Monday, January 13, 2014

Foul Weather and a Foul Berth

It's 7pm, 13th January 1865. There's a gale blowing from the south west. The sea is rough and it's raining hard. Sound familiar? Here's the shipping forecast for today, 13th January 2014.

Back to 1865. Two brigs, square-rigged sailing ships, carrying coal from the north east of England, are out in the storm just off South Foreland. Maggie Armstrong a 289 ton vessel from Shields (South Shields) is en route to Havre-de-Grace. A smaller brig, the 191 ton Blue Bell from Hartlepool is en route to Shoreham. Maggie Armstrong has taken shelter in The Downs and is at anchor. Blue Bell, also decides to seek the refuge of The Downs. She runs back, anchoring, it is later alleged, too close to Maggie Armstrong, thus giving the latter vessel a 'foul berth'.

In the dark, with the wild sea and a storm raging, a collision occurred. Both brigs slipped their anchors and Blue Bell struck Maggie Armstrong amidships and almost sank her.

Brig leaving Dover by George Chambers (1803-40)
Used under a Creative Commons license from Wikipedia

The rules regarding collisions at sea, and citing this specific case, are discussed in treatises by RG Marsden (clearly an expert in such matters) here and here. He quotes Dr Lushington's legal definition of a 'foul berth'."If one vessel anchors there, and another here, there should be that space left for swinging to the anchor that in ordinary circumstances the two ships cannot come together. If that space is not left, I apprehend it is a foul berth". Marsden states"If a ship gives another a foul berth, she cannot require the latter to take extraordinary precautions to avoid a collision'.

The key question, as reported in Law Reporter, Volume 14, 1866, in the case of the Maggie Armstrong vs Blue Bell, was whether the Blue Bell gave Maggie Armstrong a foul berth or not. The case was heard before the above mentioned Right Honourable Dr Lushington, who knew a foul berth when he saw one.

The owners of Maggie Armstrong claimed that Blue Bell was culpable. Such a suggestion, of course, the owners of Blue Bell vigorously denied. Maggie Armstrong alleged that despite the best and strenuous efforts of her crew to avoid collision, she was struck by Blue Bell and that the ship was almost lost. Maggie made it to Ramsgate with help from a Deal boat and a Ramsgate lugger. After detailed discussion and hearing testimony from both sides, Dr Lushington found that Blue Bell had indeed given foul berth to Maggie Armstrong and was thus was responsible for the collision.

It is interesting that Blue Bell was also involved in another altercation, a few years later, this time en route back from Shoreham to Hartlepool on 16th October 1870. According to that Victorian page-turner, The Analytical Review of Law Journal Reports (1870-71), at 5am on a dark, stormy morning, Blue Bell was in the channel leading to Hartlepool harbour. The tide was in full flood. It was blowing a gale and she was close-reefed.  Another ship, The Industry, allegedly showing no lights, unexpectedly moved across the channel. Blue Bell claimed that in trying to avoid collision, and despite dropping her anchor, she struck the harbour wall damaging both ship and wall. The owners of Blue Bell claimed the crew of The Industry was negligent.  

In this case, the High Court of Admiralty found that Blue Bell was deemed not to have been at fault and her owners were awarded damages.

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