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.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


The Dover Straits is the narrowest point in the English Channel, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and the first area to have mandatory shipping lanes, rather like a marine motorway. These marine traffic lanes were made mandatory in 1971 after a series of wrecks and loss of life earlier that year.

The Channel. 
Picture by NASA used under Creative Commons via Wikipedia

On 11 January 1971 the cargo ship Paracas collided with the tanker Texaco Caribbean. The tanker exploded, split in two and sank near Varne Bank. According to CEDRE Texaco Carribbean was struck when Pararcas ignored the shipping lanes in thick fog. 22 sailors were rescued from the wreck but 8 lost their lives. Paracas was seriously damaged and towed to port. The explosion was audible 20 miles distant, causing windows to shatter in Folkestone.

The tanker wreck, now a significant hazard to shipping, was rapidly marked with buoys by Trinity House.  However the following day, the freighter Brandenburg hit the wreck and sank within minutes. Local fishing boats who were nearby, managed to rescue 11 out of the 32 crew. 2 vessels sunk in 2 days. 29 lives lost. There were discussions in Parliament.

The increasingly dangerous wreck site was marked with a lightship and more buoys but in late February, despite these warnings, another tanker, MV Niki, collided with the wrecks and sank. The tanker Hebris, close by, saw that Niki was in distress and immediately broadcast distress calls. Hebris saw crew in the water but when they got closer couldn't find anyone alive. The 22 crew of Niki were lost.

Another lightship was added to the wreck site markers. Some ships still ignored the warnings but there were no further incidents.

3 vessels sunk, one badly damaged. 51 lives lost in a few weeks.

There were urgent calls for action. UK & international marine authorities acted swiftly to make the immediate wreck site safe (the salvage operation eventually took 18 months) and bring in mandatory shipping lanes in the Dover Straits. The Dover Straits Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) was agreed internationally in October 1971. Until that time the lane separation scheme, in place since 1967, had been voluntary.

Dover Strait Traffic Separation Scheme. 
From archived content. Copyright Maritime & Coastguard Agency.

Traffic moves south-west on the English side of the Channel and north-east on the French side, with a separation zone in between. Ships are monitored continuously and heavy fines incurred for transgression of lane discipline and navigational errors by boat skippers. 

Enforcement of the Traffic Separation Scheme and modern ship tracking systems have made sailing in the Dover Straits much safer. But it is still a dangerous & complex stretch of water with high traffic volumes, strong tides and weather conditions which can change rapidly. 

Earlier today I watched THV Galatea attending a light vessel just off the coast at Walmer (above). The Galatea then moved off south and AIS tracking revealed that it sailed with the Dover lifeboat to rendezvous off Dungeness at a crash site. The BBC reported serious damage following a collision involving 3 ships, which occurred in the early hours of this morning (11th January) off the Kent/East Sussex coast. A cargo ship heading to Italy 'passed between a tug and a smaller vessel it was towing'. Fortunately no-one was injured. A marine investigation is underway.

The unmarked lightship is still off Walmer and it is a treat to see one so close in. Last time I looked on Ship Finder (about 8pm) THV Galatea was en route to Dover.

 Light vessel off Walmer today (11.1.2104)

Links to further information

More information on the collision & subsequent news reports here on Kent History Forum

Maritime & Coastguard Agency information on Dover Straits. Regulations (Colregs) are archived here.

As many archives of British newspapers are behind paywalls, a good place to look for contemporary news reports is TROVE, an excellent resource courtesy of the good people at the National Library of Australia.

I couldn't find any copyright free pictures of Texaco Caribbean but there are some on Navi e Armatori here and here.

There are a number of ship tracking websites where you can follow the marine traffic in the Channel. Ship Finder, Marine Traffic and Ship AIS. If you have an iPhone and a view of the Channel....happiness.

Trinity House runs a history blog. It makes interesting reading especially in their 500th birthday year.

Information on wrecks off Dover, including what is left of MV Brandenburg, can be found on an excellent online resource put together by Canterbury Divers.