According to Wikipedia, “the United Nations estimates that there are more than 3 million shipwrecks lying scattered on the bottom of the seven seas.” It seems that ships not only have to contend with errant icebergs and pirates, they also have to worry about human error, incorrect charts and faulty parts, not to mention inclement weather and dangerous cargo. A life at sea is only for the very brave (or foolhardy), and while shipping can be a lucrative industry, it’s also very unpredictable, so only those with nerves of steel should consider a career with noted shipping agents.
One of the first things that ships’ captains need to worry about is hull integrity. If there are any weaknesses in the hull even the slightest scrape or increase in pressure will cause it to tear or buckle and then the real problems begin. Water flowing into the ship, either slowly or in a cascade, will badly affect the ship’s buoyancy, which puts further strain on the hull and propulsion systems.
All equipment needs to be tip-top shape anyway, but in an emergency, such as a breached hull, fully functioning equipment can make the difference between life and death. All equipment needs to be properly maintained and any damage repaired immediately. Returning to the leaking hull scenario, ship’s pumps are vital, without them a shipwreck is virtually certain.
Bad weather is also a major cause of shipwrecks, particularly the waves that result from high winds. Aside from being terrifying, big waves increase the stress on the ship’s hull and play havoc with navigation. The best that ships can hope to do during a storm is ride it out and keep clear of any rocks or reefs. This is often easier said than done, especially for sailing ships that don’t have motorised navigation systems to help them weather the storm. In an effort not to become another shipwreck statistic, sailing ships are advised to try and find shelter (in a harbour to bay) or position themselves so that they ride with the wind and don’t increase the stress on the rigging or hull by fighting the wind or the waves.
Human error often covered by the umbrella term ‘navigation error’ is one of the most common causes of shipwrecks internationally. Even with the aid of modern hi-tech navigation equipment simple calculation errors or reliance of incorrect or out of date charts can lead to collisions with icebergs (the most famous of all shipwrecks) and reefs or cause the ship to run aground.
Sometimes ships carry dangerous cargo, not anything quite as obvious as explosives (although that is not uncommon) but oil, natural gas and fertilizer are fairly delicate substances and don’t take kindly to unnecessary roughness, which happens when ships battle nature on the sea. As a result, fire is a danger that requires constant vigilance and ships carrying such cargo need to be well equipped to handle anything that could potentially go wrong, including explosions.
Not all shipwrecks are completely preventable, but there are a number of safeguards in place to ensure that the numbers are kept to a minimum. For instance, all captains should be familiar with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, crew should have intimate knowledge of modern navigations systems as well as more traditional tools and, as far as possible, ships should have methods in place that will delay flooding to allow crew and passengers enough time to escape, for example, watertight compartments and pumps. Regular inspection of all equipment and the ship itself will also help to prevent shipwrecks and save lives.