• Mark S. Cookman

20 Sailing Hazards that Could Wreck the Ship


Sailing can be a great deal of fun, but even in our modern world, it can also be quite dangerous. Ships are lost in storms, attacked by pirates, and run aground every day. Insuring a vessel that is capable of cruising the world, when you intend to take her into blue water (i.e. across an ocean), is quite expensive for just this reason. All that any good captain and crew can do is make every preparation for what might be encountered before leaving port. Even then, it might not be enough, but all a crew can do is try its best. I stress that this is a fact in our real world; I'm not talking about any fantasy realm. So just imagine how (skilled, salty, or crazy - you choose) the captain and crew plying their trade in a world with Dragon Turtles must be.

The plan behind today's list is to provide some idea fodder for GM's who are putting their PC's on boats or ships for a short time. For best results the PC's should NOT be in control of the vessel, but rather skilled passengers either paying or working for their passage to the destination. The items listed below are meant to be "All Hands on Deck" kind of situations. As DM/GM, make certain that you have a plan for what the captain and crew will do, because they will spring into action to save their ship without waiting for the PC's to come up with a plan. Finally, this is hardly an "all-inclusive" list of things that could go wrong on a sailing trip; it is only meant to help you come up with much better ideas for your own game. So, without further tongue-waggling, here are 20 Sailing Hazards that Could Wreck the Ship for your reading pleasure. Until next time, fair winds, following seas, and happy gaming!

1. The ship has struck something hard under the water. The scraping sound along the hull wakes all who are sleeping. The ship comes to a sudden halt. What did you hit? A coral head? The shallow bottom? A sunken ship? How will you get the ship unstuck?

2. A sudden squall or water spout suddenly appears in the path of the boat. The crew scrambles to reduce sail. Is the hazard a natural one or has it been caused by some magical means?

3. A sharp blast of wind high above the deck has caused the vessel to heel between 30 and 45 degrees to starboard. Everything that was on the port (left when facing forward) side below decks is now lying in a heap in the middle of the deck. If the wind picks up any more, the ship will be in danger of capsizing. Was anything damaged when the ship suddenly tilted? What caused the sharp blast of wind?

4. You are startled by the sounds of a ringing bell, shouting men, and pounding feet as everyone is summoned on deck to be part of a bucket brigade to help extinguish an out of control cooking fire that is endangering the ship. How did the fire get out of control? What happened to "Cookie"? Who isn't part of the bucket brigade? Was the fire just a distraction?

5. You awake to find a dangerous situation is brewing aboard the ship. During the night, the captain has fallen ill and is now convalescing in his cabin. The first mate is supposed to be in charge, but he and the ship's bosun are at odds with one another and each controls a significant portion of the crew. What has happened to the captain? Is there foul play involved? Who will take control of the ship? Will it be peacefully or by force? What will be the fate of the passengers and cargo on board?

6. The storm came up slowly behind the boat and you managed to run ahead of it for almost a full day, but it has finally caught up to you. The fury of the winds and the rain prove too much for even storm sails and the captain orders all sails dropped. The boat tosses about with bare poles for nearly 15 minutes before the unthinkable happens-a massive lightning strike shivers the main mast into toothpicks. How much longer will the storm last? How long will repairs take? The storm is a natural storm, right?

7. The lookout calls down to say that the ship is surrounded by bubbles. Those on deck (and below) can feel the temperature of the water shooting up. The captain tells the crew to hold course and chides them for being afraid of "the Sea God's farts". He says that there is nothing to worry about. This is just before the huge plume of smoke and lava come shooting up from depths less than a quarter-mile from the ship. You appear to be sailing through an underwater eruption. Don't fall into the boiling hot water. Watch out for extreme waves. This is just a freak accident, right? No one is controlling this, right?

8. You are awakened in the middle of the night by an unexpected lurch and the vessel comes to almost a complete stop. The night watch is in a flurry of activity on and above deck, trying to figure out what happened, when a great splash is heard off the port side of the vessel. The ship has run into a group of sleeping sea creatures and has managed to damage one pretty badly. What kind of creatures are they? Was there any damage to the ship from the initial strike? Will the creatures attack the ship or swim away?

9. It is just before the dawn and the fog is so thick that you can't see more than 30 feet out from the ship. You are close to your destination port and the captain has dropped nearly all sail. The bell is sounded sharply 4 times every 5 minutes. Unexpectedly, just after the bell is sounded, you hear what sounds like an echo of the bell and excited shouting. Seconds later you make out the massive form of another ship bearing down on you; you have only a moment to prepare for the collision. Nearly everyone tumbles abruptly to the deck; a handful of men fall from the high rigging to their deaths. What ship have you just collided with? What are the intentions of its captain and crew? Are the ships hopelessly tangled together after the crash?

10. The ship has been running ahead of the storm for hours and the captain has been using the strong winds to advantage, as you are making much better time than planned. An unexpected gust of wind ends all of that as everyone on board can hear the tearing of the mainsail and feel the sudden deceleration of the ship. The storm will catch you in a few hours, at best, given the reduced speed of the ship; what's the plan now?

11. A quiet grumbling from a few of the crew might inform you before the "cat is out of the bag", so to speak. The cook has discovered that the ship's stores are spoiled and the water casks are salted. No food and no water in the middle of the sea means a slow and painful death. The captain will want to sit on this information for as long as possible before informing the crew and passengers. Has the food and water been sabotaged? How long can the crew hold on without food and water? Are there some stores hidden away somewhere?

12. Out of a quiet, cloudless sky comes a lightning strike that sets the rigging aflame. It takes everyone by surprise and the fire is nearly out of control before the bell starts ringing to form a bucket brigade to put it out. How much damage will the fire cause? Where did the lightning bolt come from? Was it a precursor to an attack or just an unlucky event?

13. The lookout calls down from the crow's nest that the sea ahead looks green as far as the eye can see. The boat continues on its course until it is completely surrounded by sargasso. Shortly after, it slows to a halt in the choking green seaweed, as the wind dies. How long will the ship be stuck here? Is this natural or is there foul play involved? Is that something moving through the thick seaweed?

14. Everyone on board feels a sudden jolt; things go flying, people fall down, the ship is knocked slightly off course. Before it can be identified, there is another jolt from below and then another. It would seem that you have encountered some overly friendly giant sea life, who wants to get to know your ship in a deeply intimate way. Can the ship stand up to the "action" that it is about to receive? Will the sea creature become angry when your ship does not return its affection?

15. Most everyone is familiar with the phrase "out of the frying pan and into the fire". The nautical equivalent of this is running into a storm to avoid something worse. What is the captain running from that facing a storm seems like better odds for his ship than facing it/them?

16. You have nearly reached your destination when you encounter a strong current while trying to make the passage between two coral reefs. Normally this isn't a problem, but the helmsman reports that the ship is NOT responding. Something (or someone) has damaged the steering and the whole ship is in real danger of being smashed against a reef unless it can be quickly repaired. How did the ship's wheel / rudder get damaged? How will you avoid being smashed against the coral head?

17. You awaken to the sounds of screaming and rushing water. The bow of the ship is 30 degrees lower than the stern. It is clear that your ship has been holed below the waterline and is sinking. By the time that you make it to the deck, the few longboats that were on board are gone. If you can't manage to seal the hole and pump the ship out, then you are going to be shark bait, chum. Right now is the time for action, but what caused the hole? Why did a number of the crew abandon the ship without orders?

18. You are at the tail end of the storm. It would seem that you have made it through without any problems. The pounding rain is dying down to just a mist and the sun is peaking through the clouds ahead of you. Without warning a massive wave strikes the starboard side of the ship and it rolls hard to port; the masts slapping the water on the port side before the ship rights itself and continues on. Nearly everyone on deck and in the rigging at the time the rogue wave hit are now in the water. By the time that you manage to get back to them, many will have drowned. The ship is now severely under-crewed and just when everything seemed to be going so well.

19. This voyage has been nothing but bad luck, failing equipment, terrible weather, and now the cook has fallen ill with dysentery. Worst of all, you are only halfway to your destination. The superstitious crew begins whispering about which of the passengers is "the Jonah" (i.e. Cursed by the Sea God). It won't be long before they take matters into their own hands.

20. You have nearly made it to port. Your battered ship is sailing towards the harbor and you are happy to see the shore. The captain and some of the officers are intently looking to shore with their spyglasses. There seems to be a lot of activity in the port; a number of ships are preparing to sail. All of the sudden the fortress that overlooks the harbor opens fire on your ship. The captain screams for evasive action as the first of the attacks strike the water harmlessly nearby. Either someone else is now in control of this port, or the port authorities have mistaken your ship for an enemy. Either way, I hope you can swim.

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