Because +Handy Haversack asked, here are some circumstances of shipwreck and typical responses from the age of sail, swiped from the corpus of shipwreck stories, mostly Dutch and English but a few Arabic in that piecemeal Orientalist mode that it’s so hard to escape. I’ve deliberately kept these historical rather than fantastical because I assume you can add all the uncheckable fantasy elements you need. And this is not supposed to be exhaustive – in particular it doesn’t tackle the Small Boat Journey that so often rounds out a shipwreck tale. I might get to those sometime soon…
What to do if the ship is sinking:
The Dutch East India Company had a clear protocol for what to do in a shipwreck:
1. obey the officers.
2. try to save the ship.
But then, their rules were written by the money men, safe on shore. Abandoning the ship could be punishable by death if they caught up with you. If you were the captain a wreck would probably end your career.
“Women and Children First” and the trope of noble self-sacrifice really only started in the 19th century long after the wreck of the Meduse and might have been apocryphal/literary until the Titanic. The idea of the captain sacrificing himself to save the rest of the crew and female passengers goes back to the wreck of the Halsewell (1786) but it was a remarkable act, not common expectation.
Muslim seafarers (before the 19th c) would throw stuff off a ship in peril to lighten it (most peril coming from storms/high waves). Once the cargo and guns and spare spars were gone, you could draw lots for the people. Non-Muslims and slaves might offer a buffer-zone before you got to such dire straits, though.
Ideas of fairness in general become really important during wrecks – indeed, are defined by them. Crews tend to mutiny (especially if not free laborers) and personal leadership becomes important. In the 19th century, contracts are canceled at the moment of wrecking, so the steward staff are all immediately fired, which might help to explain the breakdown of social order a bit, but probably not all that much.
What I have observed from British, Dutch and Portuguese accounts, is that people respond to the things they can see and deal with right now. You can distract the crew from fighting a fire by shouting that the merchant is getting away in the boat – suddenly everyone will deal with the boat and nobody will be fighting the fire. Chaos is everywhere: a small group of determined leaders can make the difference between saving the ship and losing it, or rescuing the crew, or just swiping a boat and escaping.
A point about lifeboats: before the age of passenger ships (1860+) these were mostly unknown (except _maybe_ in Zheng He’s Treasure Fleet). Whether the ship carried 30 or 1300 people, it would probably have 2 or 3 boats, each capable of carrying maybe 20 people, for running mail/small stores/shore missions. Life rings were also only adopted in the 19th c. Usually “man overboard” meant “man lost” especially if the ship were a slaver or warship or on the usual slaver routes, because sharks would follow those ships. Even non-slaver ships would sometimes fish up sharks on quiet days, to haul them on deck, torture them for being evil, and then throw them back… to be eaten by sharks.
So what happens in a wreck and what do you do about it?
Causes of Wreck:
rocky lee shore: total loss of ship almost certain 😦 But land nearby 🙂 But so are the smashy waves that will grind your ship (and loose people) up on the rocks 😦 Your best bet is a sturdy surf boat, nervy steering and good luck. Rapid loss of ship leaves little time for grabbing stuff before leaving, maybe half the cargo will wash ashore in some sort of recognizable condition. Ashore there might be wrecker villagers, eager to knife any survivors/witnesses to their looting. Or cannibal savages, or in Muslim lands a proper legal system and trusted friend-of-merchants where the salvage might be stored awaiting a proper claimant.
Style moves: using masts/spars to form a bridge to safe land/cliff. Throwing small party members to boats that are far enough offshore to avoid the smashy waves.
sand bar/reef out at sea in worst case can be like rocky lee shore, in best case, ship might float off again at high tide with minor damage. After initial shock (possible falling spars) wrecks tend to progress slower. If there’s a safe shore nearby, order can be maintained and many boat journeys made to rescue crew and even cargo. If there’s only a small group of dry islands, “rescue” may be worse than wreck: mutiny is likely. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batavia_%28ship%29
Longer wrecking events have a typical pattern:
1. shock, officers on deck, injuries from falling rigging, assessment of damage. Warships and East Indiamen might store barrels of grenades on the mast heads to use against boarders, so those can spice things up.
2. crew either orderly but impatient (require strong officers) or despairing and mutinous (will break into, in order: liquor stores, munitions, ships’ hand weapons). Despair tends to increase, so this is probably a morale roll every hour, quicker if the ship starts to break up.
3. some people get off in boats, everyone else resents them, suspects they’ve run away. Small acts of looting, especially if there’s alcohol, chests of money
4. crew actually removed to safety, attempts to save cargo. This is very hard to achieve: people are exhausted. Generally it’s easier to get them to dive for treasure days later than to go back into the ship for those silk bales right then and there.
5. new situation ashore. Usually only the captain and 1st officer know where you are. Hexcrawl to guess which direction you should go for help.
storm/high seas ships generally have a max height of waves they can deal with. Exceed it and the water gets in and the boat goes down. You can increase this maximum by lightening the ship (see previous comment). You should also keep just one small sail up to help you steer into the waves so they don’t hit you on the side, maybe throw out a sea anchor, otherwise ride it out. This shakes the rigging and cannons loose, makes a mess of the deck, and can eventually shake the timbers of the ship apart – they start by leaking (stuff rags in) and can wind up splitting right off their nails/stitching/keel-posts. Then it’s Sindbad time: cling to a lump of wood and drift. Storms produce the most floating wreckage, some of which can be used for rafts/new boats. Then it’s small boat journey time (prob another chapter in this ridiculous comment set).
Reasons for storm-wrecks:
1. navigator impious/cursed. This is terrible – the navigator’s the only guy who can get you to safety. Solution: repent or jettison.
2. merchant impious/cursed. Jettison – may be grabbed by some other sign of his metaphysically dangerous condition (whale, Rama, conch-woman)
3. test of faith: hang on, stay together, no arguing, obey the captain/chaplain.
4. supernatural disapproval of your mission/cargo/destination/sect (especially popular with Portuguese). Solution: mutiny (risky, see below)
5. mutiny. God doesn’t like it when you disobey orders. Dutch stories tend to go “we were OK until the mutiny, then we hit the rocks. Then almost all of us died but the last 20 rallied behind the captain and he got them out of the storm.”
6. bad luck. Maybe you had women aboard or someone put the books upside down or the model ship back to front. Solution: none, just deal with the new situation.
fire or structural failure these are both negligence issues, and tend to begin slowly and build. Fire in the hold is a nightmare: there’s nowhere to go, lots of nooks and crannies for it to hide in, and the hold will act as a smoke-trap, but not enough to stifle the fire. Solutions: throw water into hold in buckets (smokey! Unlikely to reach source of flames) or dive off ship and drill holes in bottom to drown flames deep in the hold (always popular! Success depends on how low down the fire is, managing to plug the holes afterwards). Flammable things typically kept in holds: barrels, grain in open bins, cloths, spare spars, sails, oil and pitch for maintenance, rope, strong liquor (explosive!), coal for cooking or maintaining colonies, gunpowder magazine. This last one sank the Nieuw Hoorn – when fire first broke out (when the under-steward dropped his candle in an open barrel of liquor) the crew made a bucket chain and doused it…. or so they thought for several hours. But it turned out burning alcohol had dribbled down the inside of the ship and got into the coal, making for a long, persistent, chokingly smokey blaze. The crew tried the bucket chain and drilling holes, but the fire kept burning. Eventually a good number of them mutinied, tried to escape in the boat, were discovered by the master who tried to ram them… and then the ship blew up. The master survived, unconscious in a section of the stern that floated through the night, to be rescued by the deserters.
Structural failure is just bad building or maintenance… or sabotage. In notorious cases 18th century British warships sank because their keels had rotted through. Big ships sink slowly – it can be possible to pump them out enough to go across the Atlantic… and so therefore it’s possible for desperate naval or company money-men to keep ships that are basically sinking in service, as long as they don’t have to face down the pumping crews. If a keel rots badly enough, the masts can come loose from it. This kind of slow wreck can take days to unfold and for a while it’s unclear if you’re actually sinking or if the leak might get better. Alas, ships full of water sail slower.