Next time you are at an airport, complaining about the long lines at security, getting stuck in a dreaded middle seat, or having to pay $5 for a bottle of water, take a moment and just be thankful that flying is even an option. After all, not that long ago, trips across the world meant taking to the high seas.
These days, pretty much the only passenger ships still making major voyages are cruise ships; floating theme parks that have shops, restaurants, bars and even water parks on board. Cruise ships are for those people who want to take a leisurely float around several locations, and anyone who just wants to get from A to B as fast as possible can hop on a plane and manage it in a few hours.
It’s a far cry from the days when the only way to visit another continent was via boat - and the boats definitely didn’t have club nights and all-you-can-eat buffets. For a long time, sea voyages were dangerous ventures; months at sea often meant illness, ships could run into storms and icebergs, and (depending on the time period) you might run into threats that range from pirates to U-Boats. There was always the possibility that a ship could sink - and that includes the pirate ships themselves!
Many ships have been mysteriously lost and never seen again, but these 15 have landed on the ocean floor (and made for some incredible photos)… while 10 more ships that look like they should have sunk a few centuries ago are still afloat today.
Why not start with the obvious? Probably the most famous sunken ship in the world is the Titanic, the ‘unsinkable’ passenger liner that… well, sank. The Titanic’s one and only voyage was in 1912, from Southampton (England) to New York City. Despite being lauded as ‘unsinkable’, the Titanic hit an iceberg, and went down a few days later.
Without enough lifeboats, more than 1500 souls were lost in the tragedy, which became one of the biggest disasters of the time.
Now, the wreck lies off the Newfoundland - and you can even visit the once luxurious vessel on the ocean floor (if you have tens of thousands of dollars to spare, that is).
This ship may have sunk in the waters off the coast of Africa, but the wreck itself was discovered on the beach - or, more accurately, buried under the beach, where it was discovered by De Beers diamond miners.
While digging, they found a treasure very different to the one they were looking for; the Bom Jesus, a Portuguese ship that went missing in 1533, while loaded with gold.
As well as finding gold coins, archaeologists at the site unearthed cannons, swords, ingots and tusks, but the site itself was kept under wraps because of its proximity to diamond mines in the area.
Captain William Kidd was definitely not the luckiest of pirates… he started out as a privateer, hired to fight pirates in the Indian Ocean. However, he ended his life at the end of a rope, hanged for piracy after capturing the Quedagh Merchant in 1968. Kidd made a valiant attempt to prove his innocence, but failed, and abandoned the ship that caused the problems.
For many years, the location of the Quedagh Merchant was a mystery, until it was found in 2007 off the coast of Catalina Island.
The area is a protected marine area, though, so while divers can go explore the wreck, none of the sunken treasure can be recovered.
Most shipwrecks are out of reach of the average tourist - unless you are an experienced diver, extremely rich, or part of a scientific team, the only way to see these haunting wrecks is through photos and video. However, the Sweepstakes is unique in that it sank in extremely shallow water, and can be seen from the surface!
No sunken treasure here, but plenty of glass bottomed boat tours to take a good look at the wreck.
In Tobermory, Ontario, this schooner was built in 1867 and sank in harbor in 1885, where it was towed after being damaged - and clearly not repaired in time to be saved!
Another particularly well-known shipwreck is that of the Queen Anne’s Revenge; the ship that belonged to the pirate Blackbeard. The Queen Anne’s Revenge terrorized the seas in the early 1700s, before Blackbeard ran it aground around 1718 (and was then ‘ran aground’ himself a few months later).
In 1996, a wreck was found in North Carolina, and in 2011, it was officially confirmed to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge… thanks to the sheer number of weapons found in the wreckage!
After so many years, the best preserved elements are the cannons and anchor, and you can visit many of the smaller items recovered at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort.
The Abu Nuhas reef in the Red Sea is an incredible spot for divers who want to spend some of their time underwater exploring shipwrecks - as there are no less than four in the water here.
The Giannis D is a diver favorite, built in 1969 and sunk in 1983. This is definitely a ship that is long past the pirate era, but the sight of it on the seafloor is deeply romantic, despite being so recent.
It’s possible to swim through much of the ship, including the engine room and some of the accommodations, as well as the bridge.
Also known as the Ship Of Gold, the SS Central America was sunk by a hurricane off the coast of South Carolina in 1857 - while it was carrying hundreds of people and thousands of pounds of gold from the California Gold Rush. The wreck was originally found in the ‘80s, and while it wasn’t a pirate ship, the tale of the recovery is one of modern piracy!
Treasure hunter Tommy Thompson was the one to originally find and explore the wreck, thanks to the financial backing of 161 investors. However, once Thompson staked his claim to the gold he found (and sold) he absconded with the money, and has been in jail since 2015 over his plunder of the loot.
Elissa has the honor of being one of the few 19th Century three-masted barques still sailing today… nearly 150 years after she was first built! Elissa was built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland, and was sailed under British, Swedish and Norwegian maritime flags. Originally a cargo ship, she was nearly put out of commission permanently in the 70s, but was saved by the San Francisco Maritime Museum.
Now, Elissa is moored in Galveston, Texas, where visitors can tour the floating National Historic Landmark and experience a little of what it would be like to sail nearly a century and a half ago.
More preserved pirate ships with this one; the Whydah Galley, belonging to none other than ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy, possibly the most successful pirate of all time (having sank/captured a record breaking number of ships in his career). Before becoming a pirate ship, the Whydah Galley was a slave ship, but it sank in a storm in 1717, taking Bellamy with it.
In 1984, the wreck was found in Massachusetts - and became the first positively identified pirate ship wreck thanks to the recovery of a bell inscribed with ‘Whydah Galley’.
Plenty more of Bellamy’s plunder has also now been recovered from the site, giving us a unique look into the Golden Age of Piracy.
In 1622, before the Golden Age of Piracy, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha was the jewel of the Spanish fleet… and had plenty of jewels on board, too. In fact, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha was laden down with an obscene amount of treasure for her voyage from Havana to Spain, but was sunk by a hurricane on the way.
It wasn’t until 1985 that the wreck was found (despite the best efforts of the Spanish to recover that wealth), although not all of the treasure has been recovered quite yet.
The James Craig is the oldest three-masted barque in the world still sailing, and this stunning tall ship was actually sunk in 1932. Now, it is back on top of the waves now in Sydney, Australia.
This ship was a cargo vessel built in 1874, and spent her early years sailing around Cape Horn, before heading to Australia. After being sunk in 1932, when newer, faster ships put her out of business, the James Craig was raised in 1972.
After decades of repair, the James Craig is now restored and is even available for tours and functions.
Another maritime disaster to rival that of the Titanic was the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, by a German U-Boat in the First World War. Briefly holder of the title of the largest ship in the world, the Lusitania became famous not because of the sinking, but because it was attacked illegally, being a non-military vessel, fired on without warning.
Nearly 1200 souls were lost, and now the rapidly decaying wreck lies off the coast of Ireland, where salvage workers continue to attempt to bring artifacts to the surface before they are destroyed completely by the water.
The world’s oldest active sailing ship, the Star of India was built in 1863, when she was named the Euterpe, after the Greek muse.
She was unlucky at the start, and her first two voyages were plagued with disaster; on the first, the crew mutinied, and on the second, she was caught in a cyclone.
However, the Star of India’s bad luck quickly ran out, and she sailed the world (between London and New Zealand, California, Chile and Australia). Now, the Star of India calls San Diego home, and still sails on a regular basis.
Lying off the coast of Columbia, this centuries-old wreck has been dubbed ‘the world’s richest shipwreck’, thanks to the incredible amount of treasure still waiting to be salvaged from the ocean floor. Found in 2015, the ship was originally built in 1696, and was sunk by the British in 1708 during a battle.
The gold and silver on board is now worth billions of dollars.
Some estimates put the net worth around $20 billion, although others aren’t quite so generous, but legal battles continue to rage over who has the rights to this sunken treasure.
The last remaining US wooden whaling ship still sailing, the Charles W Morgan dates back to 1841, when it was part of a fleet thousands strong.
She managed 37 voyages (each taking years to complete), and made history with a 38th in 2014, after being fully restored. A National Historic Landmark since 1966, the Charles W Morgan is now usually found at port, used to teach the history of whaling and ocean voyages - and comes with some thrilling tales, including surviving attacks by cannibals (well, so they say), hurricanes, and dozens of dangerous voyages.
The lesser known sister ship to the Titanic, the Britannic fared a little better than her sister, lasting a year at sea before sinking. She was also sunk with far less fanfare, as the Britannic was requisitioned by the military and sunk during WWI.
Originally intended as a cruise ship (like the Titanic itself), she became instead a hospital ship, and was brought down in 1916.
The wreck itself is surprisingly well-preserved, and many expeditions have been made to explore her remains on the ocean floor (including filming, and testing to compare her preservation to that of the Titanic).
Another record-holder, this one the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel, named by none other than George Washington himself. Built in 1797, the USS Constitution was in active service for over a century, and to celebrate 200 years afloat, was fully restored so that she would be able to sail (all by herself!) for the first time in 116 years.
However, this old girl is definitely not going to be making regular voyages, and is now moored at a Navy Yard in Boston, where visitors can take tours and visit a museum dedicated to the ship and her history.
This warship is one of the more recent entries on the list, and was one of many sunk during WWII (she went down in 1941). In many ways, this is a comparatively unremarkable sinking (although it came with severe loss of life, as only one soldier on board survived)… but there is one thing that makes the SS Gairsoppa stand out: the treasure.
She may not have been a pirate ship, but there was plenty of treasure to be found at this wreck, because the ship was carrying a huge amount of silver.
When the wreck was discovered in 2011, it became the largest precious metal recovery ever, with the silver brought back worth over $200 million.
This English warship was lost off the coast of Gibraltar in 1694 - so it’s amazing that there was anything left to find after so long underwater! However, a wreck was found during a search that lasted from 1998 to 2001, believed to be the HMS Sussex, and in 2004, permission was given for the wreck to be explored and the treasure recovered. However, due to constant legal issues, the project has been abandoned for now, leaving the treasure unrecovered.
And it’s quite a treasure; rumor has it that the ship sank while on a secret mission to deliver a huge payment - gold that would be worth around $500 million today (if anyone can get down there to find it).
Technically, this is a replica, rather than an original ship still sailing… but it’s an incredible replica that is still well worth a visit. The Golden Hind was captained by Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe - and while he may be better known as an explorer, let’s not forget that when he brought the Golden Hind home, it was packed with treasure.
The replica of the Golden Hind in Brixham, England is home to a museum about Drake and his adventures… and is a vital part of the annual Brixham Pirate Festival!
Built in 1869, the Cutty Sark is one of the last tea clippers, and was famous for her speed - as well as for voyages that took her through every major port. The Cutty Sark also marks the last in a long line of merchant sailing ships, before steamships started to take over the industry. Now, the Cutty Sark can be found in Greenwich (London), where she is a museum ship and on the National Historic Registry.
Visitors to the ship can experience not just tours, but stories from ‘characters’ of this ship’s history, and even afternoon tea on board.
Fans of the Tudors will love a visit to this restored ship that once belonged to King Henry VIII. Built in 1511, the ship survived through several wars, before being sunk during the Battle of the Solent in 1545.
The tale of the Mary Rose’s sinking became legend, as it happened in front of Henry VIII’s own eyes - during a maneuver that suddenly saw the ship listing to one side, before tipping over entirely.
Henry himself tried to salvage it but failed, and it was eventually raised in 1982, and is now the centerpiece of a museum in Portsmouth (England), which also displays the Tudor artifacts recovered from the wreck.
The second replica on the list, the Bark Endeavor is a 40% scale replica of the original HMS Endeavor captained by James Cook. Originally launched in 1764, the ship’s exploratory journeys are famous, and while this replica won’t take you around the world, it does offer short sailing trips where you can hear sea shanties and stories of the voyages of Captain James Cook.
The original Endeavor, meanwhile, may have actually been found off the coast of the US, although the remains of the ship have yet to be confirmed. Watch this space, as more research is expected to begin in early 2020.
The oldest warship afloat in Europe, the HMS Trincomalee first set sail in 1817, from where she was built in India to her new port of Plymouth. Although this ship dates well after the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, she spent plenty of time in the Caribbean, and was sure to have come across plenty of brigands on the seas; known incidents include dealing with riots in Haiti and the threat of invasion of Cuba.
The Trincomalee was also an anti-slavery patrol vessel, but is now a museum ship in Hartlepool (England) - and you can also visit her whimsically named sister ship, the HMS Unicorn, a museum ship in Dundee.
The Vasa was an impressive ship for a whole lot of reasons, and was touted as the world’s most high-tech warship at the time of her maiden voyage… which makes the most impressive part of her story the fact that she sank in under half an hour!
The ship, and its 64 bronze cannons, sank in full view of the crowds that had assembled to celebrate the launch in 1628, as it simply tipped over.
Now, however, the ship is one of the best-preserved examples of the time, thanks to the cold, oxygen-poor waters that it sank in. Raised in 1961, it is now out of the water and in the Vasa museum in Stockholm.