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Wreck Report for 'American', 1880

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Unique ID:14403
Description:Board of Trade Wreck Report for 'American', 1880
Creator:Board of Trade
Copyright:Out of copyright
Partner:SCC Libraries
Partner ID:Unknown


(No. 654.)


The Merchant Shipping Acts, 1854 to 1876.

IN the matter of the formal Investigation held at Westminster, on the 1st and 2nd of July 1880, before H. C. ROTHERY, Esquire, Wreck Commissioner, assisted by J. R. RAVENHILL, Esquire, C.E., Captain CASTLE and Captain VAUX, as Assessors, into the circumstances attending the abandonment and loss of the steamship "AMERICAN" of Southampton, on the 23rd of April 1880, whilst on a voyage from Southampton to Cape Town.

Report of Court.

The Court, having carefully inquired into the circumstances of the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds, for the reasons annexed,-

1. That the loss of the "American" was probably due to the shaft having broken in the stern tube, and to the ship's side having been there pierced, and at the same time the after bulkhead fractured; but that there is nothing to show what originally caused the shaft to break.

2. That the aftermost bulkhead might with advantage have been carried up to the spar deck, as the bulkhead between the engine-room and the after hold was, but that there is no reason to suppose that this would have averted the loss of the vessel, although another bulkhead midway between the engine-room and the after tank would probably have done so. And that there is no reason to think that the bulkheads were not efficiently constructed.

3. That the conduct of the master, officers, and crew, in their efforts to save the vessel and the lives of those on board, was admirable.

Dated this 2nd Day of July 1880.






Wreck Commissioner.

We concur in the above report.







Engineer Assessor.









Annex to the Report.

This case was heard at Westminster, on the 1st and 2nd of July instant, when Mr. Mansel Jones appeared for the Board of Trade, and Mr. J. C. Mathew for the owners of the "American." Fifteen witnesses having been produced and examined, Mr. Mansel Jones stated that the Board of Trade desired the opinion of the court upon the following questions:-

" 1. What was the cause of the loss of the 'American'?

" 2. Whether the loss of the vessel might have been " averted if she had had a greater number of watertight " bulkheads efficiently constructed, and carried up to " the spar deck?

" 3. Whether, after the accident happened, the master, " officers, and crew of the vessel did all they could to " save the vessel?"

Mr. Mathew having been heard on behalf of the owners, and Mr. Mansel Jones having replied, the Court proceeded to give judgment on the questions on which its opinion had been asked. The circumstances of the case are as follow:-

The "American" was an iron screw steamship, belonging to the port of Southampton, of 2,484 tons gross, and 1,598 tons net register, and was fitted with engines of 320 horse power. She was built at Dundee in the year 1873, and at the time of her loss was the property of the union Steamship Company, Limited. She left Southampton on the 8th of April last, bound to the Cape of Good Hope, with a crew of 76 hands all told, 68 passengers, and about 1,750 tons of cargo. In crossing the Bay of Biscay she encountered very bad weather, and was compelled to lay to off Cape Finisterre for about 36 hours. She then proceeded on her voyage, arriving at Madeira on the morning of the 15th of April, and left again the same evening. From that time nothing particular occurred until about 5 a.m. of the 23rd, when the vessel was in about 2 North and about 10 West, and distant 200 miles S.W. of Cape Palmas. At this time the chief officer was in charge of the deck, and the fourth engineer was in the engine-room. It seems that, before taking charge, the fourth engineer had, in accordance with a very good practice which prevails on board all the Company's vessels, gone round and examined all parts of the engines, including the bearings, and found every thing in good working order. But at about 5 o'clock, on going into the boiler-room, be saw from one of the gauges that there appeared to the too much water in one of the boilers, and he accordingly took hold of the spanner for the purpose of letting out some of the water, when he heard a crash, and then the engines begin to race. He at once rushed back to the engine-room, and turned the steam off in order to stop the engines. Whilst so engaged, the captain and the rest of the engineers, who had been awakened by the noise, came running down into the engine-room. At this time the water was pouring through the tunnel doorway, and accordingly the third engineer took', a light, and went up the tunnel to see what was the matter. After getting up a short distance the light went out, and he had to return, and on getting another light he went into the tunnel again, and when he had got some distance up the light again went out; upon which he was ordered out by the captain and the chief officer, and the tunnel door was then closed. The donkey pump was then set going, and an attempt was made to get the main engines to work the pumps, but it was found impossible to move them more than 5 or 6 inches either way; and we are told that it would have taken several hours to disconnect the propeller shafting from the engines. In the meantime the carpenter had been ordered to take soundings, and the first sounding he got was 4 inches in the after hold; soon afterwards he sounded again and got 2 feet 6 of water; shortly afterwards he found between 4 and 5 feet, and within an hour from the time of the accident there were no less than 13 feet of water in the after hold. Previous to this the third officer had been let down over the stern, and according to him the propeller had dropped aft, the two upper blades being one on each side of the rudder post, but whether the lower blades were injured or not he could not say. After a time it was observed that the water was coming into the engine-room between the ship's side and the after bulkhead; and although all available pumping power was brought to bear on the engine-room, it was not possible to keep it under. Accordingly the captain ordered all the boats to be put over the side, and to be provisioned for 14 days, which was done; and at about 7.30 the ladies and children were put into them. It was subsequently found that there were 18 feet of water in the after hold, and as it was gaining upon them in the engine-room, the captain at about 11 a.m. gave orders to abandon her, the vessel's stern being at that time under water, and the captain himself being the last to leave. About noon she disappeared; upon which the captain gave orders to the boats, eight in number, amongst which the passengers and crew had been distributed, to steer for Cape Palmas, directing them to keep company. This, however, was found to be impossible to do during the night; fortunately, however, all the boats were subsequently picked up by different vessels with the exception of the dingy, in which there were six hands, and which has not since been heard of.

These then being the facts, the first question on which our opinion has been asked is, "What was the cause of " the loss of the 'American'?" To answer this question it will be necessary to give a brief description of the vessel. It seems that she was built in the year 1873, and bad originally two decks, a lower or main deck, with orlop beams below; but in the year 1876 a poop of about 200 feet long was added to her. Her length, we are told, between perpendiculars was 320 feet, her breadth a little over 34 feet, and her depth of hold about 25 feet. She had five watertight iron bulkheads, namely, a collision bulkhead forward, another between the fore and main holds, one forward and one aft of the engine-room, and a fifth quite aft in the way of the stuffing box. The three bulkheads forward of the engine-room went up only to the lower or main deck. The bulkhead abaft the engine-room, which we are told originally went up only to the main deck, was afterwards carried up to the spar deck, probably at the time when the poop was put on her. The fifth bulkhead went up only to the hold beams, and above it, running aft, was an iron floor, thus forming a watertight compartment, which is called the after tank. The tunnel extended from the engine-room to the after bulkhead, and from there to the stern post, a distance of about 16 feet, the shaft was enclosed in a tube called the stern tube, passing through the after tank. The shaft passed through the stern post, and had a bearing on the rudder post in a brass bush, fitted with lignum vitæ in dovetailed pieces.

Now, in the opinion of the witnesses from the vessel, the accident was due to the shaft having broken in the stern tube, probably near the stern post, and to the broken end of the shaft having pierced the vessel's side, which is there very close to it. This would cause the after tank to fill; but that would not be sufficient to account for the accident, unless the after bulkhead had also been injured either by the shaft having given way at the stuffing box, or by the bulkhead itself having been torn open. On the other hand it is suggested by the learned counsel for the Board of Trade, that the fracture of the shaft in all probability took place forward of the stuffing box, and therefore inside the tunnel, and that it was there that the ship's side was injured. But apart from the consideration that the shaft is there much farther from the ship's side than it is inside the after tank, it will be seen from the plans which have been laid before us, that a little before the stuffing box there is a plummer block resting upon a plate, so that the shafting is strong and well supported at that point. We cannot of course say with certainty where the shaft broke, but in our opinion it seems more probable that it broke, as was suggested by the witnesses, inside the stern tube, which would no doubt be broken at the same time; and a portion of the wreck or debris might then, whilst the engines were racing, have been driven through the sides of the ship, and the bulkhead at the same time torn away. This is the best opinion that we can form as to the cause of the casualty.

The next question upon which our opinion is asked is, "Whether the loss of the vessel might have been " averted if she had had a greater number of water- " tight bulkheads efficiently constructed, and carried " up to the spar deck." The three bulkheads forward of the engine-room went up, as we have seen, only to the main deck; but even if they had been carried up to the spar deck, it could have made no difference in this case, seeing that there was no water forward of the engine-room. The assessors, however wish me to say that as regards the two foremost of these bulkheads they consider that in being carried up to the main deck they were sufficiently high, for that, if carried higher, they would have interfered materially with the accommodation for the passengers and with the ventilation. They think, however, that the third bulkhead, which was immediately forward of the engine-room, should have been carried up, as the bulkhead abaft the engine-room was, to the spar deck, as it is a matter of the utmost importance that the water should not be allowed to get into the engine-room. The fifth and aftermost bulkhead was, as we have seen, carried up only to the hold beams. Now I am told that according to Lloyd's regulations the aftermost bulkhead must either be carried up as high as the upper deck, or if carried only to the hold beams, there must be an iron deck above, forming a watertight compartment aft. This was the plan adopted in this case, and we are told that it is a usual form of construction. At the same time the assessors think, that if the aftermost bulkhead bad been carried up to the spar deck, still retaining the iron deck in the way of the hold beams, it would have been better; for then, if the after hold had filled, the water would still have been prevented from getting into the stern above the after tank. As it was, the top of the after tank being only 8 feet 6 above the ceiling, and the vessel 2 feet by the stern, as soon as there were between 7 and 8 feet of water in the after hold, it would fill the space above the after tank, and thus help to bring the vessel down by the stern. At the same time the assessors are of opinion that such a bulkhead would probably not have averted the loss of the vessel in this case, seeing that the water was finding its way from the after hold into the engine-room, and that the main engines being disabled it was impossible to keep it under. Seeing, however, that the after hold was no less than 74 feet long, the assessors are of opinion that, had there been another watertight bulkhead midway between the engine-room and the after tank going up to the spar deck, it would have conduced to her safety, and would probably have saved the vessel from going down.

We are asked whether the bulkheads were efficiently constructed. The evidence shews that they were made of plates 6/16ths to 7/16ths of an inch thick, strengthened by angle irons 2 feet 6 apart, and rivetted to the sides of the ship by an angle iron on each side. We are told that, although the after bulkhead in the engine-room did not give way, it bent with the weight of water in the after hold, and that the water found its way through the bulkhead into the engine-room; apparently however not in greater quantities than could have been kept down by the engines, had it been possible to work them. On the whole therefore we are not disposed to say that the bulkheads of this vessel were not efficiently constructed.

The last question which we are asked, is, "Whether, " after the accident happened, the master, officers, and " crew of the vessel did all they could to save the " vessel." In our opinion no persons could have behaved better than they did. They did everything that could have been expected from them to save the vessel. The order which appears to have been maintained amongst the passengers, no easy thing in a case like this, where the vessel is on the point of sinking, was admirable; for which in our opinion the captain deserves the greatest credit. Indeed, all the officers and men in our opinion deserve great credit for the way in which, in their several stations, they carried out the captain's orders, doing everything they could to save the ship and the lives of the passengers.

No costs were asked for by either party.






Wreck Commissioner.

We concur.



JOHN R. RAVENHILL, Engineer Assessor.




Nautical Assessors.





L 367. 424. 200.-7/80. Wt. 47. E. & S.


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