People who have a phobia of traveling by air point out that that traveling by sea is safer. We all know that at least one aircraft a year crashes, often more, and usually all people aboard die when that happens. But what about ships? Do they sink in modern times? When did the last ship sink and what was the number of causalties? Are there any statistics around sea vessels that one can refer to?
Yes, ships sink. Someone already mentioned the Costa Concordia sinking; ferries sink a fair amount as well (for instance, a South Korean ferry sank last year with the loss of almost 300 lives. On June 1 of this year, a ferry in China sank with the loss of at least 440 lives.
In addition to deaths from sinking, there are also deaths from maritime collisions, and from people falling overboard. While the sample size is tiny, a single accident on the Staten Island Ferry in 2003 with 11 deaths was enough to drive the fatality rate for US ferries well above the rate for US scheduled passenger flights.
According to a 2003 report by the european transportation safety council:
Rail and air travel are the safest modes per distance travelled, followed by bus. The passengers of trains, bus/coach and planes within the EU have the lowest fatality risk per passenger kilometre. For the average passenger trip in the EU, bus travel has a 10 times lower fatality risk than car travel and air travel within the EU has for the average flight distance about the same fatality risk per passenger kilometre as train travel and both are half as risky as travel by coach. The risks associated with ferry travel fluctuate, but the expected fatality risk is 4 to 8 times that of train [or air] travel.
Note that this report was published in 2003, before the Costa Concordia sinking, so an updated report may put the risk from ferry travel as higher.
Planes crash, ships sink, and cars hit bridges. The difference is the newsworthiness, and a big fireball makes better headlines than the day-after coverage of flat water.
What feeds the phobia is the speed and the level of control. When a plane crashes, it happens really quickly and there is absolutely no way anyone on board is getting out. And I say that as someone who taught sport parachuting for 10 years - the only people who escape lawn-dart mode air crashes or midair collisions are the ones sitting in ejection seats at the time. Bad landings are different, and just as unpredictable as car accidents. Sometimes you walk away, sometimes they need dental records to identify the remains.
When ships crash into each other, there is more than enough time for everyone on that side to get out their phone and videotape the incident, then finish their beer and walk down to the lifeboat deck. See youtube for examples. The Titanic took well over 2 hour to submerge. the Costa Concordia never submerged - all passengers needed to do is head uphill - the ones that died were unlucky and got trapped.
Most people consider that they can swim well enough to manage. And most cruise-goers have more than enough body fat to float quite well in salt water. As long as the water is a reasonable temperature they have a more than reasonable chance of getting off the sinking ship and into a better one.