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Colonial Cases

The Alfred the Great v. The Ophir, 1863

[shipping, collision]

The Alfred the Great v. The Ophir

Consular Court, Shanghai
Source: The North-China Herald, 7 March 1863



February 5th, 1863.

Before WALTER MEDHURST, Esq., Consul,

J. T. C. WEBB, Master H.M.S. Pearl, ROBT. McQUEEN, Esq., Master Mariner.

The Master and Owners of ship Alfred the Great


Master and Owners of barque Ophir.

This action was brought to recover the sum of 115 dollars for damage done to the Alfred the Great by collision with the Ophir, on the 7th February, 1863; the defence was non-indebtedness, and a counter-claim on the same collision of 83 taels for carpenter's work; 40.40 for rigging, and one day's detention 55 dollars.

THOMAS LOOTITT, master of the Alfred the Great, said: - Defendant's vessel came into collision with mine on the 1st February last, between 1.30 and 2 p.m., about 4 or 5 miles off the "White Dogs," both ships being under sail at the time.  About 10 minutes to 1, I tacked ship off "White Digs," standing on the starboard tack.  When the ship was round, I went to dinner.  I had about finished when I heard some one on deck cry out "Port," and "We shall be foul of the Ophir."  I ran on deck and saw the helm hard a-port, and the sails shaking in the wind.  I bawled out to back the main and mizen yards.  A minute afterwards, the jib-boom broke.  I ran to the forecastle head and cried out to Captain M'Gregor, "What do you mean by this?"  he said, "My ship is in stays, and you have run into me."  I said, "What do you mean by putting your ship in stays under my bows; why didn't you go under my stern?" He said, "I was in stays, and I hold you responsible for all damages."  So far as I could see, I don't believe he was prepared to go in stays. Neither his tacks nor his sheets were let go.  I forgot to say that, when I backed the main and mizen yard, the mate ran forward and let go the jib sheet.

When we got clear, I put the helm down and braced the yards up.  I still stood on the starboard tack.  The Ophir stood off on the port tack, and then bore up for anchorage.  I was heading N.W. by N., on the starboard tack.  The "White Digs" bore S. by E. half E., nearly.  These are the bearings I took when we got clear.  When I ran on deck, the Ophir's flying-jib-boom was just on my weather bow.  The wind was about N.E. by N. half-variable.

To Court. - The Ophir might have been about 4 or 5 miles off when I went to dinner.  The weather was clear and breeze moderate. The second mate was officer of the watch.  Thomas Johnson, an able seaman, was at the helm.  The damages were estimated at 115 taels by Morrice & Co.  I made a jib-boom at sea.  I must get all the new gear for repair here.  Defendant proposed to me to appoint three ship-masters, and that he should appoint three also, to settle the case; but I refused, because I am a stranger in the port.  I never knew the amount of his damages till now.

To Defendant. - We struck the Ophir in the main rigging.  I think her main rigging carried away our jib-boom.  I was not aware that there was any look-out on the forecastle head.  The weather was clear, so none was needed.

JOHN GILL, second mate of the Alfred the Great, said: - I was in charge of the deck when the collision happened.  We were standing off from the "White Dogs" island, on the starboard tack.  The Ophir was standing towards us on the port tack.  I luffed our ship to windward, to allow him to go under our stern, as it was impossible for him to weather us.  On a sudden he put his helm hard down.  I ordered the man at the wheel to put the helm hard a-port and backed the cross-jack yard, but it was too late.  We struck him in the main rigging, and carried away our jib-boom.

To Court. - The Ophir was about a mile off when I first saw her on the port tack.  I kept a look-out as she neared us.  The mate was in the forecastle.  The Captain was on the poop just before the collision, and ran forward.  He came on deck three or four minutes before the collision took place.  I heard no hail from the other ship.  The other ship was about twice her own length off when I put the helm down.  She was on the port bow.  If we had kept on our course, it was impossible for him to weather us.  I thought he would pass under our stern.  I put the helm to port, because it was the rule of the road.  The Ophir had not prepared to tack when we closed.  He was on his port tack, and continued so.

To Plaintiff. - The Ophir was about a mile off when I took a glass to look at her.  I did wave with the glass to keep her off.  I only saw the Master, his wife, and the man at the wheel on the poop, though some men came running out of the forecastle cabin.

To Defendant. - I did not starboard my helm at all.  We were close to the win the whole time.  We tacked our yards to deaden the ship's way.

COLIN McDonald. - Chief Officer of the Alfred the Great, said: - I was on the forecastle at the time the collision happened.  I ran forward, on seeing the barque approaching us.  Witness here corroborated previous evidence as to the tacks on which the respective vessels lay, and as to the helm of his own having been hard a-port, and continued: - I saw the Ophir was too close to avoid a collision.  I let go the jib-sheet thinking the vessel might bring up quicker.  Our job-boom went into the fore part of the Ophir's rigging.  The bee of our bowsprit took his foremost swifter.  The helm was then put a-starboard, and we went clear under his stern.

To Court. - The Captain of the barque shouted, "I am going about."  I answered, "You have not got your helm-starboard yet." I saw no preparations for going in stays.  There was no one on the poop, but the captain and a lady; but I saw one person walking along the port-side on the main deck.  He wad not 30 yards off, when the captain said he was going about.  The head sheet had not started when he said he was going about.  We could have passed clear by keeping our ship full.  I am positive the Ophir's mainyard had not swung.

To Plaintiff. - If the Ophir had ported his helm when I first saw him, he might have gone clean under our stern.

To Defendant. - I did not cry out "our helm's a-starboard!"  Our jib-boom did not go through the belly of your mainsail.  Your mainsail was hauled up.  Our helm was a-port, before I came on deck.  We might have stopped our way better if we had shivered our after yards, instead of our head yards, supposing we had time.  I did not see the men at their stations on board the Ophir ready to tack.

THOMAS JOHNSON, said: - I was on board the Alfred the Great as able seaman.  Was at the helm when the collision occurred.  Witness corroborated as to the tacks on which the vessels were; and as to porting his helm, and continued: - The breeze was light and the ship did not come to wind readily.  I had the helm hard a-port for about eight minutes before we struck.  After the ships were clear, I was ordered to put the helm a-starboard.

To Defendant. - After the vessels were clear, the Ophir's yards were square.

JAMES McGREGOR, master of barque Ophir, said: - The collision took place at the time and place stated.  We had been on the port tack.  All hands were on deck about half an hour before the collision occurred.  I gave the order to tack ship after the men had time to smoke their pipes.  The other ship was then a quarter or half mile off.  All the men went to their stations.  The main yard was hauled and the jib-sheets were over.  The crew were standing by to let go and haul.  This was all before the collision took place.  I was at the wheel.  In shifting from one side to the other, getting under the spanker boom, I saw the other ship starboard his helm, and bear right down amidships; he being well to windward at the time.  I hailed to him distinctly five different times, to port his helm and keep his luff.  Instead of that he bore right down on us and his boom struck our main rigging.  The Ophir's head was then N.N.E.  Just as the ships were coming in collision, a person on board the Alfred the Great sung out, "the helm is hard a-starboard."  As she struck us so far aft, our vessel was slewed round.  We found two main stanchions, the main-rail and about 30 feet of bulwark carried away.  Here is an estimate of damages, drawn up by Morrice & Co.  I have accepted it, but the work is not yet commenced.

To Plaintiff. - The main-sail was not gone before.  It has an anchor-stop piece in it.  When my ship went in stays you were about two cables length off.  I was then on your lee bow.  I did not see your helm hard a-starboard, but judged that it was so from the ship's head falling off.  There was no one looking out on your forecastle till one minute before the collision.

To Court. - Had he put his helm a-port and kept his luff, he would have cleared us easily.  I did not tack because the Ophir was coming.  I wanted to get in shore to catch the ebb-tide.

CHARLES MILLS, Chief Officer of the Ophir:  - All hands were on deck when the collision occurred.  We were on the port tack - in stays.  The mainyard was hauled.  I should say the other ship was 200 yards off when we went into stays.  I was on the forecastle.  I had no idea that we went into stays to clear the other ship.  The other vessel bore away.  I suppose he did so thinking to clear us. He could have cleared us by keeping his luff.  I heard Captain McGregor hail the Alfred the Great to put his helm a-port and keep his luff.  I heard him hail several times.  One of the officers came forward and said his helm was hard a-starboard.  I heard him repeat the order to keep it starboard.  The vessel was bearing away.  Our mansail was set.

To Court. - I think the men went to dinner later than usual on that day.  The usual hour is twelve.  We generally allow about an hour when there is nothing to do.  All hands were on deck some 20 minutes before 'about ship.'  We went about, some five minutes before striking.  I work the reckoning of the ship as well as the Captain.  I do not recollect how the tides were setting on that day.  We were going from 2 ½ to 3 knots through the water when we went into stays.  I did not see the Alfred the Great's jib-sheets let go.  Her sails were all full when she struck.

To Plaintiff. - The crew were on deck at stations.  I was not in the cabin two or three minutes before the collision happened.  I was not on the poop, and did not catch the lady when she fainted.  I do not know whop was at the wheel. The Captain generally takes the wheel when the ship is going about.

To Court. - I did not see any one on board the other ship wave to keep away.

JOHN DUNCAN, second mate of the Ophir, s aid: - I was on the poop when the Ophir came into collision with the Alfred the Great.  The Ophir was in stays at the time.  She had been in stays three or four minutes when she struck.  Our main-yard was hauled.  The Alfred the Great was bearing away.  She could have cleared us if she had kept her luff.  Witness also corroborated the statement as to the Captain having hailed the Alfred the Great.

This closed the case for the defence.

In reply to an enquiry by the Court as to whether he had any remarks to make, The Plaintiff said: - He had not room to go round the Ophir by luffing up to the wind, or he should have done so.  That he had stopped his way; the little damage he had done to the Ophir was a proof; had he not done so his ship which was 600 tons register, would have run over her.  The Ophir could easily have dropped under his stern and cleared him, and he could not conceive why she did not do so.

The evidence being so utterly contradictory, the Court could only judge as to the probable state of the case from such circumstances as seemed clearly established.  The principal of these was that the Captain of the Ophir, by his own admission, attempted to tack under the bows of the Alfred the Great, when there was no necessity for his doing so.  It was evident, moreover, that the latter must have had her sails backed, in the endeavour to avoid collision by stopping her way, by the slight damage she had done.  Being of opinion that the defendants were to blame, the Court gave judgment for the Plaintiffs, with costs.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School