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Wreck report for 'Black Watch', 1877

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Unique ID:14265
Description:Board of Trade Wreck Report for 'Black Watch', 1877
Creator:Board of Trade
Copyright:Out of copyright
Partner:SCC Libraries
Partner ID:Unknown


(No. 136.)


Report of Court.

The Merchant Shipping Acts, 1854 to 1876.

IN the matter of the formal investigation held at the Chancery Court, St. George's Hall, Liverpool, on the 16th and 17th instant, before H. C. ROTHERY, Esq., Wreck Commissioner, assisted by Rear Admiral APLIN, R.N., and Captain WILSON, as Assessors, into the circumstances attending the stranding of the British sailing ship "BLACK WATCH," of Windsor, Nova Scotia, on Fair Island, on 19th September last, whilst on a voyage from Bremerhaven to New York.

The Court, having carefully inquired into the circumstances of the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds, for the reasons stated in the annexed judgment, that the loss of the "Black Watch" was due to her having been driven on the rocks off the south-west point of Fair Isle whilst attempting to pass through the channel between North Ronaldsha and the island; and that the master was to blame for having attempted to pass through that channel at night and in misty weather, ignorant as he was of the navigation and of the currents in the neighbourhood without having full instructions for his guidance, and with the fact before him that he had on the previous day found himself a long way to leeward of the island.

The Court, therefore, severely reprimands Rowland Morton Newcomb, the master of the "Black Watch," for his want of judgment in the navigation of his vessel on this occasion, and recommends him to be more careful in future. The Court, however, returns to him his certificate.

The Court makes no order as to costs.

Dated the 17th day of November 1877.






Wreck Commissioner.

We concur in the above report.







Rear Admiral,







The Commissioner. This is an inquiry into the circumstances attending the stranding and loss of the British ship "Black Watch," of Windsor, Nova Scotia, on Fair Island, a small island lying about midway between the Orkneys and Shetland, early on the morning of the 19th of September last.

The "Black Watch" was a three-masted wooden sailing ship, of 1,318 tons net register, and was built at Windsor in the present year by Mr. Bennett Smith, shipbuilder, who held a large share in her, her master, Captain Newcomb, being the holder of 4/64th parts or shares thereof.

The "Black Watch" left Windsor on the 6th of June last bound for New York in ballast, and having taken in a cargo of oil, she left on the 17th of July, bound therewith to Bremerhaven. She arrived at Bremerhaven on the 20th of August, and having discharged her cargo, prepared to make the return voyage to New York in ballast.

She left Bremerhaven on the 10th of September last, having at the time a crew of 23 hands all told, including the master, Captain Newcomb, first and second mates, a boatswain, a carpenter, and other persons, making 23 in all. Something was said about the character of her crew, but I do not think that anything very definite has been proved against their efficiency, further than that those who were engaged to join the ship at Bremerhaven were put on board in a state of intoxication, a state of things, I regret to say, which is by no means uncommon, nor, I apprehend, will it cease to be uncommon so long as the system of advance notes is allowed to continue. One remark, however, I feel called upon to make, and that is, that the second mate, who is a relation of the master, and who has been examined before us this morning, was an exceptionally young man, and exceptionally inexperienced to be appointed to so large a vessel. It seems that he has been only between three and four years at sea; that he first went one voyage as a boy; then two voyages as ordinary seaman, one, I believe, as able seaman; then he makes a passage as third mate; and then, forsooth, he is appointed to he second officer of this vessel.

The vessel, as I have said, left Bremerhaven on the 10th of September last in ballast. She had about 700 tons of stone and sand on board, and stood very high out of the water, the captain having told us to-day that amidships she had a side of about 14 feet out of water, and on the poop something like three fathoms and a half, or about 21 feet. On leaving it was the master's intention, he has told us, to take the usual course out through the English Channel, but, on getting out to sea and finding that the wind was adverse, he altered his intention and determined to go north about. It seems that he had never made this voyage before, and was in fact wholly unacquainted with the route.

The vessel proceeded on her voyage until the 14th of September, when soundings were obtained, and the weather being thick and foggy her head was very properly laid off the land, and she continued from that time beating on and off, the captain intending, when a favourable opportunity offered, to pass between the north of the Orkneys and Fair Island. It appears from the log-book that it was at 8 a.m. of the 16th that land was first sighted, we have been told somewhere in the neighbourhood of Coppinsha, and she continued to stand on and off until the 17th. At 12.30 p.m. of that day she was off Auskerry Lighthouse bearing northwest 3/4 west, distant about 12 miles. She was then heading to the northward and eastward on the port tack, and was steering north-east by east. At 3 p.m. she sighted Fair Island on her weather bow, and at 8 p.m. Fair Isle bore west by north, distant 10 miles. The ship was then wore round and stood to the southward and westward. From that time until the evening of the following day, the 18th, she continued to stand on and off, and at 7.30 p.m. she was off Auskerry Light bearing north-west 3/4 north, distant about eight miles. At this time she was on a north-east by north course, but at 10, the wind having drawn slightly more to the westward, her course was altered to north-north-east, on which she was kept till midnight. It was the chief mate's watch from 8 to 12 on that night, but at midnight the master and the second mate came on deck, the vessel at the time heading about north-north-east, soon after which, the wind having hauled round more to the westward, she was laid a course north and by east half east to north half east. The captain has told us that at midnight he placed her by dead reckoning off North Ronaldsha Light, but at 1 o'clock he made out for the first time North Ronaldsha Light, bearing about northwest, and he then found that he was about an hour behind his reckoning. He had passed the Start Light without seeing it, so misty and foggy was the weather. At 1.15 he observed that the fog appeared to be coming over the light again, and he accordingly took a careful bearing of the light, and found it to bear north-west half west. The distance at which it was, as he had no cross bearings to guide him, must of course be only a matter of conjecture, but he thought it was from 8 to 10 miles off. It might, he said, have been more. We are told that from that time the vessel was kept on a course north 1/2 east until about 3.30 or 3.40, when the carpenter, who was on the look-out amidships, observed breakers abeam on the starboard side, and immediately reported them. It seems that they had not been seen by the look-out man, but he told us that he had a short time before heard a noise as of breakers, but had not reported it, as he did not see them and did not know what it was. The captain, when the carpenter reported the breakers, was in his cabin, where he had gone to consult his chart, as he had frequently done during that watch. He immediately came out, and on seeing the breakers, gave orders that the vessel should be put about. This was immediately done, and the vessel had got round on the starboard tack, and was drawing ahead, when she struck with her port side on a sunken rock. The current seems to have been setting her at the same time to the eastward, and she soon became fast on the rocks, and in about half an hour she filled. The boats were thereupon got out, and, with the assistance of the fishermen on the island, the whole of the crew were landed, when it was found that she had grounded on the rocks at the southwestern point of Fair Island. She soon afterwards broke up, and very little appears to have been saved. In about seven days afterwards the crew were sent away, but the captain, the first mate, the steward, and one of the men, remained for some five or six weeks, I presume for the purpose of saving what they could, but which seems to have been very little. Such are the circumstances of this sad disaster, as shown by the evidence of the witnesses who have been examined before us.

Now the Board of Trade have brought a charge against the master of carelessness in the navigation of his vessel, and of having thereby occasioned her loss; and the question that we have to consider is, whether that charge has been made out to our satisfaction.

The master has been most ably defended by Mr. Hill. He has had every opportunity afforded him of giving an explanation of his conduct, nor can it be said that the charge has been unduly or severely pressed against him by Mr. Tyndall for the Board of Trade. The defence set up by the captain is that he laid his course so as to pass between North Ronaldsha Light and Fair Isle, and that he expected to pass 15 miles clear to the westward of Fair Isle. This was the first account he gave of his proceedings, but in answer to some of the questions which the Court thought proper to put to him to-day, he has admitted that he had no intention at first of passing between North Ronaldsha and Fair Island, and that it was not until after he had made the North Ronaldsha Lighthouse; that is to say, not until 15 minutes after 1 o'clock, and when he got the bearing of North Ronaldsha Lighthouse north-west half west, and distant as he thought from 8 to 10 miles, that he determined to make the passage. He told us also that it had entered into his calculation that on that night it would be high water at 9 o'clock, and that consequently the ebb tide, which flows to the northward and westward, would have helped him by keeping him away to the westward, and that it would not have been until something like 3 o'clock, or between 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning, that he would have had to encounter the flood tide, which sets to the southward and eastward. He thinks, then, that from some cause, of which he is ignorant, the tide must have turned very much sooner than he anticipated, and must have drifted him, after he had lost sight of North Ronaldsha Light, rapidly away to the eastward, and so have brought him on the rocks.

Now we generally find that, when a master meets with any casualty of this kind, he is very ready to attribute it to some unknown and unexplained cause, something which no provision and no care on his part could have enabled hint to avoid. But is there any reason to think that this was so in the present case? We find, as I have already stated, that on the previous day he had started from the Auskerry Lighthouse, bearing north-west three-quarters west, distant, we will admit, 12 miles, and that after following a course north-east by east for about two hours and a half, he had sighted Fair Island on his weather or port bow. We find, too, that on pursuing his course, although he was able to bring his ship more to the northward, to north-east by north, he passed to leeward of Fair Island, and that at 8 p m. that island bore from him west by north, distant 10 miles. It has been said, and with truth, that, although Fair Island bore from him at 8 p.m. 10 miles west by north, in passing he must have gone closer to it than that, and he has stated to-day that he must have passed within 6 1/2 miles of the easternmost point of the island. Be it so, still he found himself on that day, after following a course north-east by east and then northeast by north, very considerably to leeward of Fair Isle. Now on the evening of the 18th the 'master passed the Auskerry Lighthouse at 7.30 p.m., the lighthouse at the time bearing north-west three-quarters north, and his course from that time till 10 was north-east by north, the same as it had been from 6 to 8 of the previous evening. From 10 to 12 we are told that he was able to lay her course north-north-east. It was not until after this that he was able to lay her north half east, and is it not therefore clear, judging from the experience of the preceding day, when he had found himself so far to leeward of Fair Isle, that at midnight he would be, if not to leeward, at all events not clear of the island? Moreover, he found at 1 a.m. that he was an hour behind his reckoning, which, if his calculations had been carefully made, could only be due to an adverse current, to a current setting from the north-west, which would at the same time drive him more to the eastward. He should have remembered also that a vessel in ballast, and showing a side of from 14 to 20 feet out of water would necessarily make a good deal of leeway, I am advised by my assessors, as much as two points of leeway at the least. And yet it is under these circumstances, and after he has sighted North Ronaldsha Lighthouse, that the master determines for the first time to pass between North Ronaldsha and Fair Island, when, if he had thought at all about the matter, he must have known that he could not have cleared the island, and that, with the leeway he was making, there would be every probability of his running on the island, if not of going to leeward of it. We cannot therefore acquit the master of the charge of great want of judgment in the navigation of his ship on this occasion. Had he at midnight, when he knew, or ought to have known, that he was getting into the neighbourhood of Fair Isle tacked his ship to the southward and westward, keeping at the same time a good look-out for the North Ronaldsha Light, he would not have lost any way, but would have placed his vessel in a better position for making the passage at daylight. And even if the weather had come on so misty as to have prevented his sighting the lights, he would at any rate have got into soundings, and thus have ascertained his true position. Had he taken this course, this casualty would probably not have occurred. But he chose to attempt the passage in foggy weather, ignorant as he was of the navigation, and of the currents which prevailed in those parts, and in disregard of the facts which the experience of the preceding day should have taught him; and the result was the total loss of this vessel with great risk to the lives of all on board.

It has been said that Captain Newcomb is a man of high character, that he has been a master for 10 years, and during all that time has been in but two employs, and that he has never before met with any accident. He is also an owner of 4/64th shares of the vessel; and it is not to be forgotten that the vessel, which originally, we are told, cost 50,000 dollars, was insured for only 20,000 or 25,000 dollars; and consequently the master had a direct personal interest in navigating her with safety. Still, we cannot forget that where a master, who is part owner of a vessel, runs his vessel into danger, it is not merely his own property, but the lives of those entrusted to his charge, that he risks; and if he has been guilty of gross negligence in the management of his vessel, even although he may have had a large stake in her, it would not prevent us from punishing him if we thought him deserving of it.

The master has told us also that the instructions which he had were very defective, and his solicitor has admitted that they were so, but that they were the best he could get; that he had endeavoured, when at Bremerhaven, to obtain better instructions, but had not been able to do so. The answer we would make to this is that, if the master was unable to obtain good instructions for the navigation of the seas between the Orkneys and the Shetland Islands he had no right whatever to have undertaken so difficult and perilous a passage, seeing that he was himself personally unacquainted with it.

That the neighbourhood in which this vessel was wrecked was an exceptionally dangerous one there can, I think, be no doubt. The "North Sea Pilot," which I have before me, at page six, speaking of Fair Island Roost, says: "The " detached rocks near the south-west end of the island " are named the 'Keels,' and off them is the Roost of the " Keels, a dangerous race which trends north-west with " the ebb, and south-east with the flood for a distance of " two miles. This phenomenon is caused by the con" " centrated and rapid tide passing over a rugged bottom, " and when the stream is opposed by the wind a confused " and bursting sea is quickly raised, in which vessels " become entirely unmanageable and are sometimes lost." That they are sometimes lost there can be no doubt, for from the chart, which has been laid before us by the Board of Trade, it would seem that no fewer than six unfortunate vessels have been wrecked on this island in the course of the present year; and Captain Prowse has told us that these are not all. Again, at 96 of the same book, we find under the head of a "Caution" to mariners, this passage: " A seaman while in this neighbourhood (that is, in the " neighbourhood of North Ronaldsha),must remember that " but little dependence should be placed upon running a " course. The tide stream between Shetland and the " Orkneys runs five knots per hour in average springs, " and it will carry a vessel becalmed 16 miles in one tide " Seven miles off North Ronaldsha the flood stream sets " south-east three-quarters south, but after passing that "island the stream for the last three hours sets south." I do not think that it is necessary to read any more to show the dangerous character of this place. Captain Prowse has given evidence as to the dangerous character of these waters, and has told us that he thinks no one knows anything of the currents except the fishermen of Fair Island. It seems that Captan Prowse was sent to Fair Isle in July last, after some wrecks had occurred there, for the purpose of reporting upon it to the Board of Trade; and he has told us that he recommended that a lifeboat, and, I think, a rocket apparatus, should be supplied to Fair Island. He has also told us that he has strongly recommended that there should be two lighthouses established, one on the south point of the island, and the other on the north point of the island. He says that a lifeboat has been ordered, and will be there soon, and cliff ladders, which will be very useful for saving the lives of wrecked seamen, will also soon be there; but as regards the lighthouses, he cannot say what will be done. His evidence, however, is sufficient to show us the extreme danger of these waters, and that it is not improbable that, if there had been a light on the south point of Fair Isle this accident would not have occurred.

Now the representative of the Board of Trade has not asked for a heavy sentence to be passed upon this master. He is of opinion that it was an error of judgment, and that there has been no absolute neglect of his duties as master of the vessel, and in that opinion we are disposed to concur. We shall therefore not suspend or cancel Captain Newcomb's certificate, but we shall strongly reprimand him for his want of judgment on this occasion, and shall recommend him to be more careful in future.

Under all the circumstances of the case we shall, of course, not allow him his costs, and I do not suppose that the Board of Trade will ask for any costs against him.

Mr. Tyndall. No, sir.






Wreck Commissioner.

W. 97. 60.—11/77. Wt. 3011.


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