As shipping traffic increased in the 1800s, the number of collisions between ships rose. The reason? “The other guy wasn’t paying attention and hit me” or “I had the right of way!” The rules of the road (sailing vessels with less maneuverability have right of way over small powered vessels, large tankers which have a slow response time in stopping or turning, have right of way over everyone) lessen the collisions, but only if there are no dare devils and if everyone is paying attention.
On the night of June 7, 1885, the ship CLARISSA B. CARVER of Searsport sailed into Hiogo Bay headed for the port of Kobe, Japan. Bearing down on her was the British steamer GLENMORGANSHIRE. Captain Leroy Dow of the CARVER ascertained that he had the right-of-way and his own vessel’s running lights were burning brightly, and ordered his helmsmen to hold his course. The GLENMORGANSHIRE stayed on the collision course until she was three lengths from the CARVER, then turned her helm hard-a-port to cross the CARVER’s bow, instead the collision sank the CARVER in 40 minutes and so severely damaged the steamer that she had to be beached. Luckily the wind was light and the sea smooth, and the crew of the CARVER was able to abandon ship, save the flag, and row ashore.
Dow immediately secured the services of British lawyer Lowder to institute proceedings against the steamer to recover damages. While he waited for the case to go to trial, Dow secured a job clerking for American ships discharging and loading cargo in Kobe. Dow was given an advance on the $1500 court fees by Dr. Charles Goddard Weld of Boston (one of the original rusticators on North Haven), who only asked that Dow send him the amount, with no interest, if Dow won the case. In all the case took a year and four months to try in British Admiralty Court. The owners of the CARVER sued for $100,000 in damages and the GLAMORGANSHIRE counter sued for $61,500.
The masters of both vessels, crew members, divers and nautical assessors were called in to testify. The case hinged on whether the steamer had seen the green starboard running light of the CARVER and had taken proper precautions to avoid her, as she had right-of-way. Testimony showed the light was burning brightly, but not observed by the steamer’s lookout, who one judge noted, was “not a sharp hand.” The judges ruled in favor of the CARVER, awarding $100,000 in damages.