Before the modern era, travel by ship was fraught with danger, or even disaster. A storm at sea could mean death for all on board, as is surely what is happening here. The sailors have taken to life boats as pieces of their ship sink all around them. Front and center we see two men grabbing a comrade from the clutches of the stormy waves.
This painting may have been based on news of an actual shipwreck or upon the 1804 republication of the famous 1762 poem The Shipwreck by William Falconer.