Sail to steam

Jeffrey A Weiss, professor at the State University of New York maritime college, looks at a few examples of how maritime law and regulations were altered by the transition from sail to steam

THE transition from sail to steam in the 19th century was an event of enormous significance in the history of ocean transportation. The steamship shortened the trip between Europe and the US from a few months to a few weeks. This had a profound impact on international trade. For example, additional cargo types could now be carried safely and profitably. In addition, since it was easier for steamships to manoeuvre into and out of ports, vessels could more readily call at several loading or discharging ports prior to making the ocean transit.

Maritime law is the body of rules, concepts, and legal practices governing the business of carrying goods and passengers by water. It should come as no surprise that 19th century courts needed to adjust maritime legal concepts to suits involving steam propulsion technology. In addition, the legislature needed to react to dangers arising out of steam navigation. This can be illustrated by the following two cases and legislative response to a steamship disaster.

The Potomac [75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 590 (1868)]

The first case concerns a collision between the schooner Bedell and the steamship Potomac. Collisions between steam and sailing vessels were still relatively new in the middle of the 19th century. The collision between these two vessels afforded the US Supreme Court the opportunity to clarify the law of collision avoidance.

The schooner Bedell was sailing north in Chesapeake Bay on a dark but starlit night in July 1868. The steamer Potomac was heading south at about nine knots. Only when the vessels had closed within three quarters of a mile did the lookout on the Potomac discover the schooner approaching on the starboard bow. The steamer changed course several times, each time attempting to give the schooner a wider berth. However, it soon became apparent that the vessels were not going to clear. A collision followed.

An investigation revealed that the master of the schooner had not held the vessel’s course and speed steady. This had confused the steamer’s captain. It was understood then (as now) that a steam vessel must give way to a sailing vessel. However, the Supreme Court declined to recognise sailing vessels as comprising a preferred class of ship and refused to afford sailing ships special privileges for their operations. According to the court, all vessels are equal, notwithstanding their different duties and systems of propulsion. In addition, each vessel is to be held accountable for the performance of its duties.

The Supreme Court noted that while sailing vessels generally have the right of way over steamers, because of their inability to stop, reverse, or manoeuvre with the same facility as steamers, they are obliged to maintain their course until the risk of collision has passed.

Associate Justice David Davis, who wrote for the Supreme Court, explained that, ‘One of the rules requires the steamer to keep out of the way of the sailing vessel, but to enable her to do this efficiently, the law imposes the corresponding obligation on the sailing vessel to keep her course. If, therefore, the steamer adopts proper measures of precaution to avoid collision, which would have been effective if the schooner had not changed her course, she is not chargeable for the consequence of the collision'.

The Supreme Court held that the steamer was not liable for the collision because it had taken steps to avoid it that would have been effective had the schooner not changed its course. This rule of collision law is, of course, set forth in the modern version of the International Rules of the Road. Rule 17 states that, ‘Where one of two vessels is to keep out of the way, the other shall keep her course and speed’.

Thames and Mersey Marine Insurance Co v Hamilton Fraser and Co [(1887) 12 App. Cas. 484.]

The second case is quite well known and involves the steamer Inchmaree. A hull and machinery policy covered the steamer Inchmaree against risk of loss arising from various causes, including ‘perils of the sea’ and ‘all other like perils’. Unfortunately, seawater entered the air chamber of a pump being used to feed the ship’s boiler. This caused an explosion and damage to the pump and other parts of the vessel. The seawater had entered the chamber because a valve was negligently left open by one of the crewmembers.

The owners of the vessel made a claim under the policy, which was rejected by the vessel’s underwriters. On appeal, the House of Lords ruled that that proximate cause of the loss was the negligence of one of the vessel’s crew and that this cause was neither a ‘peril of the sea’ nor a cause subsumed within the policy’s cover for losses caused by ‘all other like perils. Denial of cover was affirmed.

The Court’s opinion reinforced the uncertainty regarding the scope of coverage provided by a hull and machinery policy. At the time, it remained unclear whether the protections afforded by the existing form of hull and machinery policy did indeed provide cover against hull and machinery losses arising from events such as bursting boilers, explosions, and other losses related to steam-powered plants. The fact was that marine insurance policies had not kept pace with modern steam technology.

Following this decision, and in order to provide the much-needed cover for shipowners, marine underwriters added language to the standard form of hull and machinery policy, which became known as the Inchmaree Clause. The clause specifically covers vessel owners for losses of the kind suffered by the Inchmaree, as well as for losses from other causes that are due to steam navigation.

The coverage provided by modern day Inchmaree Clauses has been further expanded. Now routinely known as the Additional Perils Clause, it covers loss or damage to the vessel directly caused by “explosions on shipboard or elsewhere… negligence of masters, officers, crew or pilots…” among numerous other causes.

The General Slocum tragedy

The General Slocum was involved in a major marine disaster but its story is comparatively unknown. In 1904, more than 1,000 people, mostly women and children, died in a fire onboard this vessel. The steamer had left a dock on New York’s East River for a Sunday morning excursion and picnic. Soon afterwards, a fire broke out that swept quickly through the vessel. Much of the vessel’s fire-fighting gear proved inoperative and most of the passengers onboard died in the flames or drowned during the vessel’s attempted abandonment.

A full investigation revealed a gross state of unpreparedness. Firefighting gear was inoperative or missing and those firehoses that did exist could not easily be coupled to the vessel’s watermain. The crew was untrained yet the vessel had only recently passed federal inspection. US president Theodore Roosevelt’s investigative commission revealed that the General Slocum’s condition was not atypical;

‘The steamer General Slocum was not abnormal, it was typical, and these facts must be plainly recognised if the lives of passengers on such boats are to be properly safeguarded.’

The General Slocum tragedy prompted a quick legislative response. Standards for steamboats were upgraded. Safety features became required. Vessels had to fitted with fireproof doors and bulkheads. A steam pipe was to be led from the boiler to cargo spaces to act as a fire sprinkler. A specified minimum number of life jackets and firehoses with interchangeable couplings were required. The tragedy also led to sweeping reforms within the US Steamboat Inspection Service.

A small monument in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park, in Manhattan’s lower east side, memorialises the tragedy. In addition, the Maritime Industry Museum at Maritime College, Fort Schuyler, Bronx, New York, has a worthwhile exhibition recounting the tragedy’s events.