Last month, we presented the account of a marine court of enquiry which was held to investigate the circumstances of a rather peculiar accident, the excuse presented by the responsible skipper having been to the effect that he had been unable to respond to another steamer's passing signal as a result of a rule against blowing steamboat whistles in the vicinity of a hospital. Always looking for amusing items for our readers, we present yet another such report this month, only this court of enquiry was faced with the most unusual problem of trying to determine who had actually been in charge of a steamer when she stranded. Once again, the indomitable Capt. L. A. Demers was in charge of the court and, as usual, his acerbic comments make interesting reading, although one would not likely have felt particularly comfortable if one had been on the receiving end of those same comments.
The vessel involved was the passenger steamer DUCHESS OF YORK (25), (b) SOREL (27), (c) PELERIN (35), (d) BELOEIL, C.103342, which had been built in 1895 at Montreal and was equipped with the beam engine out of the earlier steamer PRINCE OF WALES. DUCHESS OF YORK spent some years in the service of the Ottawa River Navigation Company, but most of her career was spent in the picnic and excursion trade out of Montreal. She was reduced to a barge about 1938 and was broken up in 1943-44.
"Enquiry held at Montreal, August 28, 1924, by Capt. L. A. Demers, Dominion Wreck Commissioner, assisted by Captains C. Lapierre and J. P. Dufour, as nautical assessors, into the stranding of the DUCHESS OF YORK, on July 13, about 1:30 p.m. in the St. Lawrence River, near Isle au Foins, at the entrance to the Berthierville Channel, while she was bound to the latter place (Berthierville) with over 100 passengers.
"The DUCHESS OF YORK was built in 1890 [sic] at Montreal, and is 156.8 feet long, 25.3 feet wide, 9.4 feet deep, 490 Gross tonnage, 262 Registered tonnage, has 39 horsepower, and is propelled by paddle wheels. The joint owners, at December 31, 1923, were registered as James E. Wilder, et al., Montreal. She carried a crew of ten, including a mate and two engineers. One of the joint owners was present at the beginning of the proceedings, but left after the examination had proceeded for a short time. Only two witnesses were available, the captain, Paul Beauchemain, and the mate, Jos. Jean. The son of one of the joint owners, who was a passenger, was to be produced, but he failed to put in an appearance.
"The report states that the examination of the master and mate showed a pitiful lack of rudimentary laws of navigation and seamanship. Each witness endeavoured to throw the responsibility on the other. The master acknowledged that he was in control of the navigation, but trusted the mate, and left him to his own devices practically to steer the ship, by withdrawing from the wheelhouse, and place of vantage, and smoking his pipe contentedly under the shelter of some protecting construction from the heat of the sun.
"The ship left Montreal without the necessary obligatory procedure of signing the crew, the exact number of which the captain ignored, throwing on the owners' shoulders the arrangements made with respect to all matters. On the other hand, the mate, Jean, whom the captain termed the second captain, disclaimed all knowledge of the route that was to be followed, saying that he was at the wheel to do the master's bidding. This left the court wondering who was really the master of the situation, which was not satisfactorily explained, though the mate said that he was engaged at $10 a trip.
"It was stated by the master that the mate had asserted his knowledge of the route, whilst the latter refutes this assertion. It is evident, however, by a statement made by the mate, that the master had told him three times to steer more east, which shows that he could not have attended to the steering, or to his duties as wheelsman, for the time being. Both were asked to indicate on the sectional chart the place where the ship stranded, but without avail. Apparently, their knowledge of the chart is limited to that which indicates outlines of land and water. There was a compass on board, but neither appeared to know the utility of it, and the master stated that it was of no use.
"The ship stranded when going full speed, her whole length being imbedded in the sand. There was no shock felt, and no panic, as the passengers were unaware of the ship's plight. The mate, or wheelsman, or second captain, was the first to go in the boat and on the scow which was brought from Sorel to carry the passengers ashore. There were six boats on board, but with the exception of the small one, which was used to go and seek assistance, no attempt was made to lower any to disembark the passengers. It is true that there was no immediate danger, but the court is of the opinion that, had there been danger, the crew could not have coped with the situation of lowering the boats with the crew available at the time.
"When the scow was brought by the side some two hours later, the mate and one sailor or fireman were the first ones on board. The passengers were landed somewhere, and it was dark before arrangements had been completed to have them sent to their destination. There were women and children.
"The master, in examination, showed a crass ignorance of his duties. The mate, whatever representations he may have made to the master as to his knowledge, did not impress the court favourably as to his ability as a seaman and navigator. Both hold passenger certificates of ancient date.
"The court found that, although examination was brief, it revealed the fact that both master and mate were careless, indifferent and ignorant; that although the passengers were landed without accident, and the ship came off 29 days later [!] without structural damage, no credit is due to the officers. The court cancelled both certificates - Paul Beauchemain, No. 1,168, and Joseph Jean, No. 3, 180 - and recommended that, after one month has elapsed, a certificate of lower grade, that of master, tugboat, be granted to each party, as the court considers both men to be unfit in knowledge to hold a certificate permitting them to carry passengers. The court has called the attention of the competent authorities to the fact that the ship left Montreal without complying with the requirements of signing the crew."
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.