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What can happen to a ship

Fact File

Ships and the people on them are vulnerable to all sorts of accidents. Here you can discover some of the many things that can happen to the ship, its crew and passengers. The types of accident are set out in alphabetical order, but often a combination of the factors leads to the casualty


After an accident the crew might decide they are in less danger off the ship than on it. They may abandon their ship,   taking to the boats or going aboard another nearby ship. Occasionally an abandoned ship is reboarded by someone who hopes they can save it and claim salvage money [ definition].

Breaking up

Wind and waves can often cause a ship that has stranded [definition] to fall apart, and it is said to be `breaking up`. Breaking up can also be deliberate, as when a ship is sold to ship breakers who take it apart to reuse the scrap metal (see scrapping [definition]).


A ship or boat that turns upside down but continues to float is `capsized`. It can happen in bad weather if the cargo is not stowed securely or there is not enough ballast [definition] to keep the craft upright.


There are strict rules of seamanship to avoid collisions,but human error, weather or equipment failures mean that ships still hit one another. This is especially so in busy sea lanes like the English Channel or the entrances to ports.


With their huge areas of sail and tall masts, sailing ships were very vulnerable to changes in the wind`s force or direction. If the sails could not be taken in or adjusted quickly enough, the masts could break under the pressure. The ship was then said to be `dismasted`.


Ships carrying dangerous cargoes, such as petrol or explosives, can blow up if they catch fire. Explosions can also occur in engine and boiler rooms, which can lead to a fire, or damage the ship so badly that it sinks.


Few things worry the seafarer more than a fire at sea. This was especially so in the days when most ships were made of wood and their hulls and rigging were covered in highly flammable tar. There were many open flames onboard ship, as cooking and heating used fires, lighting was with oil lamps or candles and many sailors smoked.


When a ship sinks because it springs a leak or is overcome by wind and waves, it is said to have `foundered`.


If a ship touches bottom for a short time, perhaps for a few hours until it floats off on the next tide, it is `grounded`. It is not as serious as stranding [ definition], although a grounding can turn into a stranding if the ship does not refloat soon. A grounding often means the ship has to be examined in a dry-dock to check whether its bottom has been damaged.


When a ship is no longer fit to go to sea and is left on a beach, it is said to be `hulked`. Hulking was a common fate for wooden ships, especially if they had lost some of their masts and rigging in bad weather or were no longer seaworthy. But with an iron or steel ship, hulking is less common as its metal has a scrap value and the ship can be sold to a shipbreaker. Prison hulks were old ships in which convicts were imprisoned, often before being transported to a penal colony, such as Australia.


If a ship sinks far from land, the crew may not be rescued, no distress message may be sent and no-one may witnesses it. The ship is described as `missing`, `disappeared` or `lost without trace`. This happened more often in the days before radio, but even today, ships can sink so quickly that there is no time to send a distress message. When a ship does not arrive at a port where it is expected, it is `overdue`. If it does not turn up within a reasonable time, the ship is `posted missing`. This means it is feared lost and the insurers have to pay up.


Not all ships end their days as a wreck. It is more common for modern steel ships to be sold for scrapping when their economic life is over.


Ships are sometimes deliberately sunk by someone on board, or `scuttled`. Unscrupulous owners may get the crew to sink a ship and pretend it has foundered to claim the insurance money. In wartime, a ship may be scuttled by its crew to prevent it falling into enemy hands. If an enemy warship captures a ship, but cannot take it to a friendly port, it may well scuttle it. Sometimes ships which come to end of their lives are scuttled to create a reef to attract fish or as somewhere for divers to practice.


A ship that goes ashore on a beach or sandbank is `stranded`. The smooth nature of sand often means the ship is undamaged and may be able to float again at high tide. However, a stranded ship is vulnerable to bad weather, and wind and waves might cause it to break up or be driven onto rocks. Ships are sometimes deliberately stranded to prevent them foundering [ definition], especially if they have been damaged. The ship, its crew and cargo may then be saved.

Total loss

If a ship stays in one piece after it is stranded or sinks in shallow water, attempts are often made at salvage [definition]. If this is not possible, the ship is described as a `total loss`. When the insurance money has been paid, the ship becomes the property of its insurers. If the ship remains intact but is so badly damaged that it would not be worth salvaging and repairing, it is called a `constructive total loss`. Occasionally, an enterprising salvager might buy the ship, refloat it and have it repaired.


Although used generally to describe the end of a ship, `wrecked` means the ship is so firmly wedged on shore that there is little chance of it getting off again. `Wreck` also refers to the remains of the ship after an accident.

War losses

In wartime, ships of the enemy are prime targets. In the world wars of the twentieth century, thousands of ships were lost. Methods of attack include using torpedoes, gunfire, mines, bombs and guided missiles. The object is to hole the ship so that it sinks, to set it on fire or force it to go aground.


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