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United States Supreme Court

81 U.S. 406

The Steamer Webb

APPEAL from the Circuit Court for the District of Southern New York; the case, as assumed by the court on a considerable body of evidence, which it examined and recapitulated, having been essentially thus:

In March, 1859, the steamer Webb, a steamer of good character, belonging to the port of New York and engaged in towing ships at sea, was in Boston, having just then, under charge of coast pilot named Sherwood, towed a ship to that port. This pilot Sherwood had had twelve years' experience as a coast pilot and was recommended by insurance companies. The owners of the Webb had engaged him to take the steamer back to New York, and they had agreed also with the owners of another ship, then lying at New Bedford, to stop for her on the way and tow her to New York, and that this towage should be under direction of the same pilot.

In these circumstances one Hazard, master of the ship Shooting Star, lying at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, applied to the owners of the Webb to tow her to New York. The owners agreed in writing accordingly 'to tow the ship and furnish coast pilot for $625.' Having gone to Portsmouth and taken her tow, the Webb, under the pilotage of Sherwood, set off with a good complement of men on her voyage for New York. The course of the voyage lay south, past and round Cape Cod, through the waters that lie between the island of Nantucket on the south side and Barnstable County, Massachusetts, on the north, into what is known as the Vineyard Sound; and so through Long Island Sound to New York. The approaches to the Vineyard Sound (which for the purpose of this case may be considered as beginning with 'Handkerchief Shoal' on the east of it, and as you leave the main ocean to enter the passages made by islands and the main land of Massachusetts) abound with shoals and with currents, which last, though close to each other, run in opposite directions. But the currents follow each its own direction, and, like the shoals, are marked with precision upon the charts.

About a hundred yards south of Handkerchief Light-a light upon the shoal-the Webb and her tow found themselves at about 2 or 2 1/2 o'clock A.M.-nearer the latter time, perhaps, than the former-on the morning of March 23d. This was the exact position where they ought to have been in order to reach New York; and their route to that port was by a single straight course west, three-quarters south, to a light called Cross Rip Light, eleven nautical miles (rather less than thirteen statute or land miles) distant from the Handkerchief. This Cross Rip Light is on a boat where there is a fog-bell, audible in fogs, three miles off. The rate of the vessels as they passed the Handkerchief was about twelve knots an hour. The tide, at this time, had just turned ebb, the effect of which was to make the current for about half-way from Handkerchief to Cross Rip run north, and for the rest of the distance to run southwest. There was a light wind from the southeast; it was raining, but not so that they could not see the coast-lights which they had passed, and even that on the northeast point of Nantucket, more than five miles off. Soon after passing the Handkerchief Light the wind died out, the weather became misty, and in half an hour, and by the time that they got half-way from the Handkerchief to Cross Rip it was so thick that they could not see even the lights of the ship astern; though up to this point the fog had not been thus thick. Lookouts were properly posted. When the fog rose they were on the course mentioned, going, as already stated, twelve knots. The pilot decided to keep up this speed for thirty minutes, expecting at the end of that time to be within hearing of the bell from Cross Rip. Captain Hazard objected to going on through this fog and desired to anchor, but on the pilot's statement that a vessel which once anchored where they were had been obliged to cut some spars to avoid running aground, and on an assurance that there was no danger in running to Cross Rip, he yielded and consented to keep on. The pilot gave the course west half south, but the steamer was headed by her compass west-southwest, in order to allow for a variation from local attraction caused by iron on board the vessel, which Captain Hazard supposed to be one and a half points south of their true course when running west, diminishing to zero, when running south. They ran on this course at full speed for thirty-two minutes, and then, not hearing the bell, shut off steam, reducing their rate to between two and three knots, and having the lead cast by another pilot named Wilson, the captain of a Boston packet, who as a friend of Sherwood's had been allowed a free passage to New York. After running slow for forty-five minutes they found themselves in shallow water, which Sherwood took for a shoal called Horseshoe Shoal, that lies about a mile north of Cross Rip. To avoid this he turned his steamer towards the south, and immediately the ship was aground. She had run on Tuckernuck Shoal, a point about four miles southeasterly from both the Horseshoe and Cross Rip, about nine miles southwest by west half west from the Handkerchief Light, and fully three and a third miles to the south of the course in which the vessels ought to have been. This was at half-past three, or a very little later, in the morning. After some vain endeavors to drag her off, the steamer left the ship and cast anchor in the neighborhood.

After daylight the steamer tried to approach the ship, to give her the end of the towing hawser, the ship having drifted off the shoal and then riding at anchor. The crew began to heave on the anchor. As was alleged by the people on the steamer, they on the ship hove short, and the vessel picked up her anchor and drifted away. But the ship had, in fact, lost her anchor. She soon went ashore again, her stern resting on the sand. The wind getting very strong and the sea violent, under a gale which had suddenly sprung up, the ship, in order to prevent her bow being thrown upon a ridge, which, if she struck, her captain thought might dash her to pieces, after losing the port anchor cast out the starboard one. The ship swung directly upon the flukes of this anchor and knocked holes in her bottom through which she filled with water. Before this she had not leaked. The gale was so high and the sea so rough and boisterous that communications between the vessels could not be made. The steamer then went to Edgartown, a town on the island of Martha's Vineyard, for a steam-pump and wreckers. In the meantime, and before the Webb got back, one Levi Hotchkiss-a part owner of the vessel, who happened to be aboard-got on to a sloop and, acting with energy, procured relief from Boston and Nantucket. Thus aided, the ship got off, and her leaks having been temporarily stopped, she was got into New York and sent into dock for repairs.

After the accident, the Webb's compass was carefully examined and tested; and considerable testimony tended to prove that the variation from local attraction (the iron on the vessel) on the west course was one and a half points to the north, instead of to the south, as had been supposed by the captain and pilot.

Hereupon the owners of the ship, by proceeding in rem, libelled the Webb for $17,500 damages, and the marshal seized her. She was, however, discharged from his custody on her owners entering into bonds for $18,000 as the value of the ship, and $250, the sum estimated as possible amount of costs, conditioned to pay what might be awarded by final decree.

To establish the case of the ship the testimony of Hotchkiss, already mentioned, one of her part owners, had been taken, June 20th, 1859, 'saving the exception as to the competency of the witness;' the statute of July 16th, 1862, which allows parties and interested witnesses to testify not having then passed. Damages suffered by the ship, and much exceeding $18,000, were proved by the bills of repairs produced and by other witnesses than Hotchkiss. The deposition of Hotchkiss was not read in the District Court; without hearing which that court decreed against the steamer, and referred the case to a commissioner to ascertain damages. The commissioner, however, did hear the deposition, and awarded $20,378 damages; this being followed by a final decree in the District Court for $24,590. On appeal to the Circuit Court, that court not reading the deposition, affirmed the decree, and gave a final decree there for $28,292. From that decree the case was brought here by the owners of the steamer, the record which came here including Hotchkiss's deposition.

Mr. E. C. Benedict, for the appellants:

The owners of the steamboat were not common carriers nor insurers. All they contracted for was a propelling power to tow the ship with reasonable skill and care. They did not guarantee successful towing, free from all accident and injury. Like the professional man, they are responsible only for actual negligence, for the lack of such care as a careful man would give to his own property. [1] And this negligence must be proved by the libellant. The presumption is against the negligence, and the burden is on him to prove it affirmatively, not only that there was negligence, but culpable negligence that caused the damage. [2]

Now here the steamer and the care and precaution on board of her were of the best kind. The pilot, Captain Sherwood, was a competent pilot, of large experience and well recommended; and he had the aid of Wilson, a skilful friend. The lead was heaved, shoals were watched, and there was a good lookout.

The damage was caused by the perils of the sea-the inevitable accidents of the navigation-the act of God; the rain, the fog, the darkness, the variable, conflicting, and imperceptible currents and the winds. The waters through which this navigation lay are very peculiar waters. Islands and shoals, and swashes, and channels abound. The currents do not flow regularly, six hours one way and six hours another. At different parts of the tide it will run in the same place two hours in one direction, and in the next two hours in the opposite direction in the same ebb or flow; and in some places, when the tide will be running west, the same tide, at a little distance off, will be running southwest, or south. These uncertain and contradictory currents and tides, make the navigation dangerous in the night in fair weather, even when the many lights in light-houses and light-ships are visible. Of course they make it doubly so when nothing is visible in consequence of dense fog. And when such a fog shuts suddenly down, there is no retreating nor evading or escaping, except by slow and careful going on, with abundant lookout and a constant casting of the lead. All that we gave. We slackened speed; we heaved the lead; we kept a sharp lookout, with in fact two pilots.

Shutting off the steam was a plain duty, and yet doing this caused the vessel to run more slowly, and allowed the currents to have more effect on it. The ship would thus be under the influence of two equal forces operating nearly at right angles; steam driving her to the westward and the current bearing her to the southward. The combination of those two forces would force her between the two on a diagonal line directly upon. Tuckernuck Shoal on which she struck.

There is no sufficient evidence to discredit the compasses. They were in good condition. Their variation, caused by the iron on board, as is the case in all steamers, was regular and well known. On an east or west course it was a point and a half; that is to say, to make a west course you would have to steer west by south half south, and on an east course, the same rule. This variation was properly allowed for in all courses.

But after all, the injury to the ship was caused by her own mismanagement after she struck the shoal and cast her port anchor. She got off the shoal where she first grounded without any injury, and if after that she had been guilty of no negligence there would have been no damage. Instead of remaining quietly at her anchor where the steamer might take hold of her, and take her out with a long chain, on her voyage, they hove the anchor short, and the ship then picked up her anchor and went ashore-broke adrift, and drove astern on to the shoals. This heaving short was a great negligence, and was the first and material cause of damage. She then lay with her stern on the sand, her bow swinging and straining on her short chain, which parted; and if left to herself she would have gone over the shoal into deep water. It was a great negligence which let go the starboard anchor on the starboard side of the ship when she was swinging to starboard, her stern lying aground. As a natural consequence she swung on the anchor and stove holes in her bottom, the second and the principal cause of the damage. If no anchor had been thrown out, the ship would have gone through the shoal into deep water and floated without any damage except scraping the copper.

Neither was the steamer in fault. Her duty to the ship was to tow her to New York, to act as her propelling power, to use all reasonable care and diligence to do so, and if she got in difficulty to endeavor to extricate her. It had this extent; no more. The captain of the steamer was not under the least obligation to throw his boat alongside of that ship in the midst of breakers and uneven and rolling shoals in a tempestuous gale. It could not possibly do the ship any good, and might destroy them both. It was his duty not to do it, and it was his duty to go to the nearest port and procure surf-boats and wreckers to aid her, which was just what he did. During the time that the ship was ashore, the steamer tried to get to her, making repeated efforts, backing in towards her, but was unable to get to her. The noise made by the gale prevented hailing, and the ship could not fail to know when the steamer turned toward Edgartown that it was going for assistance, without which nothing useful could be done.

Under the contract 'to furnish a coast pilot,' the pilot was the servant of the ship and not of the steamer. The mate of the tug was not responsible for the conduct of the pilot. His only contract as to the pilot, was to get a pilot for the owner of the ship, and to get one of good repute for skill and diligence. Hazard was the agent of the owner of the ship, who accepted and approved his choice of a pilot.

The commissioner also allowed the deposition of Captain Hotchkiss, which was incompetent, to be read in evidence before him on the question of damages. The deposition, not being competent when taken, did not become competent by lapse of time, or by any subsequent statute. This improperly affected the final decree, which on account of the result which the error caused ought to be reversed.

The libellants at best are entitled to a decree for but $18,250. The sureties are only bound to the extent of the obligation expressed in their bond. [3]

Mr. D. D. Lord, contra.

Mr. Justice STRONG delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  The Julia, 1 Lushington, 231; Wells v. The Steam Navigation Company, 2 Comstock, 208-9.

^2  The Farragut, 10 Wallace, 334.

^3  Ann Caroline, 2 Wallace, 538

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).