U.S. Supreme Court
The Dexter, 90 U.S. 23 Wall. 69 69 (1874)
90 U.S. (23 Wall.) 69
1. The rule of navigation prescribed by the Act of Congress of April 29th, 184, "for preventing collisions on the water," which requires "when sailing ships are meeting end on, or nearly so, the helms of both shall be put to port," is obligatory from the time that necessity for precaution begins, and continues to be applicable so long as the means and opportunity to avoid the danger remain. chanrobles.com-red
2. In a collision at sea, happening on a bright moonlight night and when the approaching vessel was seen by the officer in charge of the deck long before the collision occurred, the absence of a lookout held unimportant, it being assumed that his presence would have done nothing to avert the catastrophe.
Appeal from the Circuit Court for the District of Maryland, affirming a decree of the district court dismissing a libel filed by the owners of the schooner Julia against another schooner, the Dexter, in a cause of collision in Chesapeake Bay by which the Julia was totally lost, the only difficulty in the controversy being -- that usual one in causes of collision at se -- to ascertain what were the facts of the case; in other words, to settle the case, a matter rendered difficult in this cause, as in so many others of collision, by the circumstance that witnesses of one side swore in direct opposition to witnesses of the other. The adjudication therefore ministers nothing to juridical science.
The case, as it was assumed in both the courts below and in this upon the contradictory testimony adverted to was thus:
On the night of November 17th, 1870 -- the night being clear and the moon shining brightly -- the schooner Julia was sailing up Chesapeake Bay. The schooner Dexter was sailing down it. The wind, which was fresh, was between northwest and west-by-north, and the vessels were each sailing at the rate of eight miles an hour, approaching, therefore, rapidly. The Julia was close to the wind, though not as close as she would lie without impeding her course.
The helmsmen of the two vessels saw them respectively when three miles from each other. What their exact course then was and whether likely to come together did not so plainly appear. Some evidence tended to show that, at that time, the vessels were not approaching end on, but that the Dexter was sailing with the wind free. But by the time that they got to within a half mile of each other, the Julia was heading north-northeast, and the Dexter south-southwest -- that is to say the vessels were approaching from exactly opposite directions, and the vessels were approaching also chanrobles.com-red
end on, or nearly so. As they thus approached, the Dexter ported her helm. The Julia kept on her course till the vessels got very near, when a collision was plainly threatened. The Julia then starboarded her helm. A collision ensued, and the Julia, which was heavily laden with oysters, went to the bottom.
The only lookout on the Dexter when the Julia came in sight was the captain, who, at the time of the collision, was standing aft of the foremast.
The act of Congress "fixing certain rules and regulations for preventing collisions on the water," among its "Steering and Sailing Rules" thus provides: [Footnote 1]
"TWO SAILING SHIPS MEETING"
"ARTICLE 11. If two sailing ships are meeting end on, or nearly end on, so as to involve risk of collision, the helms of both shall be put to port, so that each may pass to the port side of the other."
"TWO SAILING SHIPS CROSSING"
"ARTICLE 12. When two sailing ships are crossing, so as to involve risk of collision, then if they have the wind on different sides, the ship with the wind on the port side shall keep out of the way of the ship with the wind on the starboard side, except in the case in which the ship with the wind on the port side is close-hauled, and the other ship free, in which case the latter ship shall keep out of the way. But if they have the wind on the same side, or if one of them has the wind aft, the ship which is to windward shall keep out of the way of the ship which is to leeward."
"NO SHIP UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES TO NEGLECT PROPER PRECAUTIONS"
"ARTICLE 20. Nothing in these rules shall exonerate any ship or the owner or master or crew thereof from the consequences of any neglect to carry lights or signals, or of any neglect to keep a proper lookout,"
The district court, as already said, decreed a dismissal chanrobles.com-red
of the libel; the circuit court affirmed the decree, and the owner of the Julia took this appeal. chanrobles.com-red