Safe and sound

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oil painting of a ship at sea

'The barque Rockshire off a rocky coast' by Jospeh Heard. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I have always wondered about my reactions if I was shipwrecked but thankfully this is one particular challenge that hasn’t come along yet. I don’t think any of us could say with any accuracy how we would behave in that sort of situation.

Full fathom five they lie, shipwrecks of all types scattered over the floors of the world’s oceans and seas along with the bones of countless seafarers and passengers. Each is testimony to disasters, accidents and mishaps caused by age-old dangers such as foul weather, fire, war, collision, bad navigation, stupidity or simply bad luck.

The safety of everyone on board a ship depends on good navigation - knowing where you are and where you are going. This is a simple truth that has been disregarded on innumerable occasions.

Before 1850 bad navigation alone caused the loss or damage of many British ships. Captains and other senior officers often had inadequate navigational skills and equipment. There were no clear rules to prevent collisions. After 1850, however, masters and mates had to be trained and examined in navigation. Methods and equipment were improved. By the 20th century ships became much safer due to radio, radar and other electronic equipment. Today most ships depend on satellite navigation systems.

In the past seafarers also faced hazards from pirates and privateers. Pirates such as the legendary Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, Anne Bonny and Captain Kidd stole or took control of ships from their lawful crews. Privateers operated in times of war up to the 1850s. They were armed merchant ships which attacked enemy merchant vessels. There's more on privateering on our main site.

Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Life at Sea gallery has a display which focuses on navigation and safety at sea. A lifelike portrait of a sea captain, painted in oils about 1900 by WH Walton, captures the character of the veteran ship’s master.

There is a telescope which belonged to Captain A W “Hellfire” Sinclair who came to Liverpool in the 1850s at the start of his seafaring career. Sinclair was the hard-driving captain of packet ships operated by the famous Black Ball Line.

A jug, possibly made in Liverpool around 1780, tells the sad tale of man overboard. The black-and-white image shows men in a rowing boat throwing a rope to a man in the sea.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).