July 16, 2009 7:39 PM   Subscribe

Is there any way of determining what percentage of ships arrived safely at their destinations - or did not - during a given period in history?

I'm struck by how prevalent the imagery of shipwrecks has been in literature throughout history. I'm talking about shipwrecks as plot points in stories and plays, as a metaphor in poetry, and so on.

And I'd guess that, depending on when the author or poet was writing, their work might be more or less likely to feature shipwrecks depending on how common such accidents were at the time.

But, so far, I haven't found any way of finding out precisely how likely it was that any given trip at sea would have been to end in disaster during any given time in history. Do we think that 80% of journeys ended successfully? 60%? 40%? Did the numbers change appreciably between, say, the 13th century and the 17th?

I'm not sure if there's any verifiable way of getting these answers, but the more examples I came across, the more I realized that I had absolutely NO idea how frightening and/or grimly realistic the idea of shipwrecks would have been for Shakespeare's audience, or Homer's, or Wordsworth's.

Any knowledge of the subject (even anecdotal) or suggestions about books or websites to read would be great!
posted by AngerBoy to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wikipedia claims that insuring ships and shipping is the oldest type of insurance.

So since at least 1688 when people started gathering at Edward Lloyd's coffee house (Lloyd's of London) there have been people keeping pretty good records of the chances of a voyage's success. I don't know how you'd the historical information, but I bet they are used to academics being interested in some of their historical data, maybe there is a way to get it out of them.
posted by pseudonick at 7:55 PM on July 16, 2009

By the way, it was considerably higher than 80% success rate. Ships often spend decades in service before being retired or having some sort of fatal accident.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:00 PM on July 16, 2009

Lloyds of London has been the goto place for insuring ships since the late 1600s. They have a Marine collection which is "historical printed and manuscript records formerly held by the Lloyd's of London Library and is concerned primarily with shipping movements and casualties rather than personnel." I've seen some bits about it in documentaries and it's an excellent source listing trips and ships with quite a bit of detail like ship type.
posted by Mitheral at 8:00 PM on July 16, 2009

Try newspaper archives. Many are online. A big project but there were departure and arrival notices of commercial ships, certainly by the mid 1700s.
posted by sammyo at 8:08 PM on July 16, 2009

A few datapoints from the English East India Company.
posted by milkrate at 8:13 PM on July 16, 2009

Wrecks & shipfinds Worldwide
posted by tellurian at 8:15 PM on July 16, 2009

Oh! and check out the database list there for more leads.
posted by tellurian at 8:18 PM on July 16, 2009

Okay, it's anecdotal, but read this. The author suggests that during the nineteenth century, at least before the dominance of steam-powered, iron-hulled vessels, a ship sank off the Florida Keys about every ten days.

Now one mustn't underestimate the number of vessels plying the world's sea lanes, either now or historically. The ocean is a lot busier than most people think. But there's every reason to believe that shipwrecks were very common, at least at certain locations. Lighthouses were constructed, not because they're pretty, but because ships kept sinking. And because they're usually built in dashed inconvenient locations, the number of ships that would need to sink of a particular point of land would need to be pretty high before you could convince someone to schlep themselves and all those building materials to the ass-end of nowhere just to keep a lamp burning.

In short: there really isn't any way I'm aware of to measure the number of voyages that ended in disaster, but before the advent of iron hulls and steam power, the number was distressingly high. Things improved enormously once the busiest waterways were well charted, sometime in the mid-to-late 18th century, but sailing was still incredibly dangerous work.
posted by valkyryn at 8:43 PM on July 16, 2009

valkyryn, where was that link supposed to go?

The book Longitude is about the search for a method to determine longitude while at sea, and therefore be less likely to be lost or shipwrecked. I imagine the occurrence of shipwrecks decreased after the 18th Century for that reason as well.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:52 PM on July 16, 2009

The Lloyd's record is the right track. What you want are shipping insurance (or quasi-insurance products) seller's account books. You'll first find them in the Netherlands and England. As other countries developed shipping fleets, look for such products being sold, they will include records of sailings, value of cargo, what happened, and whether a claim was paid out on the policy.

For fishing boats, the records will be mighty scarce. But for cargo vessels, they will be comprehensive enough to form a data set.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:39 PM on July 16, 2009

They were quite common. I'm afraid I can't quantify it in any specific way, but shipwreck was quite common in the nineteenth century at the very least.

Not only the U.S. Lighthouse Service, but the U.S. Lifesaving Service (which joined in 1915 with the Revenue Cutter Service to become today's Coast Guard) were founded out of need, built on voluntary lifesaving societies which sprang up in coastal communities to rescue victims of shipwreck.

Lloyd's lists aside, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind regarding the frequency of distress at sea. First of all, shipwrecks didn't happen everywhere. They occurred in specific places where conditions combined to threaten shipping traffic. Shoals and bars - shifting shallow sandy areas underwater which changed constantly with seasons, storms and tides - were extremely dangerous areas. Lee shores, where prevailing winds blow toward shore and thus drive ships onshore even when sails and helm try to claw their way off, were a danger. Rocky coasts were bad. Areas where ocean and air temperatures vary a lot create squalls. Nor'easters and other large storm systems followed coastlines. Narrows were hard to navigate and created racing currents which could trap and break up ships. In much the way airplanes don't generally fall out of the air midflight for no real reason, ships didn't wreck in midocean for no real reason. They fell victim to one or more threats that combined to overcome the ships' ability to remove itself from danger. Ships didn't generally just break apart and sink. Most often, they were driven on shallow ground or onto an obstacle, and then became unable to steer or sail off. They often threw heavy objects overboard in an attempt to lighten the ship, or waited for the tide to float them off. But this was all a race against time, as the waves kept beating against the ship the entire time she was hung up on the bottom. Even a strongly built ship would gradually start to come apart under this constant beating. In high winds, the rig too would be lost, and sometimes the steering cables broke, meaning there was really no hope of getting the ship out of the trap. At that point, people were either rescued using apparatus, if they were lucky, or just jumped (or were swept) into the sea. Since most people in the 19th century couldn't swim, more often than not if this happened they drowned.

For this reason, in locations where there has been at least one shipwreck, there usually have been many. All along the sandy shores of America's East Coast, and around most of her islands with deep harbors, there are necklaces of wrecks. Lifesaving stations used to be built along the strands, at distances of about 8 miles from one another along navigable shipping lanes and wherever conditions were threatening.

Second, another reason besides these hazards that wrecks were so common is that the most frequent voyages took place in the most dangerous lanes. Again, the deepwater, cross-Atlantic voyage was relatively safe. It was along shore that dangers other than fire presented themselves. But the vast majority of voyages undertaken by people were alongshore - coasting schooners carrying groceries and goods north and south, and passenger schooners and ferries as well. These kinds of voyages were rarely insured with an agency like Lloyd's, because they were smaller-time independent ventures. But they were much more likely to be victims of wreck because they were simply much more common and traveled in dangerous areas - in much the same way that today, driving is responsible for many more deaths than flying, because lots of people drive every day or every week, and fly more rarely. The coasting vessels and fishing vessels that made frequent trips close to the hazards of the shoreline were more often wrecked.

Your question is hard to answer, then, because it's not geographically specific. If you ask "how many vessels wrecked within 10 miles of Cape Cod between 1880 and 1890," you can arrive at a pretty reasonable estimate based on newspaper accounts, Life Saving Service records, and the like. But without specifying a time frame and/or place, the question is too vague to answer usefully with a percentage. The percentage will vary by type of vessel, type of cargo, destination of voyage, length of voyage, purpose of voyage, time in history, and location of wreck. If you can narrow down your question to fit within some time and place parameters, there are likely to be records you could use to establish a rough percentage of successfully completed voyages vs. wrecks vs. never heard from again. But apart from that it's too big and vague a data set to come up with a useful statement of percentage. The total number of voyages ever undertaken in the age of sail by all states or entities, to start with, is simply unknown.
posted by Miko at 9:43 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

WolframAlpha for the loss. (pun intended)
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 10:34 PM on July 16, 2009

Yes, there were certain places where shipwrecks were very common. The Columbia River Bar is another one. Wikipedia says "Since 1792, approximately 2,000 large ships have sunk in and around the Columbia Bar."

But I think most people don't really realize just how hugely many ships there were plying the sea lanes. That still represented only a very small percentage of the ships that existed, especially once you're into the 19th century.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:26 PM on July 16, 2009

But I think most people don't really realize just how hugely many ships there were plying the sea lanes.

That's true, and any useful understanding of commonality depends on understanding that any place with a waterfront was packed with ships and daily departures and arrivals from other ports, as well as harboring vessels that entered and left the same port every day, sometimes more than once a day. Quantifying the total number of voyages from all ports throughout the last 500 years, though, would be an impossible task, given that not every voyage or vessel has a presence in records and not all records compiled are still extant, and that would be a necessary first step in determining a percentage that were successfully completed, a percentage never heard from again (presumed lost) and a percentage wrecked. That's why I'd recommend using harbormaster records or insurance lists for a single shipping agent or port during a specific time period which is well documented, or lifesaving records from a specific region, but even that will only give hints about the overall story.

Here's another wreck database.
posted by Miko at 11:41 AM on July 17, 2009

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