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United States Supreme Court

74 U.S. 656

The Nichols

BROWN, owning a schooner of that name, filed a libel in the District Court for Northern New York, against the barque Nichols; the ground of his complaint being, that the two vessels being on Lake Erie, one going in one direction, and the other coming towards it in another nearly opposite, and the two so approaching each other, the barque had, in violation of the 'Rules and Regulations for Preventing Collisions on the Water,' fixed by the act of Congress of April 29, 1864, [1] run into his schooner, and sunk her and her cargo. The Phoenix Insurance Company, which had insured the cargo, and paid for the loss, filed a similar libel.

The case was thus:

Congress, by the act above referred to, laid down certain rules or articles, to prevent collisions on the water, and among them these:

'Article 11. If two sailing ships are meeting end on, or nearly end on, so as to involve risk of collision, the belms of both shall be put to port, so that each may pass on the port side of the other.

'Article 12. When two sailing ships are crossing, so as to involve risk of collision, then, if they have the wind on different sides, the ship with the wind on the port side shall keep out of the way of the ship with the wind on the starboard side, except in the case in which the ship which the wind on the port side is closehauled and the other ship free, in which case the latter ship shall keep out of the way. But if they have the wind on the same side, or if one of them has the wind aft, the ship which is to windward shall keep out of the way of the ship which is to leeward.

'Article 18. Where, by the above rules, one of two ships is to keep out of the way, the other shall keep her course.'

With these articles in force, the schooner was bound up Lake Erie, of a clear, starlight night; her course west by north. The barque was bound down it; her course east by south, half south-the two vessels being nearly dead ahead of each other. The wind was from the northeast, and the speed of each vessel full six miles an hour; the two so approaching one another at the rate of a mile every five minutes. The schooner had the wind free and on her starboard side. The barque was closehauled, with the wind on her port side. Each vessel was seen from the other about the same time, and when they were some two or three miles apart; the evidence being conflicting as to the exact distance.

When the two vessels made each other, the mate of the barque ordered her helmsman to 'keep her off a little,' so as to give the schooner 'a good full;' but as the vessels approached closely, he ordered him to 'put the helm hard up, and keep her right off;' in other words, to port the helm. The effect of this was, of course, to turn the vessel's head southward. Such were the manoeuvres of the barque.

The master of the schooner, on his part, so soon as he saw the barque's lights-judging them to be two or three miles off, 'nearly dead ahead, a very little on our starboard bow'-ordered his helm put starboard, 'to keep her off to the west.' The vessels were advancing rapidly, and with the manoeuvres ordered, respectively, were fast approaching each other as well. Two or three minutes before the collision-and the vessels being then not more than a quarter of a mile apart-the master of the schooner 'seeing the barque bearing down on him, and that she was off the wind,' ordered the wheel of his schooner put 'hard up,' and to 'let the main sheet run out.' The schooner accordingly swung to the south, somewhat of the southwest. But this was too late, or perhaps the very cause of the catastrophe. The barque advancing, went, bow first, and at right angles, into the starboard quarter of the schooner, and the schooner went down at once.

The collision being, of course, the exact result which was liable to follow from the combined manoeuvres of the vessels, the question was, which vessel had made the false navigation, under the act of Congress? And this question involved largely a consideration of the element and effects of distance; that is to say, in this particular case, the proximity of the vessels at the time when the master of the schooner gave the first order to starboard.

The District Court, not without hesitation, came to the conclusion that the distance between the vessels at this time-two or three miles-was such that the master was not in fault in making the order; that the case fell within the twelfth rule, and that the barque ought not to have changed her course. Conceding that the vessels were clearly approaching each other, 'nearly end on,' and that if they had both continued their courses, they would soon have been 'meeting nearly end on, so as to involve risk of collision,' within the meaning of the eleventh rule; that court was yet in doubt whether, at the distance at which these vessels were when they first made each other, they were 'meeting end on, . . . so as to involve risk of collision,' which the plain import of the eleventh rule required them to be before both were obliged to port their helms. It accordingly dismissed the libels.

On appeal, the Circuit Court was of a different opinion. The vessels being nearly dead ahead, their combined speed being twelve miles an hour, and they being thus within ten to fifteen minutes of meeting, that court considered that they were 'dangerously close together,' and their proximity such that the execution of the first order to starboard the helm of the schooner, involved not only the risk of the collision, but was the controlling cause of it; and thinking that the master of the schooner had mistaken the position of the barque, and had supposed that her lights were to the windward, when, in fact, they were to the leeward, reversed the District Court's decrees.

The correctness of this reversal was the question now here, on appeals by the owner of the schooner and by the insurers of her cargo, the Phoenix Company.

Mr. Hibbard, for the appellants:

1. There is no risk of collision when vessels, upon an open lake, and in a clear night, make each other at the distance of two or three miles; nor would there have been the slightest danger of collision, in this case, had not the barque disregarded the eighteenth article, and changed her course.

The act of Congress contemplates such nearness of approach, and imminency of danger, as makes it necessary for both vessels to change; for, beyond question, the act will not be so construed as to require unnecessary manoeuvres. Certainly it is not necessary that both should so change when they are two miles or anything like that distance apart upon an open lake. [2] On a narrow river the rule might be different.

If the eleventh article does not apply, it of necessity follows that the twelfth and eighteenth do, and if the barque changed her course (as it is plain that she finally did), she violated absolutely a statutory provision, and must be in fault; for if a vessel bound to keep her course, changes that course, how can a vessel bound to 'keep out of her way,' know where to turn to avoid her?

2. The case being to be governed by the twelfth and eighteenth articles, it follows that the barque was bound to 'keep her course.' The schooner was bound simply to 'keep out of the way.' To do this she could either port or starboard, as she pleased.

3. As the Nichols largely changed her course, and commenced that change when the vessels were yet at a considerable distance apart, that change must make her solely responsible for all the damage done by this collision.

Mr. Ganson, contra, contended that there was not any necessity for any change of course on the part of the schooner; that she was on a course that would have taken her safely to the northward and windward of the barque; that there was nothing to prevent her pursuing that course; and that the change of her course caused the collision. Neither the eleventh nor twelfth articles applied therefore to the case, but the schooner was guilty of bringing about the collision, by attempting to pass across the bows of the barque when there was no occasion for her so doing; and in violation of the rules of navigation.

Mr. Justice CLIFFORD delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  13 Stat. at Large, 60.

^2  The Eriesson, Swabey, 38; The Montieello, 17 Howard, 152.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).