Top 10 Worst Maritime Disasters in History

When a tree falls in a forest, does it make a noise? It does disturb the vibration in the fluidic medium, but there’s no one to listen to. Can’t a shipwreck be similar? A ship meeting its doom without anyone present to help. It sends a mayday, but sometimes by the time rescue ships arrive, the harm has been done.

Ship voyages always carry a huge element of risk. Excessive precaution and training are required by the seafarers, as even a small miscalculation or mistake is enough to take the entire vessel down. Causes of such maritime disasters include equipment failure, navigational errors, weather, collision, warfare, etc. Death rates by ferries come third after motorcycles and cars. There have been numerous incidents of maritime disasters since the early ages, and they have increased over recent times. Here is the list of 10 such disasters in recent history, positioned according to their casualties. 

  • MV Wilhelm Gustloff-


This German Ocean Liner which was sunk by the Soviet submarine on 30th January 1945 remains the deadliest maritime disaster to date. It suffered an estimated casualty of about 9,400 passengers. It was initially a German cruise ship that later, in WWII, served as a hospital. In the January of 1945, it was required to serve as the rescue ship for Operation Hannibal (the mass evacuation of German troops and civilians from East Prussia due to the advancement of the Red Army). On the evening of the 30th of January, in its rescue mission, Gustloff was hit by three Russian torpedoes. It sank over the course of 1 hour. With more than 10,000 people onboard only around 1000 could survive, making this the sinking with the highest death toll.

  • MV Goya-

Goya initially was a Norwegian motor freighter and was later seized by Nazi Germany. She was made to be a part of Operation Hannibal. Loaded with thousands of German refugees the ship sank on the 16th of April 1945. She was torpedoed at midnight by a Soviet Submarine and had the same fate as the Gustloff. Only 183 out of the estimated 6700 passengers survived. It is the biggest single-incident maritime loss of life of the war.    

  • MV Dona Paz-

Dona Paz Onomichi Zosen of Hiroshima, with a passenger capacity of 608, MV Dona Paz was carrying around 4500 passengers on the December of 1987. Eager to reach their destination, these passengers had crowded the ship before its departure from Tacloban, Philippines.  During its voyage, this seriously overcrowded and tilted ship collided with the oil tanker Vector. This ignited a fire, and both the vessel burned and sank. Except for 24 passengers, everyone met an unfortunate fate. With the combined death toll of 4,300, the Christmas of 1987, holds the record of the worst peacetime maritime disaster ever. 

  • RMS Lancastria-

On the 17th of June 1940, this British Ocean Liner was bombed during her voyage costing the lives of approximately 4,000 refugees. She was serving under Operation Aerial and was ordered to evacuate British nationals and troops from France. During her journey, she suffered three bombs by the Luftwaffe (a German air weapon). It had 16 lifeboats and 2500 live jackets, but some boats were damaged by the bomb and some capsized while landing. The ship met its fate within 20 minutes of the attack and only 2000 lives could be saved. This is the largest single-ship loss of life in British maritime history. 

  • SS Kiangya-

SS Kiangya was a Chinese steamship that left Shanghai in the December of 1948, carrying passengers double its capacity. These were refugees fleeing from the Nationalist stronghold of Shanghai during the Nationalist Civil War. It met with an explosion at the mouth of Huangpu River after hitting a mine that was probably laid down by the Imperial Japanese navy. Casualties were estimated to be between 2,750 to 3,920 passengers and around 700 managed to survive

  • SS Mont-Blanc-

Laden with heavy explosives, this French cargo ship collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo near the Halifax harbor. The 40-man crew on the Mont Blanc escaped but around 2000 people were killed on the shore of Halifax by the explosion, falling debris, fire and falling buildings. Around 9000 were injured. It is the largest accidental explosion of conventional weapons to date.

  • RMS Titanic-

The story of this Unsinkable ship’s shipwreck is very famous, and perhaps doesn’t need an explanation. The world’s largest ship at its time, the RMS Titanic was a British One-Liner. On April 14, 1912, she was on her maiden voyage to New York city when she collided with an iceberg that deformed a part of her hull. She sank within the next few hours. The number of lifeboats in the vessel could carry far less than the actual number of passengers and they were also being launched well below capacity. Only, 703 people could be rescued and over 1500 people died either due to drowning or hyperthermia.  The fate of this ‘Millionaire’s Special’ is so famous because it was the largest and the most opulent ship of its time and was considered unsinkable. 

  • Le Joola-

Le Joola, Senegalese government-owned ferry was capsized off the coast of Gambia, father out on sea where it was licensed to sail. On September 26, 2002, with around 2000 passengers (4 times the carrying capacity) on board, it ran into a violent storm that took the lives of most of around 1,863 people. It is the second-worst non-military maritime disaster in world history.

  • SS Sultana-

The sinking of this ship has been the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S history. This steamboat was used to carry soldiers during the American civil war. On the 27th of April 1865, she experienced three boiler explosions causing huge damage and major fires in the vessel and making it sink near the Mississippi River.  The ship was hugely overcrowded with 2,137 members, 7 times the carrying capacity. The death toll was 1,168.  

  • Mediterranean Sea-migrant shipwreck-

On 19th April 2015, a boat carrying refugees and migrants bound for Europe capsized off the coast of Libya. It overturned after its occupants rushed to one side to draw the attention of the passing merchant ship. Casualties are estimated to be around 1,100 while the rest 28 passengers were saved by the Italian coast guard. 

There are several such disasters that are still unknown or unaccounted for. The casualties in every such incident are the estimates of the concerned authorities; the reality could be far worse. Ships at sea are open to huge misfortunes. But still, they remain the cheapest and most useful method of transportation. Undoubtedly, a ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.

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