reef not visible from the surface, the second half of the hurricane hit. Instead of convoying them onto the reef which would have been safer, the storm flung the ship into Black Rock Point on Salt Island, smashing it beyond repair. All but 23 of the crew and the passengers survived the onslaught. Our man of the hour, Captain Wooley, was thrown overboard by the first heave of the lashing winds.

7. HMS Birkenhead

This is the oldest shipwreck in our list. Ironically, it is here not for the worst but the best part of the wreck. It was a troopship commissioned to transport soldiers and their families. In the wee hours of the morning of February 26th, 1852, the HMS Birkenhead was slowly making its way around Danger Point. The onboard passengers consisted of soldiers, their wives and children, and then some. 

The troopship struck an unexplored rock that was barely jutting out of the surface. As water came gushing in from the hole at the bottom of the ship, the soldiers sleeping below decks were devoured by the sea in the blink of an eye. The lifeboats present were not huge enough to carry all the remaining crew and passengers to safety. Without sitting on the fence, the captain and his soldiers ushered the women and children  inside the boats while they staunchly stayed behind.

Despite the indomitable valor of the soldiers,  only 193 out of over 600 passengers managed to survive. Nonetheless, the tales of their chivalrous sacrifice spread far and wide. 8 years later, the ‘Women and children first’ protocol was developed honoring the heroic exploits of the Birkenhead soldiers. This code of conduct is also alternatively known as the Birkenhead Drill.

6. RMS Empress of Ireland

The Empress of Ireland was headed for Liverpool when it left the Quebec City port. It carried a little more than 1400 passengers, along with the crew. Within 10 hours of departure, the ship sank leaving only about 300 passengers surviving the wreck. Here’s how it all panned out.

In the wee hours of the following day, the crew spotted a Norwegian collier called Storstad. The two barges were far apart at the time, and only their masthead lights were visible. The mates of each ship kept an eye on each other at the time. Out of nowhere, thick clouds of fog enveloped both liners. Due to lack of direct contact, the captains of each ships were left to judge the approximate course of each other.

The one who led the Empress of Ireland was newly appointed captain. He allegedly followed all protocols but somehow landed on the course of the the Storstad. It may have been the latter’s captain to make the mistake but we would never really know, since both of them claimed to have judged accurately in the eyes of law. Even the verdict proclaimed the possibility of the ships being stationary at the time of the collision!

Whatever answers the court provided, the fact was that over a thousand passengers died during and after the incident. Only 5 lifeboats over the Empress were dispatched. The sixth capsized without warning since the ship was listing heavily toward the starboard side. Miraculously, the Storstad suffered the least damage; no casualties were reported on that barge. The 1012 death count was that listed on the Empress of Ireland only.

Most of the deaths reportedly occurred within a span of 15 minutes. This shipwreck is still considered to be the biggest one in any Canadian maritime history. It happened in the year 1914. This showcases the level of seriousness that the Canadians put into their maritime operations. Without that degree of dedication, the coastal department of the country would not have been as successful as it is today.

5. SS Mont Blanc

If you hear this story, you might conclude that Norwegian ships are all to blame. The SS Mont Blanc had set off from the Halifax harbor in Canada in December of 1917. It was laden with explosives as it paved its way toward the Bedford Basin. A Norwegian ship named SS Imo ignited the munitions present aboard the Mont Blanc. 

This ignition occurred after two ships collided. The Imo’s fire spread through the Mont Blanc, flaring up every possible explosive in its way. If those two ships hadn’t crashed near the Richmond District, the casualties would have been restricted to those onboard. However, the collision happened just there, slaying close to 2000 citizens in that area. Commonly known as the Halifax Explosion, it was one of the first accidental wartime disasters to have made its mark.

4. RMS Titanic

Oh how the story of this wreck has been glorified over the years! And rightly so since the Titanic was the largest ship to sail over the earthly waters at the time, akin to its namesake. Given that it was a British liner heading for the biggest metropolitan city in the world, New York, it was bound to get the attention it deserved.

As the 1997 James Cameron movie exotically depicted, the RMS Titanic crashed into a stray iceberg. Of course, movie buffs will certainly expect this disaster as a part of this list. And it decidedly deserves an honorable place because of it.

For those of you who don’t know the details of this life changing phenomenon, this gigantic ship departed from the, Southampton port on  April 10, 1912. It was equipped with almost every facility available back then for those who could afford it. The rest of the passengers were simply fighting for a ticket aboard the biggest oceanliner in the world. Some passengers didn’t even get a bunker! In that year at that time, the fact that one ship could accommodate more than 2200 passengers was strikingly exceptional. And add to that the maiden voyage of the largest ship in the world. Many people were literally scrambling to grab a place, no matter how minute, on that prized deck.

Five good days on this blissfully remarkable liner and you might even say that the folks onboard died the luckiest death, god forbid! In the early morning of  April 15, 1912, the mate atop suddenly spotted a stray iceberg on the North Atlantic ocean. Given the vastness of the ship, the maneuvering crew were bound to face problems in diverting its direction. Needless to say, it dashed on the iceberg and didn’t take long to sink into the ice cold waters of the Atlantic.

Only about 700 passengers managed to survive. The corpses of the rest could be found in the abysmal depths of the ocean. A select few were laid to rest in the morgue. The hype that led to this incident astounded the better part of the world. This accident created a widespread panic that forced the safety strengthening of the maritime operations of the UK and the US. In some twisted way, you may even consider that this catastrophe was a blessing future generations.

3. SS Sultana

Ever imagined the most disastrous shipwreck in the history of the most powerful nation in the world today? The US SS Sultana it is! Though this ship was destroyed in the year 1865, and it still remains the worst in US History. This shipwreck is a big reason for the level of safety precautions we have today. 

The SS Sultana was not exactly a ship. It was essentially a teamboat that could carry only about 350 passengers. Imagine this simple wharf being occupied by over 2000 people! You may think that this disaster was never far from reach. However, overburdening ships with additional seaman were common during those days. This cataclysmic event paved the way for engineers and developers in the U.S. to take safety regulations more seriously.

Regardless of the rumours, the maritime situation of the US certainly improved after the Sultana debacle. It had to since over a 1000 passengers met their demise when three boilers blasted and sunk the entire ship. Fortunately, since the incident occurred near the Memphis port, more than half the passengers managed to survive.

Surprisingly, this momentous shipwreck received little attention from the masses? John Wilkes Booth, the notorious killer of the glorious president, Abraham Lincoln, was executed the previous day. As the country cheered the death of the distinguished assassin, close to 1200 citizens embraced the cold arms of the death in the Tennessee waters. It was much later that the country wheeled its attention to the disaster.

2. MV Le Joola

Yaamboo , MV Le Joola at Ziguinchor in 1991

Heed the fate of the second worst shipwreck witnessed by mankind! This was a Senegalese passenger ship that left shore with close to 2000 people. It was the most recent catastrophic maritime disaster that left the Senegalese government feeling badly in its aftermath. All their maritime laws were brought into question after this incident. 

This ship was designed to transport a maximum of 800 passengers. It was definitely overloaded to more than three times the capacity. To make matters worse , only about half the number had tickets issued to them. The other half occupied the already jam-packed deck. Furthermore, the delay in the rescue resulted in the better part of the death count. Here’s how the shipwreck occurred.

The wharf left the Ziguinchor in September 2002. It was headed toward Dakar, the capital of the Senegalese country. Instead of following the designated route, the captain suggested a shorter one. Midway through the journey, a brutal tempest tore through the ship, killing several passengers in an instant. Some of them drowned during the storm while others passed away after it subsided. The rescue team managed to root out a mere 64 survivors. Imagine the several hundred unlucky souls that may have been walking the streets if the rescue operation would have been a bit more efficient.

Many high level officials in the government bared the brunt of the calamity, including the prime minister and the president. Accusations were thrown freely in the court of law but none could bring back the dead of their dismal graves. How we wish the Le Joola was never thrust with more than the maximum capacity. It may just have survived the raging storm!

1. Dona Paz

Every affluent historian knows about this eventful shipwreck.  It was, after all, the most cataclysmic accident in the history of maritime! Every shipwreck in itself is momentous, but when over 4000 passengers meet their death, you are bound to take notice. The following weeks, every newspaper in the world was flooded with the account of the worst shipwreck that mankind had ever encountered.

The Dona Paz boasted a capacity of just over 600 passengers when it was built in 1963. When it had set sail from Leyte Island to Manila in 1987, more than half the passengers onboard were unregistered. The registered capacity far from extended the original number. The additional 2000 proved to be too much for the ship,  and barely steered away before hitting the MT Vector vessel. 

Only a select few crew members from the Vector survived this hazard as both ships sunk at the same time. The mere 24 from the Dona Paz that managed to get through the accident were eventually bombarded with piercing questions from the government. 

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