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Wreck Report for 'Copeland', 1888

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Unique ID:15385
Description:Board of Trade Wreck Report for 'Copeland', 1888
Creator:Board of Trade
Copyright:Out of copyright
Partner:SCC Libraries
Partner ID:Unknown


(No. 3599.)


The Merchant Shipping Acts, 1854 to 1876.

IN the matter of a formal Investigation held at the Sheriff Court House, Edinburgh, on the 24th and 27th days of August 1888, before JOHN CAMPBELL SHAIRP, Esquire, Sheriff-substitute of Mid Lothian, assisted by Captain KENNETT HORE and Captain EDWARD BROOKS, into the circumstances attending the stranding of the steamship "COPELAND," at Stroma Island, Pentland Firth, on 25th July 1888.

Report of Court.

The Court, having carefully inquired into the circumstances attending the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds, for the reasons stated in the annex hereto, that the stranding of the steamship "Copeland" was caused by the master having allowed too much for the set of the tide, and having accordingly altered his course to the southward, under the impression that the vessel had passed Stroma Island, whereas she was in reality still to the westward of it. Further, the master was unable to verify the distance run from Dunnet Head owing to the dense fog which prevailed and the currents which were running. The Court is of opinion that the master committed a very grave error of judgment in attempting to make the passage of the Pentland Firth in such weather, but for the reasons stated they do not deal with his certificate.

Dated this 27th day of August 1888.



J. C. SHAIRP, Judge.

We concur in the above report.






Annex to the Report.

This was an inquiry into the loss of the British steamship "Copeland," held before John Campbell Shairp, Esquire, Advocate, Sheriff substitute, at the Sheriff Court House, George IV. Bridge, Edinburgh. Mr. Smith appearing for the Board of Trade, Mr. Sunderland for the master, and Mr. Kelly watched the case on the part of the owner.

The "Copeland," which forms the subject of this investigation, was an iron screw steamer of 438 tons register, and 798 gross tonnage, built in Govan in the year 1874, classed 100 A 1 at Lloyd's, and registered at the Port of Leith, her official number being 71,681. She was 225 ft. 3 in. in length, 29 ft. 3 in. in breadth, and 15 ft. 5 1/2 in. in depth, and at the time of the casualty was owned by James Gourley Bridges, Esquire, of No. 40, Shore, Leith, who was also the managing owner. She was rigged as a three-masted schooner, and fitted with two surface-condensing compound engines of 150 horse-power combined, and had a passenger certificate from the Board of Trade to carry 566 passengers, and was engaged in the Iceland trade, running between Leith and Rigkjavik, and was also fitted to carry cattle. She had five boats of 878 cubic feet capacity, fitted with all requisites for use when last surveyed and inspected by the Board of Trade surveyor on the 13th June 1888. She had three compasses, one on the bridge (a standard), one in the wheelhouse under the bridge, a steering compass, and the third placed before the steering gear aft. They were all in good order and condition, and properly adjusted by Messrs. White, of Glasgow, in May 1888, who were also the makers of the compasses. The standard compass being correct magnetic on all points except six, viz.: E., E. by N., and E.N.E, S.E., S.E. by S., and S.S.E., even on these points there was only 1° of deviation. The "Copeland" was commanded by Mr. Charles Thompson, (who holds a certificate of competency as master, numbered 5,183), and had a crew of 30 hands all told, and eleven passengers when she last left Iceland. She was in every respect well found, and properly fitted and equipped for the voyage.

She left Rejkjavik on the 20th of July last with a general cargo consisting of fish, wool, and 482 ponies, bound for Leith, and her draught of water on leaving that place was 11 ft. forward and 15 ft. aft. She seems to have encountered very heavy N.E. and easterly gales after her departure, and her passage had thus been a long one up to the time of her making the land off Strathie Point. At this time the wind and sea had fallen, a dense fog had set in, with light easterly airs, and the ship's engines were put at half speed. On the morning of the 25th July, at 6 a.m., the fog lifted, and the second mate, who was then in charge of the deck, sighted, as he said, Strathie Point. A course was steered eastwards towards Dunnet Bay along the land, the vessel being stopped at times to take soundings. The master's object in taking these soundings seems to have been to make Dunnet Head, and so to get a good departure for running through the Pentland Firth. As the weather was so thick as to oblige the ship to proceed at half-speed, it seems to have been a very desirable and prudent course to take these soundings. But the Court are of opinion that, looking to the state of the weather when the "Copeland" made Dunnet Head, and knowing, as the master did, that the tides there run from 5 to 10 knots an hour, it was by no means a prudent thing to attempt the passage of the Pentland Firth in so dense a fog. How dense this fog must have been is proved by the fact that those on board the "Copeland" could not see the lighthouse on Dunnet Head when passing within half-a-mile of it; while the master states himself that when the ship struck on Stroma Island they could not see more than a ship's length a-head. To attempt the passage of the Pentland Firth under such conditions seems the more imprudent when it is remembered that the lead could have been of but very little use or the log either, when running in such a tremendous tide-way. And seeing that the principal thing required was an accurate knowledge of the distance run, and the course made good in passing through the Firth, it seems in the opinion of the Court that the best course would have been for the master to have remained in or off Scrabster Roads till the weather cleared sufficiently to make Stroma Island. Probably the ship would only have been detained a few hours by doing this. However, on making and passing Dunnet Head a fishing boat was sighted and hailed, the vessel stopped and boarded by the fisherman (or pilot as he called himself), and a telegram sent on shore to the owners. Some conversation seems to have taken place between the master and the fisherman-pilot as to the strength of the tide, the time it would run, and the state of the weather, and also the advisability of running back to Scrabster Roads. The master, however, decided to run on through the Pentland Firth, and in so deciding the Court are of opinion that he was guilty of the error of judgment which ended in the loss of the "Copeland." What led him to that decision does not appear from the evidence. If it was that the severe gales encountered had injured the hay, and that he doubted whether he would have sufficient provender for the ponies till Leith was reached; this is no sufficient reason for the course adopted. For at Scrabster Roads provender might have been obtained, or if that was impossible the ponies might have been landed there. From the log-book the ponies seem to have suffered severely on the passage, as 12 had died Those on deck must have been in the worst position.

Want of provender, however, is negatived by the evidence of the master and the owner, who depose that the supply was sufficient. Whatever the reason, the master decided to run on through the Firth, and on the departure of the pilot at 10.55 a.m. with telegrams, started the engines on full spead ahead, steering E. by S. (magnetic), there being no deviation on that point. The master kept on this course for forty minutes, by which time he thought the vessel had made about six miles, as her speed was 9 knots an hour. He further calculated that the current, which he estimated was running 6 knots an hour, must have carried him past the north end of Stroma. At 11.35 he altered the course to E.S.E. (magnetic) and reduced her engines to half speed, as the weather had become so thick they could only see about a length of the vessel ahead. This course was kept for ten minutes, i.e. to 11.45, when breakers were seen ahead and on the port bow, about the length of the ship off. The helm was immediately put hard-a-port, the engines stopped and reversed full speed astern, but too late to save the ship. She took the ground at 11.45 and remained hard and fast on the north-west end of Stroma Island. The cause of the disaster is clear. There was nothing like a tide of 6 knots an hour, on which the master had calculated. The vessel had never reached the north end of Stroma Island, but was a mile from it when the course was altered to E.S.E. and S.E. This course carried her right on to the north west end of the Island. In so dense a fog, and with strong currents running, it was impossible to verify the distance run from Dunnet Head, and the Court do not suggest that the master neglected any means open to him of verifying the distance run. The distance from Dunnet Head to the north end of Stroma Island is about 8 1/4 to 8 1/2 miles, and the "Copeland" could have only made 7 or 7 1/2 miles of this distance when her course was altered to the southward under the impression that the distance run (6 miles) and the allowance for tide (more than 3 miles) had brought the vessel to the eastward of the island. In point of fact she was still to the westward of the island by a mile when the course was altered to the southward, and this southerly alteration then brought the N.W. end of the island right ahead of the "Copeland;" owing to the denseness of the fog they were unable to see this till the vessel struck at 11 45.

Every effort seems to have been made to get the vessel off after she took the ground by reversing the engines to full speed astern; but finding it was impossible to move her, that the water was flowing into No. 2 hold, and the mainmast was lifted up about two or three feet, the boats were got out to land the passengers and crew. The passengers were landed by shortly after one o'clock. In the meantime eight or ten boats had pulled out from the east side of Stroma Island. Some of the passengers were landed in these boats and some in the ship's boats, and the water rapidly rising in the hold. The fires were drawn in the engine-room and safety-valves eased. Sea-cocks shut and bunker-doors put down. Some fifty or sixty of the men from the shore were engaged to land the ponies. This they proceeded to do in the afternoon, and a certain number of the ponies were put overboard that day (the 25th), and swam on shore. But while the passengers and luggage were being landed the water had increased in No. 2 hold, till the ponies, which were in the lowest compartment of that hold, about 110 in number, were drowned. It is not clear by what hour all the 110 ponies in the lower compartment of hold No. 2 were drowned, but there is evidence that some of them were seen swimming in the hatchway between two and three in the afternoon. The ponies which were landed from the ship on the day she struck were taken from hold No. 1 and from the decks. There is no evidence that any attempt was made to save any of the ponies from No. 2 hold. Had it been made it might have been found impossible to get the ponies out; but the Court are of opinion that if it was possible to land any ponies on the 25th July, an attempt should have been made to land those in No. 2 hold, which were in immediate danger, and that those in holds Nos. 1 and 3 should have been left till such attempt had been made. The ponies in holds 1 and 3 proved to have been in comparative safety on the 25th July, as they were safely landed on the 26th. As it was feared that the ship would break asunder during the next tide, all hands left her for the night at 6.30 p.m. The next day they commenced to land and save the remainder of the ponies. No water had come into No. 1 or No. 3 holds, but No. 2 hold was full up to the between decks, and the engine-room up to the platform. There seems to have been 482 ponies on board when leaving Iceland, 12 of which, according to the log-book, died on the voyage, and 110 were drowned in No. 2 hold, leaving about 360 as saved and landed on Stroma. The rest of the cargo, wool and fish, were also saved, and on the fifth day the vessel parted amidships. No lives were lost. All the witnesses examined on the point gave evidenee as to the high character of the master as a sailor. His own evidence was clear and straightforward.

On the conclusion of the evidence the following questions were handed in by the solicitor for the Board of Trade:-

1. What was the cause of the stranding of the vessel?

2. What number of compasses had she on board, where were they placed, and were they in good order and sufficient for the safe navigation of the ship?

3. When and by whom where they made, and when and by whom were they last adjusted?

4. Did the master ascertain the deviation of his compasses by observation from time to time? Were the errors of the compasses correctly ascertained, and the proper corrections to the courses applied?

5. Whether proper measures were taken to ascertain and verify the position of the vessel about 10.15 a.m. on the 25th ult., and from time to time thereafter?

6. Whether safe and proper courses were set and steered after passing Dunnet Head, and whether due and proper allowance was made for tide and currents?

7. Whether, having regard to the thick state of the weather, the lead was used with sufficient frequency?

8. Whether a good and proper look-out was kept?

9. Whether every effort was made to save the lives of the live stock on board?

10. Whether the vessel was navigated with proper and seamanlike care?

11. Whether the master and officers are, or either of them is, in default?

It was added that in the opinion of the Board of Trade the certificate of the master should be dealt with.

Mr. Smith having addressed the Court, and Mr. Sutherland having been heard in reply for the master, the Court proceeded to give judgment on the questions upon which its opinion had been asked as follows:-

1. The stranding of the ship was brought about in the first place by too great a distance being allowed for the set of the tide, which was not by any means so strong as was supposed; and from the course being altered to the southward under the impression that the vessel had passed Stroma Island, whereas in reality she was still to 1 he westward of it; and secondly, that owing to the thick weather the master was unable to verify the distance run from Dunnet Head, nor was he able to see Stroma Island until he was only a ship's length from it, and too late to be of any service.

2. She had three compasses-one placed on the bridge (called the standard) by which the courses were set, one placed in the wheel-house under the bridge, and one aft in front of the after steering gear; they were all in good order, and sufficient for the safe navigation of the ship.

3. They were made by Messrs. Whyte & Co., of Glasgow, at what date does not appear, and they were adjusted by the makers in May last.

4. The master ascertained the errors of his compasses from time to time on the previous voyage, but was unable to do so on this voyage, observations being unattainable on account of thick weather. There were no errors on the standard compass, excepting one degree only on the S.E. courses, which was correctly applied when steering those courses.

5. Proper measures were taken to ascertain the position of the ship about 10.15 a.m. on the 25th July, but owing to the thick weather and the uncertainty of the tide, it was impossible to verify the position after leaving Dunnet Head, and this led to her stranding.

6. The first course set was a safe and proper one had the weather been sufficiently clear to have seen Stroma Island, but as the vessel had not made sufficient distance on the first course to be clear of the north end of Stroma Island (and as there were no means of verifying the distance run on the first course on account of the fog) the subsequent alterations were made too soon, the master having allowed for more tide than there was in reality.

7. Up to making Dunnet Head the lead appears to have been used with sufficient frequency, but after that we do not think the lead would have been of much service in determining his position.

8. A good and proper look-out seems to have been kept, the master and mate being on the bridge, and a man on the forecastle head.

9. Vigorous efforts seem to have been made to save the ponies, and with the exception of those on the lower part of No. 2 hold and the 12 which died on the passage, they were almost all landed on Stroma Island. It appeared to the Court that after landing the passengers, the first effort should have been directed to ascertain whether it was impossible to save the ponies in the lower compartment of No. 2, as it was only in this hold that the water came in. But there is evidence to show that some, though not all, of these ponies may have been drowned whilst the crew were endeavouring to save, first the ship, and failing that, the lives of the passengers and themselves.

10. Up to arriving off Dunnet Head we have no doubt the vessel was navigated with proper and seamanlike care; but from that point we think the master acted imprudently in attempting to run through the Pentland Firth in such thick weather when it was impossible to verify the distance run.

11. The master is alone to blame for the casualty, and we are of opinion that in attempting to make the passage of the strait in such thick weather he committed a very grave error of judgment, knowing as he did, that there were no means of verifying the ship's position in a strong tide-way running at an uncertain rate, and where the lead could have been of little guide to him; however, taking into consideration his long service as master, the excellent character given him in court by the owners, and that there was no negligence attributable to him, but only an error in judgment, the Court does not deal with his certificate.



J. C. SHAIRP, Judge.

We concur in the above.






Edinburgh, 27th August 1888.





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