5 of the Worst Shipwrecks in History

Updated on September 21, 2018
K S Lane profile image

K S Lane is a student of science and is deeply passionate about educating others on her favourite topics.

When asked to think about the most deadly accidents of all time, most people’s answers revolve around fiery, explosive plane crashes, while shipwrecks don’t even come to mind. And yet, some of the most lethal accidents of all time have been shipping disasters. After all, an average sized ocean liner can carry over three times the amount of passengers than the biggest jumbo jets can, and military vessels even more so. Listed below is five of the worst shipwrecks in recorded history, ranked not only on their victim count but also on the horror-factor and historical importance surrounding the disaster.

This article details 5 of the worst shipwrecks in history
This article details 5 of the worst shipwrecks in history | Source

5. The RMS Lusitania

At the time of the RMS Lusitania’s launch in 1906 she was a revolutionary piece of engineering that briefly held the prestigious title of the world’s largest passenger ship. Over the nine years that she was in active service, owned by the Cunard Line, she made 202 successful trans-Atlantic crossings, which was an impressive feat for ships of the day. The beginning of World War I in 1914 brought new and frightening dangers to the shipping industry as a whole, and fear of German U-boats meant that many companies altered their routes and services over the war years to steer well clear of any potentially dangerous stretches of ocean. However, desperate to keep up with the fierce competition that existed in the sphere of North Atlantic trade, the Cunard Line kept pushing their ships to perform. This attitude would ultimately end in disaster.

On the 7th of May 1915, as the Lusitania was completing a trip from New York bound for Liverpool, she was struck by torpedoes fired from a German U-Boat. The damage was so severe that she sunk in just 18 minutes, 1,198 passengers going down with the ship. The incident inspired horror not just in Britain but also in the U.S, as there had been 128 American citizens amongst the dead. The sinking of the Lusitania would eventually be a key contributing factor to the United States entering the first World War in 1917.

The RMS Lusitania in her glory days, before she was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915.
The RMS Lusitania in her glory days, before she was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915. | Source

4. The RMS Titanic

The sinking of the RMS Titanic is undoubtably the most famous disaster that’s ever occurred at sea, and much of this is due to the fact that the purportedly 'unsinkable ship' went down just four days into its maiden voyage. On April the 15th 1912, conditions at sea were perfect. One member of the crew aboard the Titanic described the water as being "like glass." The smooth sailing conditions continued into the night, even as the temperature started to plummet. At 10:40pm, the Telegraph Operator aboard the Titanic received an iceberg alert from another ship in the area, but the tired, overwrought man was busy with other duties and failed to pass on the message. It was moonless night, and the few crew members who’d been charged with spotting icebergs hadn’t been provided with binoculars.

Finally, at 11:40, came the cry that would eventually become recognised around the entire world. "Iceberg right ahead." The lookout, Frederick Fleet, quickly telephoned the bridge to tell them of the impending disaster, but by then it was already too late. Just 37 seconds after the cry went up, the iceberg ripped into the ship’s starboard bow.

In the panic to leave the sinking Titanic, almost all of the lifeboats were dropped without being completely filled. The captain’s order of "women and children first" was misinterpreted to mean "women and children only," and as such half-filled boats were dropped with husbands, fathers and brothers looking on anxiously. The last lifeboat left the ship at 2:00am, and shortly after the ship slipped below the waves and was lost forever.

The famed cruise ship was carrying 2,208 people at the time of her sinking, and of those only 706 survived. Without lifejackets, some drowned immediately while others succumbed to the freezing waters more slowly. The unsinkable ship had sunken, and taken 1,502 people with her.

An artist's rendering of the sinking of the Titanic
An artist's rendering of the sinking of the Titanic | Source

3. The MV Doña Paz

The MV Dona Paz was a 300ft Filipino passenger ferry that went down on a journey from Leyte Island to the Filipino capital of Manila on the 20th of December, 1987. The reason? The ferry collied with an oil tanker, the MT Vector, which was carrying over a million litres of gasoline.

Fire engulfed the oil tanker immediately, and within minutes it had spread to the passenger ferry. Survivors of the horrific disaster recall complete and utter panic in the moments after the two ships collided. The Dona Paz’s life vests had all been locked away, and the sea around the two ships was burning due to the fuel leaking from the destroyed oil tanker. What’s more, the passenger ferry was hugely overcrowded. It isn’t know exactly how many people were on board, but it’s estimated that the ferry’s capacity was exceeded by about 3,000 passengers. Only 26 people survived the accident, and the estimated death toll sits at 4,386.

The MV Doña Paz went down in a fiery blaze after colliding with an oil tanker.
The MV Doña Paz went down in a fiery blaze after colliding with an oil tanker. | Source

2. The MV Goya

The MV Goya was originally a Norwegian freighter, but was confiscated by Nazi Germany in 1940, at the height of WWII, and used as a military ship. During her use by the German navy, or Kriegsmarine, she was mostly used to transport Nazi soldiers to and from the Baltic coast.

On the 15th of April 1945, the Goya was sailing with a convoy across the Baltic Sea to Kiel in Western Germany, carrying mostly Eastern European refugees. The ship was relatively small, with a capacity of only 1,000, but at the time of its sinking she was packed with over 7,000 passengers and crew. Just four hours after leaving port, the convoy was ambushed by Soviet Bombers. The Goya was hit, but damage was minimal and she continued to sail for Kiel, albeit more slowly due to engine damage that had been sustained by one of the other ships in her convoy. The dragging pace left the ships perfect targets for Soviet submarines, and at four minutes past midnight on the 16th the Goya was struck by two torpedoes fired from the Soviet minelayer submarine L-3. One of the projectiles completely obliterated the stern, and the second struck amidships. The Goya was designed as a freighter and didn’t have any of the modern safety measures that were installed in military ships. Because of this, the damage was so severe that the ship sunk just four minutes after impact, with many of the passengers not even realising what had happened until water was flooding their barracks. The exact death toll is disputed amongst historians, but believed to be well within the realm of 6,800, with just 200 surviving the wreck.

The Norwegian built MV Goya sitting in port in Oslo, shortly before she sunk in 1945 at the hands of a Soviet submarine.
The Norwegian built MV Goya sitting in port in Oslo, shortly before she sunk in 1945 at the hands of a Soviet submarine. | Source

1. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff

The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was built in 1937 in Nazi Germany. Originally intended to be named the Adolf Hitler, the ship was designed to be an ocean liner and was an important part of Nazi propaganda. Built to be luxurious and impressive, she was a symbol of the future of relaxation and luxury that the Nazi party promised Germany they would provide. With the break out of World War II, however, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was used first as a hospital ship, then a coating barracks and finally to evacuate German soldiers and civillians from East Prussia as the Soviet armies began to advance. On January the 30th 1945 the ship pulled out of a port in Gdynia, Poland carrying an estimated 10,000 refugees that were desperate to find a safe haven. About half were children.

That night, a Russian submarine fired three torpedoes at the refugee ship, and barely an hour later the ship had sunk. Icy conditions had rendered many of the lifeboats useless, and lifejackets couldn’t save the passengers from the frigid waters. An estimated 9,400 people perished. Though disasters like the sinking of the Lusitania and Titanic are more well known, the disaster that befell the MV Wilhelm Gustloff is unequivocally the most fatal incident to ever occur at sea.

The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was the pride of Nazi Germany until 1945, when a submarine claimed both her and 9,400 souls in what was the most deadly maritime disaster in history.
The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was the pride of Nazi Germany until 1945, when a submarine claimed both her and 9,400 souls in what was the most deadly maritime disaster in history. | Source
Cause of sinking
RMS Lusitania
Torpedoed by a German U-Boat
RMS Titanic
Hit an iceberg
1,502 (disputed)
MV Doña Paz
Collision with an oil tanker
~ 4,386
MV Goya
Torpedoed by a Soviet Submarine
~ 6,800 (disputed)
MV Wilhelm Gustloff
Torpedoed by a Soviet Submarine
~9,400 (disputed)


And there we have it; the five worst maritime disasters in history. From the famous sinking of the Titanic to the little know devastation of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, these shipwrecks all involved a tragic and massive loss of life. Luckily, modern sea travel is safer than ever before, and it’s been years since a major disaster has occurred at sea. Hopefully, these five wrecks will remain the worst ever seen for a long time to come.

Sources and further reading:

  • https://www.britannica.com/list/7-of-the-worlds-deadliest-shipwrecks
  • http://time.com/4198914/wilhelm-gustloff-salt-to-the-sea/
  • http://www.ultimatetitanic.com/the-sinking/
  • https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/unsinkable-titanic-sinks
  • https://wikivisually.com/wiki/MV_Goya
  • http://www.historyinanhour.com/2014/05/07/the-sinking-of-the-lusitania-summary/
  • https://www.elitereaders.com/remembering-dona-paz-deadliest-shipwreck-history-worse-titanic/

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 K S Lane


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      • K S Lane profile imageAUTHOR

        K S Lane 

        16 months ago from Melbourne, Australia

        Pamela- thanks for your comment! It's amazing how many people don't know about wrecks like the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Goya. I think a lot of it is because both of the ships were under Nazi control and because of that their dead didn't receive as much sympathy as opposed to, say, the Titanic, which was a huge media headline.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        16 months ago from Sunny Florida

        It is good that ships are safer today. The ships you listed met a tragic end. I know of only 2 of these. Interesting topic.


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