Maritime Disaster
rating: 0+x

Eternal Father, Strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bid'st the mighty Ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to thee,
for those in peril on the sea.

— The Navy Hymn

"Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned."
— Samuel Johnson

Basic Information

Over three quarters of the globe is covered with water. We don't belong there. And sometimes, to remind us of that fact, the Sea lashes out at the puny ships we air-breathers send out upon her surface. The result is often a Maritime Disaster.

Maritime Disasters usually involve ships sinking in storms, although sometimes they hit icebergs, run aground on rocks, collide with each other, are sunk by hostile forces or just plain disappear.

For those unfamiliar with storms at sea, popular causes of ship-loss during storms include swamping (the ship fills with water, possibly due to a wave breaking over her, and sinks), breaking her back whilst hogging and sagging (ship comes apart due to the movement of waves beneath her) or (especially in the sailing era) being pooped (hit from behind by a wave, spun sideways and rolled over). These tend to be open ocean disasters, since this is where the highest waves and roughest seas are - in smaller seas and coastal waters mariners exchange less risk from waves for a greater risk of being driven ashore by the storm.

A new theory also suggests a danger of large bubbles of naturally occurring methane rising from the ocean bed beneath a ship, effectively creating a pit in the sea into which the ship falls, the walls of which then collapse onto her and sink her. This would seem to be an unlikely coincidence, but is hypothesised as being the cause of various historical disappearances. Presumably bubbles of other gases could have a similar effect - at least one African lake is known to have a nasty habit of coughing up huge bubbles of carbon dioxide. Being a remote African lake it doesn't have much access to shipping and so mainly kills anything that breathes around its banks instead.

In real life, attacks by dangerous maritime fauna are a fairly minor part of this1 - although once you are out of the ship, all bets are off2 - but myths and legends, not to mention sci-fi and fantasy are more prone to this sort of thing.

Sheer incompetence - whether in the design, building or manning of a ship can also lead to disaster.

Notable Maritime Disasters

See Also:


Game and Story Use

  • The PCs could be searching for the wreck of a ship that sank
    • Perhaps it contained valuable cargo that they want to recover
    • Or perhaps they are trying to discover exactly why it sank
  • They might be on board a ship which is in danger of sinking
    • This is pretty much guaranteed for any sea voyage before the advent of modern shipbuilding and navigation (most of the medieval and classical period). Travelling by sea should be a hair-raising experience for any character who isn't an experienced sailor.
    • Time travelers on board the Titanic makes a good plot.
    • A shipwreck generally can be a good start to a campaign - or a way of seperating your PCs from unwanted equipment.
  • You can see why our ancestors thought the sea was out to get them … and in some settings, this may be the case, especially for those that offend the relevant powers.
  • If any player complains that ships sink under their character far too readily, point them to The Odyssey - you'd be struggling to outdo Homer.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License