Mid-1800s Ships

Hey there, NaNo world!

I’m in need of some help. I’m writing my first ever historical fiction novel and the opening scene is about the wrecking of an English-built ship. The story takes place in 1847 but the ship could be built before that too. My question is this: most likely, how would a mid-1800’s ship sink if it were to hit a bunch of rocks near a shoreline? And what could happen to make sure there are very few survivors?

Any help or input would be very much appreciated!

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The British Ayrshire ran aground off Squan Beach, New Jersey, in January 1850. But the passengers and crew had reason for hope: Congress had begun funding the construction of life-saving stations along the coast of New York and New Jersey two years before.

The sea was too rough to launch a surfboat, and the local wreckmaster decided to use his station’s life-car instead. Hauled between the shore and the wreck on ropes, the enclosed boat made 60 trips to the wreck over two days and rescued all but one of Ayrshire ’s 166 passengers and 36 crew.

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Between 1790 and 1873, the U.S. Patent Office granted 163 patents for an amazing variety of life-preserving boats, rafts, clothing, and other gear. Many of them were invented with an eye toward the rise in passenger travel: life-preserving bedsteads, berths, buckets, bucket rafts, buoys, capes, chairs, stools, dresses, doors, garments, hammocks, mattresses, and even a “life-preserving hat.” Few of these inventions enjoyed practical success.

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Joseph Francis made a name for himself in the 1840s and 1850s manufacturing light and sturdy iron lifeboats and other nautical gear. His boats were constructed using grooved metal plates.

Francis traveled extensively promoting his inventions and was honored in several countries. French Emperor Napoleon III gave him this snuff box in 1856. President Benjamin Harrison presented this Congressional medal to him in 1890.

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On September 3, 1857, the steamship Central America left Panama for New York City with nearly 600 passengers and crew. Nine days later, the vessel sank in a hurricane off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in the deadliest peacetime shipwreck in American history. Four hundred twenty-five people perished in the wreck. And tons of California gold went to the bottom.

The wreck horrified and fascinated the American public and helped spark a financial crisis known as the Panic of 1857. Without the gold on board, several New York banks were unable to pay their creditors. Rediscovered in 1987, the wreck was later salvaged.

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If you make the waters in your book rough enough it could prevent any rescue attempts and kill the majority of the crew by dashing the ship and any attempted life boats on the sharp rocks. A lower level hurricane would be a very easy way to accomplish such a task. Hope I helped in someway.

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A ship that struck rocks (especially with some speed) would often stay pinned there until wave action either swept the wreck off the rocks, or broke up the ship. Ships of that era often fell apart fairly quickly when pounded by the sea during a storm. The ship could either be ripped apart by the waves, or a wave could lift it back off the rocks and drag her into deeper water.

After striking, the crew might take to the rigging, climbing as high as possible to try and get away from the waves. (the ropes up in a ship’s rigging that the crew stands on are called ratlines). Clinging to the ratlines in a storm was a miserable, cold experience. Often, sailors froze to death before falling into the sea. Or, a really hard strike might cause such a shock that the masts actually break off the ship and hit the deck (which would certainly be deadly to anyone caught in the way)

Few to no survivors was a pretty common story for shipwrecks of the time. If the crew launches the ship’s lifeboats, maybe all of them overturn or wreck except for one. Or, if a shore-based group comes to the rescue (a Lighthouse keeper, or a lifesaving service) perhaps many of the crew has died by the time they get there. If the ship was breaking up and there was no rescue in sight, the crew would try to swim ashore. Few survived such an attempt, especially if the seas are particularly rough and cold.

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Thank you so much @OtterRMS and @exdraghunt! You helped me out a TON! I can now write this opening scene accurately. Yay, accuracy!

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Sounds like a great opener. Have fun!

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Happy to help! I’ve been writing about some shipwrecks too lately.

Some links that might be useful? This wreck was a few years later than your setting, but is a good account of a typical shipwreck on an isolated shore https://historylink.org/File/8998

An account of a passenger ship hitting a reef, with some first hand quotes. http://files.lib.byu.edu/mormonmigration/articles/WreckOfTheJuliaAnn.pdf

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Those are great resources! Thanks again!

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You could also check out the podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class. They have several episodes on shipwrecks of varying kinds and different eras.

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