Maritime Tales - danger at sea

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black and white drawing of a life boat being rowed towards a ship in a storm

The sinking of La Plata. Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

Sea sickness is for me, Stephen Guy, possibly the worst sensation to be experienced without actually being physically harmed. As a child, I once spent four hours slumped over a washbasin on the Isle of Man boat in mountainous seas. If someone had offered to shoot me to relieve my suffering, I would have been very tempted to accept. But sea sickness is just one of the milder things the sea can unleash upon the seafarer or traveller.

Seafarers throughout the ages have respected the sea with its changing moods. The weather is just one of the dangers faced by mariners – accidents, war and many other hazards make life at sea unpredictable. Crews face risks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Among the main dangers in the past were bad weather, navigational errors, unsafe or under-manned ships, fire, war and piracy.

Sometimes drunken or incompetent seafarers have added to these perils.  From about 1850, Governments, unions, charities and others made increasing efforts to reduce risks. While much progress has been made, dangers remain today.

Merseyside Maritime Museum has a display called Danger at Sea with exhibits linked to the perils of the deep. A commemorative handkerchief depicts Samuel Plimsoll, whose Plimsoll Line has been on ships’ hulls since 1876 to indicate safe loading levels.

A contemporary illustration (shown) depicts the sinking of the steamship La Plata in 1874.

Jack Selby, chief engineer, saved Charles J Coleman from the gas-filled hold of their Liverpool ship, the Devonian, which was berthed in Boston, USA, in 1916. Jack received awards and gifts for his bravery which are on display.

Robert William Blythyn, of Bootle, Merseyside, was a saloon steward who died on the Lusitania, sunk by a German submarine in 1915. Exhibits include Jack’s commemorative plaque awarded to those who died in the First World War.

Merchant seafarers are often placed in extreme danger during wars. For generations their ships have carried troops and supplies in war zones, thus becoming enemy targets. Nearly 15,000 seafarers lost their lives on British merchant ships in the First World War and 32,000 in the Second World War.

The losses of the huge bulk carrier Derbyshire in 1980 and the cross-Channel ferry Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 remind us that safety can never be taken for granted. The Derbyshire display is particularly poignant to me because, as a reporter, I filed the names of the 44 crew victims to the world’s media via the Press Association.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.