The Potomac
75 U.S. 590 (1869)

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Potomac, 75 U.S. 18 Wall. 590 590 (1869)

The Potomac

75 U.S. (18 Wall.) 590

Syllabus

1. Although the duty of vessels propelled by steam is to keep clear of those moved by wind, yet these latter must not, by changing their course, instead of keeping on it, put themselves carelessly in the way of the former, and so render ineffective their movements to give the sailing vessels sufficient berth.

2. The confessions of a master, in a case of collision, are evidence against the owner.

Appeal from a decree of the Circuit Court of New York in a case of collision between the schooner Bedell and the steamer Potomac in the Chesapeake Bay, resulting in the total loss of the schooner. The collision occurred on a starlight night in July. The schooner was heading about north, going up the bay, sailing by the wind, close-hauled, with a fresh breeze, west-northwest. Whether or not she had a light on board was a matter about which the evidence was contradictory, the weight of it being to the effect that she had not. The steamer, with a good lookout and a full number of seamen, was descending the bay and sailing due south at about nine miles an hour, with all her lights set and brightly burning. When about three-quarters of a mile off, the schooner was discovered on the starboard bow of the steamer by the lookout of the steamer, who reported the fact to the officer in charge. The order was immediately given to starboard the helm two points, and after this was

Page 75 U. S. 591

done, and the mate who had the command saw the vessel about half a point on the starboard bow, the further order was given and executed to steady the helm.

In addition to this, the mate, in watching the movements of the schooner, discovered, notwithstanding his efforts to give her a wide berth to the west, that she was still approaching nearer the steamer, and again starboarded his helm, and slowed and backed. The captain of the schooner, however, about two minutes before the collision, ordered her helmsman to put her helm hard up, and the movements of the steamer thus proved ineffectual to prevent the boats' coming together. He had not seen the steamer until when within half a mile of her. When the vessels struck, the schooner had fallen off from about a north course to nearly an east one.

The helmsman of the steamer testified, that the mate of the steamer was asleep when the schooner was reported to him, but this the mate denied. It was certain that he was on deck immediately afterwards, unconfused and energetic.

When the vessels struck, the captain of the schooner, who was hauled over the railing upon the steamer, and so saved, was asked by the mate why he had kept his vessel right across the steamer's bows, to which he replied that he did not understand the steamer's lights till too late, and while talking afterwards with the captain said that he had "no one to blame but himself." Subsequently, in a conversation at the notary's office, where he happened to be, making his protest, he stated that he "mistook the steamer's lights, and supposed them to be on the stern instead of on the bow."

The district court decreed against the steamer, a decree which the circuit court reversed. The question in this Court was whether the reversal was right.

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