20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail

Steve - April 17, 2019

Although popular attention is more commonly granted to ships lost in the course of wars, including also civilian ships such as RMS Lusitania, maritime disasters just as frequently occurred historically outside the confines of violence. Vulnerable to weather, human error, or design faults, whilst today we take ship travel for granted one should not overlook a time whereupon it carried significant risks and a very real chance of death. Spanning far beyond the contemporary obsession concerning the sinking of the Titanic, admittedly one of the most deadly peacetime maritime incidents, similar occurrences span across the messy history of mankind’s relationship with the seas.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
“The Loss of the Royal George”, by John Christian Schetky (c. 1840). Wikimedia Commons.

Here are 20 major naval disasters from history that will make you frightened to set foot aboard a ship:


20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
“The Spanish Armada and English ships in August 1588”; author unknown (c. pre-1700). Wikimedia Commons.

20. Costing a combined twenty thousand lives, the unfortunate weather surrounding the Spanish Armada sunk almost one-third of the would-be invasion fleet off the coast of the British Isles.

The Spanish Armada, known to the Spanish as the “Great and Most Fortunate Navy”, was a Habsburg fleet designed to escort an army from Flanders to England with the intent of invasion and the overthrow of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia and comprised of 130 ships, the Armada elected not to engage the English in the Solent and sought to establish a temporary anchor off the coast of Calais to wait for the Duke of Parma’s army. Scattered by an English fireship attack, the Armada was driven north by strong southwesterly winds before encountering a severe storm in the North Atlantic.

Having lost only five ships in battle against the English, the Armada suffered the wrecking of approximately thirty off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Among these, La Girona sunk off Lacada Point, County Antrim, on October 26, 1588. Having previously suffered damage to the rudder in earlier storms, La Girona anchored in Killybegs, Donegal, for repairs. Departing on October 25, the storm grew resurgent the following day. Struck by a gale and driven onto the coastal rocks, of the estimated 1,300 individuals on board the Spanish galleass only nine survived.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
Photo of the SS General Slocum; date unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

19. The greatest loss of life in the New York area until September 11, 2001, the sinking of PS General Slocum in the East River in 1904 cost over one thousand lives.

A sidewheel passenger steamboat, PS General Slocum, named for Henry Warner Slocum, operated in the New York area as an excursion steamer available for private hire. First launched in 1891, the Slocum retained a spotty safety record, experiencing several prior incidents during an ill-fated period of operation. Beginning just four months after entering service, the Slocum ran aground off Rockaway, doing so again three years later, collided with multiple other ships on a number of occasions during her thirteen-year lifespan, and was almost sunk during a drunken on-ship riot in August 1901.

On June 15, 1904, the Slocum caught fire in the East River of New York City whilst ferrying 1,342 members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church to a picnic. Likely caused by a discarded cigarette, oily rags and exposed gasoline fueled the inferno. Although the crew attempted to respond, having never trained for an emergency the efficacy of their efforts proved limited, with 1,021 passengers dying. In a display of public outrage, eight individuals, including Captain Van Schaick, were indicted by a federal grand jury for the incident. All were acquitted, except for Schaick. Convicted on one charge of criminal negligence, Schaick was sentenced to ten years hard labor before being pardoned by President William Howard Taft in 1912.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
The ship Ville de Paris, captured at the Battle of the Saintes, falls into a storm when transferred to England. By Thomas E.W. Tegg (c. 1808). Wikimedia Commons.

18. Killing approximately 3,500 people, the Central Atlantic Hurricane of 1782 struck a British naval fleet at an inopportune moment after engaging French forces.

Sailing from Bluefields, Jamaica, on July 25, 1782, Admiral Thomas Graves embarked into the North Atlantic. Traveling on board his flagship, HMS Ramillies, accompanied also by HMS Canada, HMS Centaur, and HMS Pallas, this small fleet of British ships escorted five French prizes, including proudly the Ville de Paris – a 110-gun ship of the line that had served as the flagship of the Comte de Grass during the American Revolutionary War – that had been captured at the Battle of the Saintes and the Battle of the Mona Passage. Encountering two French frigates on September 5, although sustaining damage to one ship progress continued unabated.

Joined by a number of merchant vessels seeking protection from privateers and French raiders, just twelve days later on September 17, whilst situated off the coast of Newfoundland, a violent storm erupted around the British. Forcing some smaller vessels to abandon the fleet and make for safe harbors, Graves sought to push on with the bulk of his forces. Only the Canada and a captured French ship, the Hector, survived and arrived in London. All three accompanying French prizes were sunk, as were the Centaur and Ramillies along with their merchant ship companions. It has been estimated a total of 3,500 sailors lost their lives in the incident.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
“Voyage of frigate Ertuğrul to Japan”, by Major General Osman Nuri Pasha (c. 1891-1906). Wikimedia Commons.

17. The victim of ill-fate from the start of their voyage, the crew of the Ertuğrul faced setback after setback until they were eventually shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in 1890.

A frigate of the Ottoman Navy, originally launched in 1863, after twenty-five years of respectable service the Ertuğrul underwent welcome restoration. Departing from Constantinople on July 14, 1889, the renovated ship, carrying a crew of 607, set sail for Japan on a goodwill visit. Encountering complications almost immediately, the Ertuğrul ran aground in Great Bitter Lake just twelve days later requiring further repairs. Resuming their voyage on September 23, whilst traversing the Indian Ocean the ship suffered major damage after taking on water. Stopping for repairs in Singapore, the Ertuğrul eventually, after eleven months, arrived in Yokohama on June 7, 1890.

Returning to Constantinople on September 15, 1890, the following day the Ertuğrul became the victim of a ferocious storm. Forcing the sails to be folded up, the strength of the winds grew so great they caused the mizzen mast to collapse. Separating the bow from the front of the ship, the boiling room sprung a leak. Although attempting to repair the damage, without means of propulsion the ship drifted into rocks on the eastern coast of Kii Ōshima on September 18. Killing 533 sailors, including the ship’s captain Rear Admiral Ali Osman Pasha, only 63 sailors and 6 officers survived the incident to be rescued by the Japanese.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
The Cowdray Engraving, depicting the Battle of the Solent (c. 1778). Wikimedia Commons.

16. The flagship of Henry VIII’s naval forces at the Battle of the Solent, the Mary Rose inadvertently flooded itself and caused the deaths of ninety percent of its crew.

A product of the dramatic expansions of the English Tudor Navy under King Henry VIII, the Mary Rose was a carrack-type warship that underwent major reconstruction and modifications in 1536. The alleged favorite of Henry, the Mary Rose was the among the earliest ships capable of firing a broadside and consequently was selected to serve as the English flagship during the Battle of the Solent on July 19, 1545. Sailing into the Solent – a stretch of water separating the Isle of Wight from the English mainland – to combat a French invasion fleet, carrying a crew of approximately 400 the Mary Rose suddenly encountered disaster.

Turning to engage the French galleys, the Mary Rose leaned heavily onto her starboard side, permitting water to rush into the ship’s bowels via the open gunports. Unable to correct the snowballing imbalance as the ship rapidly flooded, the crew of the flagship were helpless to prevent her sinking. Attempting to abandon ship, anti-boarding netting covering the upper decks to obstruct a French attack imprisoned the below-deck crew as they frantically sought to escape their watery tomb. In total, of the estimated four hundred men on board, just thirty-five, mostly those stationed on the masts and rigging, survived the sinking.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
‘The “Royal George” at Deptford Showing the Launch of “The Cambridge”‘, by John Cleveley the Elder (c. 1757). Wikimedia Commons.

15. One of the largest maritime losses to occur in British waters, the sinking of HMS Royal George during routine maintenance cost the lives of almost one thousand individuals.

Launched in 1756, HMS Royal George was a colossal 100-gun first-rate ship of the line employed by the Royal Navy. The largest warship in the world upon completion, the Royal George saw action during the Seven Years’ War, serving as the flagship during the Battle of Quiberon Bay and fighting during the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. Following the relief of Gibraltar in 1780 and serving as part of the Channel Fleet the following year, in 1782 the Royal George made birth in Portsmouth to undergo routine maintenance. On August 29, whilst carrying almost her full complement in addition to more than a couple of hundred visiting relatives and prostitutes, the ship suddenly tilted.

Due to the work being performed on the hull, the ship’s starboard guns had rolled into the center of the vessel. Causing an imbalance, the ship began to collapse on its side and started settling into the water. Despite the lieutenant of the watch being asked by the ship’s carpenter twice to order the men to their stations and attempt to rectify the worsening situation, the officer refused and rebuked his subordinate. Reaching critical lean, the ship suddenly and rapidly sunk. Although an estimated 255 people survived, it is projected 900, including 300 women and 60 children, perished aboard the Royal George.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
Photograph of the SS Kiangya (c. December 1948). Wikimedia Commons.

14. Following the defeat of the Republic of China, thousands of refugees fleeing the People’s Liberation Army were packed aboard an overcrowded steamship which subsequently struck a World War Two mine.

A Chinese passenger steamship, the SS Kiangya was a steamship owned by the Shanghai Merchants Group. With the imminent collapse of the Republic of China and the advance of the People’s Liberation Army, refugees fled into the port city seeking a means to escape capture. Carrying 2,150 listed passengers, as well as an estimated 2,000 more unlisted – far in excess of her stated capacity of 1,186 – whilst crossing the mouth of the Huangpu River on December 4, 1948, the Kiangya suddenly exploded. Believed to have struck a mine laid by the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Second World War, it took many hours for rescuers to reach the scene.

Saving seven hundred, it is thought between 2,750 and 3,920 people perished in the inadvertent devastation. Not the only or indeed last group of Chinese refugees to suffer a nautical disaster during the Chinese Civil War, on January 26, 1949, the Taiping packed on board more than 1,500 to escape the advancing People’s Liberation Army. Bound for Keelung, Taiwan, whilst traveling at night in the early hours of the following day the Taiping collided with a cargo ship near the Zhoushan Archipelago. Designed to carry only 580 passengers, all 1,500 aboard were killed in the incident.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
A model of HMS Sussex, facing starboard. Wikimedia Commons.

13. One of the worst disasters in the history of the Royal Navy, in 1694 thirteen ships of the fleet sank off the coast of Gibraltar costing the lives of more than 1,200 sailors.

An 80-gun third-rate ship of the line belonging to the Royal Navy, HMS Sussex was launched on April 11, 1693. Serving as the flagship of Admiral Sir Francis Wheler, the Sussex departed Portsmouth on December 27, 1693, bound for the Mediterranean Sea and escorting a fleet of forty-eight warships and one hundred and sixty-six merchant vessels. Granted the objective of “the annoying of the French” in collaboration with the Spanish, the Sussex, along with her companions, successfully reached the Mediterranean before encountering a violent storm near the Strait of Gibraltar on February 27, 1694.

Losing twelve other ships of the fleet, on the morning of March 1 the Sussex itself finally succumbed to the horrendous weather conditions. Responsible for the deaths of all on board, except for two Turks who miraculously survived, it has been suggested that the cause of the ship’s sinking was an inadequate design. In seeking to place eighty guns on only two decks, the Sussex had been rendered inherently unbalanced, with future ships possessing a third deck to avert this possibility. Carrying also an estimated ten tons of gold, valued today at more than $500 million, the site of the wreck has become a popular treasure hunting location.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
A modern “Junk” in Hong Kong harbor (c. 2006). Wikimedia Commons.

12. The “Titanic of the East”, the sinking of the Tek Sing in 1822 was responsible for the deaths of approximately 1,600 passengers and crew.

The Tek Sing, meaning “True Star”, was a three-masted ocean-faring junk – a type of ancient Chinese sailing vessel – of tremendous proportions. Measuring fifty meters in length, ten meters wide, and weighing approximately one thousand tons, the Tek Sing possessed a mast measuring more than ninety feet in height. Manned by a crew of two hundred, the enormous vessel, nicknamed the “Titanic of the East” in recent years, enjoyed a carrying capacity of 1,600 passengers. Departing modern-day Xiamen bound for Batavia – today the city of Jakarta, Indonesia – with a full complement of passengers and cargo, the ship attempted a shortcut through the Gaspar Strait.

Whilst sailing through a treacherous region of the South China Sea known as the Belvidere Shoals, located between the Bangka-Belitung Islands, on February 6, 1822, the Tek Sing ran aground on a reef. Rapidly taking on water, the ship sunk in just thirty meters of water. Discovered the following morning by an English vessel, 190 survivors drifting on debris from the sunken ship were rescued by Captain James Pearl. In 1999, marine salvor Michael Hatcher discovered the lost wreck of the Tek Sing, salvaging more than 350,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain in the largest sunken cache ever recovered.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
“The Sinking of the White Ship in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur”; author unknown (c. 1320). Wikimedia Commons.

11. Ultimately resulting in The Anarchy – a period of civil war in England – the sinking of the White Ship in 1120 caused the deaths of approximately 300 including the heir to the throne William Adelin.

A newly refurbished ship captained by Thomas FitzStephen, whose father had carried William the Conqueror across the Straits of Dover in 1066, the White Ship was offered to Henry I of England to return to the British Isles from Normandy in 1120. Possessing alternative arrangements, the White Ship was nevertheless granted the honor of carrying Henry’s heir, William Adelin, as well as his illegitimate son, Richard of Lincoln, half-sister, Matilda, and half-brother, Richard. After an evening of heavy drinking, Adelin, proclaiming he would beat his father back to England, ordered FitzStephen to set sail with haste.

Captaining the fastest ship in the fleet and confident in his skill, FitzStephen disembarked on November 25 in the middle of the night in pursuit of Henry’s vessel. Striking a submerged rock, however, the White Ship instead quickly sunk. In the panicked attempt to abandon ship aboard a small lifeboat, the drunken passengers overcrowded and unintentionally sunk that too. Drowning all 300 aboard except for two survivors, according to Orderic Vitalis FitzStephen initially survived but elected to drown rather than face the King’s wrath. The sudden death of the presumptive heir triggered a succession crisis and civil war in England.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
An 18th-century engraving of the disaster, with HMS Association in the center; author unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Among the worst maritime disasters in British history, during the War of the Spanish Succession a Royal Navy fleet was mistakenly navigated onto rocks killing two thousand people.

After participating in the failed Siege of Toulon during the War of the Spanish Succession, a British fleet of fifteen ships of the line, as well as four fireships, a sloop, and a yacht, sailed for Portsmouth from Gibraltar. Departing from the recently captured Mediterranean possession on September 29, 1707, the fleet encountered poor weather from the outset. Worsening as the group entered the Atlantic via the Bay of Biscay, the ships were pushed off course by strong winds and rains. Entering the English Channel on October 22 after a fraught voyage, the sailing masters – the officers responsible for navigation – fatefully miscalculated their positions.

Believing they were already west of Ushant – an island off the coast of Brittany – the navigators charted what was thought a safe course. Positioned actually off the Isles of Scilly, before the navigators could correct their error the fleet struck submerged rocks. Sinking four ships – HMS Association, HMS Eagle, HMS Romney, and HMS Firebrand – in only a few minutes, the remainder of the fleet were able to alter course and avert greater losses. Costing between an estimated 1,400 and 2,000 lives, including the fleet Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, the incident remains one of the worst maritime disasters in British history.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
A sketch drawing of the Lefort; author unknown (c. 1857). Wikimedia Commons.

9. One of potentially as many as thirty Russian ships lost on September 22, 1857, the Lefort was sunk during strong winds, carrying to the depths almost one thousand people.

A ship of the line in the Imperial Russian Navy, the Lefort was an Empress Alexander-class warship. Rated at 84 guns, although actually armed with 94, she was constructed in the early 1830s in Saint Petersburg before launching in July 1835 in the presence of Emperor Nicholas I. Joining the Russian Baltic Fleet, the Lefort distinguished herself during the defense of Kronstadt during the Crimean War against a combined Franco-British fleet. Under the command of Rear Admiral Nordman, on the morning of September 22, 1857, the Lefort was traveling from modern-day Tallinn, Estonia, back to Kronstadt.

Accompanied by several other ships, including the Imperatritsa Aleksandra, Vladimir, and Pamiat Asova, the Lefort at this time carried a crew of 756, in addition to 53 women and 17 children. Caught in a sudden squall, the Lefort, without warning, heeled over. Miraculously righting herself, she subsequently did so again but without rectification. Sinking between the islands of Gogland and Bolshoy Tyuters, all 826 on board were killed. Just one of as many as thirty Russian ships lost during a storm that day, the incident was blamed on open gun ports to provide fresh air for the family members journeying as passengers aboard.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
Toya Maru at an unknown date. Wikimedia Commons.

8. One of four vessels destroyed by Typhoon Marie in 1954, the sinking of the Tōya Maru was caused by the ineptitude of its captain and cost more than one thousand individuals their lives.

Constructed by the Japanese National Railways, the Tōya Maru, measuring 389 feet long and 52 feet wide, was a train ferry constructed to transport goods and freight between Aomori and Hakodate. Capable of covering the distance in four hours and thirty minutes, the Tōya Maru, launched on November 21, 1947, became one of the first Japanese liners to be equipped with radar and was granted the honor of carrying Emperor Hirohito in August 1954. Just one month later, on September 26, whilst traveling in the Sea of Japan the Tōya Maru encountered wind speeds exceeding one hundred kilometers per hour.

A product of Typhoon Marie, the Tōya Maru was supposed to complete its return journey to Aomori before the former’s fearsome arrival in the Tsugaru Strait. Delayed in departing due to the transfer of passengers from a small ferry unable to sail, with weather conditions seemingly improving the captain elected to set sail that evening instead. Discovering the storm had not abated after just twenty minutes at sea, the Tōya Maru sought to anchor near Hakodate Port to await improvements. Caught in open waters, the anchor did not hold. Capsizing the vessel several hundred meters from shore, of the 1,309 persons on board just 150 survived.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
“Loss of HMS Victory, 4 October 1744”, by Peter Monamy (c. the 18th century). Wikimedia Commons.

7. The fourth in a long line of ships bearing the name HMS Victory, in 1744, just twenty-three years after its eponymous predecessor was destroyed in a fire, the fledgling warship sunk in the English Channel taking 1,150 sailors with it.

Not to be confused with Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory was a 100-gun first-rate ship of the line belonging to the Royal Navy. Launched on February 23, 1737, with timbers salvaged from the previous iteration of the Victory used during construction, the £50,000 warship became the flagship of the Channel Fleet. Despite bearing a grand heritage behind her name, the fourth HMS Victory to sail for Britain was poorly designed. A product of internal disputes, rooms requested to be small were deliberately made large out of spite, an additional stern galley was added for ascetics, and her additional weight risked compromise in rough seas.

Taking years to pass sea trials as a result of these incompetent alterations, on October 4, 1744, whilst returning to England after breaking a French blockade in the Tagus estuary, HMS Victory encountered a large storm. Scattering the accompanying fleet, her companions lost sight of the young warship and, despite an extensive search, neither she nor her crew were discovered. Identifying wreckage on the shores of Jersey and Alderney, it was believed that the ship had been wrecked on Black Rock during the night, killing all 1,150 sailors on board. In 2008, a marine exploration company discovered the wreck, resting on the seabed of the Western Approaches.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
Sultana at Helena, Arkansas on April 26, 1865, a day before her destruction. Wikimedia Commons.

6. The worst maritime disaster in United States history, the explosion of the Sultana near Memphis, Tennessee killed 1,169 passengers, mostly Union prisoners of war, less than a month after the end of the Civil War.

Intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade, the Sultana was a side-wheel steamboat constructed in 1863 with a capacity of just 376 passengers. Commissioned during the American Civil War to transport troops up and down the Mississippi River, in the conflict’s aftermath in April 1865 she was frequently used to assist with the repatriation of freshly released Union prisoners. Upon hearing the news of Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, fearing resumption of hostilities, Union commanders sought to transport as many former prisoners away from possible recapture as soon as possible.

Offering above-rate fees to coerce the ship’s captain, on April 27 it is estimated 2,138 people were packed aboard the Sultana when it exploded near Memphis. Sinking into the freezing waters, with many succumbing to hypothermia, approximately 1,169 of those aboard lost their lives. Although initial speculation centered around potential sabotage, subsequent investigations apportioned blame between three primary factors: poor quality boiler materials, inadequately maintained boilers, and the design of the boilers themselves. Combined, these faults in the boilers triggered a chain-reaction and caused them to explode simultaneously. Despite clear human error, including the forced overcrowding, nobody was held accountable for the worst maritime disaster in American history.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
The HMS Royal Katherine, later renamed HMS Ramillies. Wikimedia Commons.

5. Rebuilt multiple times, garnering both praise and notoriety during her almost one century of service, HMS Ramillies sank off the coast of Devon in 1760 along with more than 800 of her crew.

Launched in 1664 as HMS Royal Katherine, serving in and seeing action during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, Third Anglo-Dutch War, and the War of the Grand Alliance, in 1702 the second-rate ship of the line underwent reconstruction in Portsmouth. Increased in gun capacity and modernized, the vessel was rechristened HMS Ramillies in 1706 in honor of the British victory at the Battle of Ramillies that same year. Rebuilt again in 1742, HMS Ramillies served as the flagship of Admiral John Byng during the Seven Years’ War, ignobly unsuccessful in defending the island of Minorca for which Byng was controversially executed for “failing to do his utmost”.

Reassigned to other duties, on February 15, 1760, HMS Ramillies mistakenly approached the Devon shore. Wrongly identified as safe waters by the ship’s navigator, in the face of a strong onshore wind anchors were ordered dropped in a vain attempt to hold the ship until she could escape back into the open seas. Unable to find purchase in the sandbanks beneath, HMS Ramillies continued to drift towards the treacherous rocks surrounding the coast. Striking the cliffs beneath Bolt Tail, the ill-fated warship quickly sank. Of her crew of 850 men, just twenty-six seaman and one midshipman survived.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
An artistic impression of the collision between the Princess Alice and Bywell Castle, taken from Harper’s Weekly October 12, 1878 edition. Wikimedia Commons.

4. The collision of SS Princess Alice and SS Bywell Castle was the largest waterway loss of life in British history, resulting in the deaths of between 600-700 passengers.

Formerly known as PS Bute, SS Princess Alice was a passenger paddle steamer operating as a transport vessel between London and Gravesend. Captained by William R.H. Grinstead and with a capacity of 936 passengers, during an evening return on September 3, 1878, to Swan Pier, situated near London Bridge, the boat encountered a collier: SS Bywell Castle. Weighing more than three times the weight of the steamer, the oceanic coal transport met the Alice mid-river. Whilst Grinstead maneuvered his ship into the correct passing position, the collier did not, instead placing itself directly into the path of the smaller vessel.

Striking Princess Alice on her starboard side, the passenger ship was split in two. Sinking within four minutes, despite efforts by the crew of Bywell Castle to rescue survivors from the water most were unable to swim and wearing heavy clothing. Carrying a near-full contingent of passengers, it is estimated that between six to seven hundred people died in the largest loss of life of any British waterway accident. Although subsequent investigations did not directly point blame at either party, despite evidence suggesting Bywell Castle was more at fault, just five years later the collier sunk off in the Bay of Biscay killing all forty crewmen.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
“The Great Storm November 26, 1703, Wherein Rear Admiral Beaumont was lost on the Goodwin Sands”, author unknown (c. the 18th century). Wikimedia Commons.

3. Blamed by the Church of England as divine punishment for a poor performance in battle against the Catholics in the War of the Spanish Succession, the Great Storm of 1703 killed more than 10,000 men and destroyed one-fifth of the Royal Navy.

Causing significant damage throughout the southern English mainland, including felling 4,000 oak trees in the New Forest, the Great Storm of 1703 was an immensely destructive extra-tropical cyclone that struck the British Isles on November 26, 1703. Believed to have been equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane, the event caused mass flooding throughout the West Country, destroyed hundreds of windmills, and blew down more than 2,000 chimneys across London. Returning to England at an inopportune moment, a convoy of 130 merchant ships escorted by several Royal Navy vessels attempted to shelter at Milford Haven. By the following afternoon, more than thirty had been destroyed.

Concurrently, a group of warships, including HMS Stirling Castle, HMS Northumberland, HMS Mary, and HMS Restoration were returning to port after contesting the War of the Spanish Succession in France. Driven onto the Goodwin Sands by colossal winds, more than a dozen ships were wrecked with minimal survivors. In total, more than 1,500 sailors died at the sandbank, with an estimated total casualty figure from the devastation ranging between eight to fifteen thousand. Daniel Defoe projected that the incident lost the Royal Navy in excess of one-fifth of its entire fleet.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
The approximate location of the 1711 Quebec Expedition naval disaster (map c. 1733). Wikimedia Commons.

2. Thwarting an attempt by the British to attack Quebec during Queen Anne’s War, the invasion fleet was stopped by fierce weather conditions on the Saint Lawrence River that took the lives of almost one thousand soldiers.

Occurring during the course of Queen Anne’s War – the North American theater in the War of the Spanish Succession – the Quebec Expedition of 1711 was an attempt by the British to capture Quebec from the French. Poorly planned and provisioned, the expedition, comprising a fleet of nine ships of war and sixty transports carrying a total of 7,500 soldiers and 6,00 sailors, set sail from Boston on July 30. Reaching the coast of Nova Scotia without incident on August 3, the fleet arrived at the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. On the morning of August 18, as the fleet attempted to enter the Saint Lawrence River, encountering fierce northwesterly winds.

Blanketing the river in thick fog, the fleet drifted inexpertly upriver until, without warning, it was driven into giant breakers. Two warships, HMS Montague and HMS Windsor, were unable to navigate safely away, instead dropping anchor and attempting to endure the waves. Unable to see their sister ships, neighboring crews could only “hear the shrieks of the sinking, drowning, departing souls”. An account of the disaster three days later recorded the loss of seven transport ships, in addition to 850 soldiers. Blaming inadequate planning and support, the expedition elected to turn back and not continue with the attack.

20 Naval Disasters from History that Make Us Scared to Sail
The attempted invasion of the Mongols, by Kikuchi Yoosai (c. 1847). Wikimedia Commons.

1. The largest attempted naval invasion in human history until the D-Day landings in Normandy, both Mongol attempts under Kublai Khan to invade Japan were foiled by typhoons which sunk thousands of ships in what became known as “Kamikaze” – meaning “divine wind”.

Due to the support of Japanese raiders for the ailing Song dynasty, Kublai Khan – the fifth Khagan of the Mongol Empire and first Emperor of the Yuan dynasty – ordered the invasion of Japan in retribution. First attempting in 1274 with a fleet comprising approximately 900 ships, the Mongols conquered settlements on the small islands of Tsushima and Iki. However, while attempting to land at Hakata Bay on the larger island of Kyūshū, the Mongols were met by a combined force of samurai clans, driving them back into the sea. During this withdrawal to the Chinese mainland, the Mongol fleet was struck by a colossal typhoon and lost.

Attempting again in 1281, employing a fleet of more than 4,000 ships carrying in excess of 140,000 men, the Mongol effort was the largest recorded naval invasion in history until D-Day on June 6, 1944. Facing a two-meter high wall protecting a colossal fortress, built in the interim seven-year period in preparation for a Mongol return, the invasion force was unable to make significant headway onto Kyūshū. Spending months afloat whilst seeking an effective attack strategy, the Mongol fleet was once again struck by a rogue typhoon. Annihilating both the fleet and army, the Mongols abandoned their efforts and did not attempt a further invasion.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Treasures of the Armada”, Robert Stenuit, E.P. Dutton and Company (1973)

“The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588”, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Oxford University Press (1988)

“Fire on the River: The Story of the Burning of the General Slocum”, Werner Braatz and Joseph Starr, Krokodiloplis Press (2000)

“The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum”, Ed O’Donnell, Broadway Publishing (2003)

“The Warship Mary Rose: The Life and Times of King Henry VIII’s Flagship”, David Childs, Greenhill Books (2007)

“Sealed by Time: The Loss and Recovery of the Mary Rose”, Peter Marsden, The Mary Rose Trust (2003)

“The Ship of the Line, Volume 1: The Development of the Battlefleet 1650-1850”, Brian Lavery, Conway Maritime Press (2003)

“Blunders and Disasters at Sea”, David Blackmore, Pen and Sword Maritime (2004)

“Why you’ve never heard of the six Chinese men who survived the Titanic”, Washington Post, Amy B Wang (April 19, 2018)

“Shipwreck ‘could yield billions'”, BBC News (February 25, 2002)

“Sir Francis Wheler (1656-1694)”, in “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, C.S. Knighton, Oxford University Press (2004)

“Taiping Sinking Recalled”, Loa Iok-Sin, Taipei Times (January 28, 2008)

“Swallowed in 14 Minutes”, Gavin Murphy, Gare Maritime (June 20, 2001)

“Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy”, Judith A. Green, Cambridge University Press (2006)

“British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714-1792”, Rif Winfield, Seaforth Publishing (2007)

“Sailing Ships of War 1400-1860”, F. Howard, Conway Maritime Press (1979)

“First Rate: The Greatest Warships of the Age of Sail”, Rif Winfield, Naval Institute Press (2010)

“Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History”, Alan Huffman, Collins Publishing (2009)

“Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865”, Gene Eric Salecker, Naval Institute Press (1996)

“The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy”, N.A.M. Rodger, Naval Institute Press (1986)

“Princess Alice: Disasters on the Thames”, Michael Foley, The History Press (2011)

“The Greatest Storm”, Martin Brayne, Sutton Publishing (2002)

“The Storm”, Daniel Defoe, Penguin Classics (2005)

“The Walker Expedition to Quebec, 1711”, Gerald S. Graham, The Champlain Society (1953)

“Japan: A Modern History”, James L. McClain, W.W. Norton and Company (2002)