The Steamer Webb,
81 U.S. 406 (1871)

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Steamer Webb, 81 U.S. 14 Wall. 406 406 (1871)

The Steamer Webb

81 U.S. (14 Wall.) 406


1. Although an engagement by a steamer to tow a sailing vessel does not impose more than an obligation to carry out the contract with that degree of caution which prudent navigators usually employ in similar services, yet there may be cases in which the result is a safe criterion by which to judge of the act which has caused it. And when a steamer undertaking to tow a ship and having a well known and straight course to pursue suffered the ship, after towing her for but an hour or an hour and a half, to run aground at the end of a course of nine miles on a shoal between three and four miles from the proper line of the voyage, the Court held the steamer liable, especially as there was very considerable evidence that her compasses were untrue. And this decision was not affected by the fact that the voyage lay through waters where the currents were variable in the direction of their flow (the direction and force, however, being well known), and though for a part of the nine miles there was a thick fog.

2. The Court refused to reverse a decree which on the merits they approved because a deposition which ought not to have been read was read before a commissioner to whom the case was referred to compute damages, there being other evidence that the damages were as great as this Court finally awarded.

3. Decree in admiralty in the district and circuit courts for a greater amount than the sum for which sureties were bound, on stipulations for a discharge of the vessel from the marshal's custody, reformed by this Court so as not to exceed that sum.

In March, 1859, the steamer Webb, a steamer of good character belonging to the port of New York and engaged in towing ships at sea, was in Boston, having just then, under charge of coast pilot named Sherwood, towed a ship to that port. This pilot Sherwood had had twelve years' experience as a coast pilot and was recommended by insurance companies. The owners of the Webb had engaged him to take the steamer back to New York, and they had agreed also with the owners of another ship, then lying at New Bedford, to stop for her on the way and tow her to

Page 81 U. S. 407

New York, and that this towage should be under direction of the same pilot.

In these circumstances, one Hazard, master of the ship Shooting Star, lying at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, applied to the owners of the Webb to tow her to New York. The owners agreed in writing accordingly "to tow the ship and furnish coast pilot for $625." Having gone to Portsmouth and taken her tow, the Webb, under the pilotage of Sherwood, set off with a good complement of men on her voyage for New York. The course of the voyage lay south, past and round Cape Cod, through the waters that lie between the island of Nantucket on the south side and Barnstable County, Massachusetts, on the north, into what is known as the Vineyard Sound, and so through Long Island Sound to New York. The approaches to the Vineyard Sound (which for the purpose of this case may be considered as beginning with "Handkerchief Shoal" on the east of it, and as you leave the main ocean to enter the passages made by islands and the mainland of Massachusetts) abound with shoals and with currents, which last, though close to each other, run in opposite directions. But the currents follow each its own direction, and, like the shoals, are marked with precision upon the charts.

About a hundred yards south of Handkerchief Light -- a light upon the shoal -- the Webb and her tow found themselves at about 2 or 2 1/2 o'clock A.M. -- nearer the latter time, perhaps, than the former -- on the morning of March 23d. This was the exact position where they ought to have been in order to reach New York, and their route to that port was by a single straight course west, three-quarters south, to a light called Cross Rip Light, eleven nautical miles (rather less than thirteen statute or land miles) distant from the Handkerchief. This Cross Rip Light is on a boat where there is a fog bell, audible in fogs, three miles off. The rate of the vessels as they passed the Handkerchief was about twelve knots an hour. The tide, at this time, had just turned ebb, the effect of which was to make the current for about half-way from Handkerchief to Cross Rip run north, and for the

Page 81 U. S. 408

rest of the distance to run southwest. There was a light wind from the southeast; it was raining, but not so that they could not see the coast lights which they had passed and even that on the northeast point of Nantucket, more than five miles off. Soon after passing the Handkerchief Light, the wind died out, the weather became misty, and in half an hour and by the time that they got half-way from the Handkerchief to Cross Rip, it was so thick that they could not see even the lights of the ship astern, though up to this point the fog had not been thus thick. Lookouts were properly posted. When the fog rose, they were on the course mentioned, going, as already stated, twelve knots. The pilot decided to keep up this speed for thirty minutes, expecting at the end of that time to be within hearing of the bell from Cross Rip. Captain Hazard objected to going on through this fog and desired to anchor, but on the pilot's statement that a vessel which once anchored where they were had been obliged to cut some spars to avoid running aground, and on an assurance that there was no danger in running to Cross Rip, he yielded and consented to keep on. The pilot gave the course west half south, but the steamer was headed by her compass west-southwest, in order to allow for a variation from local attraction caused by iron on board the vessel, which Captain Hazard supposed to be one and a half points south of their true course when running west, diminishing to zero when running south. They ran on this course at full speed for thirty-two minutes, and then, not hearing the bell, shut off steam, reducing their rate to between two and three knots, and having the lead cast by another pilot named Wilson, the captain of a Boston packet, who as a friend of Sherwood's had been allowed a free passage to New York. After running slow for forty-five minutes, they found themselves in shallow water, which Sherwood took for a shoal called Horseshoe Shoal, that lies about a mile north of Cross Rip. To avoid this, he turned his steamer towards the south, and immediately the ship was aground. She had run on Tuckernuck Shoal, a point about four miles southeasterly from both the Horseshoe and Cross Rip, about nine miles

Page 81 U. S. 409

southwest by west half west from the Handkerchief Light, and fully three and a third miles to the south of the course in which the vessels ought to have been. This was at half-past three, or a very little later, in the morning. After some vain endeavors to drag her off, the steamer left the ship and cast anchor in the neighborhood.

After daylight, the steamer tried to approach the ship, to give her the end of the towing hawser, the ship having drifted off the shoal and then riding at anchor. The crew began to heave on the anchor. As was alleged by the people on the steamer, they on the ship hove short, and the vessel picked up her anchor and drifted away. But the ship had, in fact, lost her anchor. She soon went ashore again, her stern resting on the sand. The wind getting very strong and the sea violent under a gale which had suddenly sprung up, the ship, in order to prevent her bow being thrown upon a ridge, which, if she struck, her captain thought might dash her to pieces, after losing the port anchor cast out the starboard one. The ship swung directly upon the flukes of this anchor and knocked holes in her bottom through which she filled with water. Before this, she had not leaked. The gale was so high and the sea so rough and boisterous that communications between the vessels could not be made. The steamer then went to Edgartown, a town on the island of Martha's Vineyard, for a steam pump and wreckers. In the meantime, and before the Webb got back, one Levi Hotchkiss -- a part owner of the vessel, who happened to be aboard -- got on to a sloop and, acting with energy, procured relief from Boston and Nantucket. Thus aided, the ship got off, and her leaks having been temporarily stopped, she was got into New York and sent into dock for repairs.

After the accident, the Webb's compass was carefully examined and tested, and considerable testimony tended to prove that the variation from local attraction (the iron on the vessel) on the west course was one and a half points to the north, instead of to the south, as had been supposed by the captain and pilot.

Hereupon the owners of the ship, by proceeding in rem,

Page 81 U. S. 410

libeled the Webb for $17,500 damages, and the marshal seized her. She was, however, discharged from his custody on her owners entering into bonds for $18,000 as the value of the ship, and $250, the sum estimated as possible amount of costs, conditioned to pay what might be awarded by final decree.

To establish the case of the ship, the testimony of Hotchkiss, already mentioned, one of her part owners, had been taken, June 20, 1859, "saving the exception as to the competency of the witness," the statute of July 16, 1862, which allows parties and interested witnesses to testify not having then passed. Damages suffered by the ship, and much exceeding $18,000, were proved by the bills of repairs produced and by other witnesses than Hotchkiss. The deposition of Hotchkiss was not read in the district court, without hearing which that court decreed against the steamer, and referred the case to a commissioner to ascertain damages. The commissioner, however, did hear the deposition, and awarded $20,378 damages; this being followed by a final decree in the district court for $24,590. On appeal to the circuit court, that court not reading the deposition, affirmed the decree, and gave a final decree there for $28,292. From that decree the case was brought here by the owners of the steamer, the record which came here including Hotchkiss's deposition.

Page 81 U. S. 413

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