The Anatomy of a Collision

Table of Contents

Title Page
The Editor's Notebook
Marine News
The Anatomy of a Collision
Lay-up Listings
You Asked Us
Ship of the Month No. 65 WINONA
Nelson James Wilson
Table of Illustrations

A few years ago, we presented in these pages the story of some of the boats which had run the passenger trade between Toronto and Hamilton, notably the vessels of the Hamilton Steamboat Company. One of the steamers featured in chat article was the hard-luck MODJESKA, a misfit if ever there was one. This less-than-handsome vessel blundered her way from accident to accident throughout her active years on Lake Ontario and, although most of the difficulties in which the boat found herself were relatively minor, the year 1924 brought for her and her master, Capt. James Henderson, two serious mishaps. MODJESKA by that time was owned by Canada Steamship Lines Ltd.

This is how MODJESKA looked at the time of her 1924 collision with TORONTO. She is seen at the wharf at Grimsby Beach, Ontario, in a postcard view from the collection of Don McCartney.
The first accident occurred on July 5th when MODJESKA and the big C.S.L. paddler TORONTO, both leaving their docks at Toronto, collided in the Bay. The damage to MODJESKA was not great but TORONTO was out of service for a month or so while repairs were put in hand. MODJESKA's second accident of the season came but a few days later when, while proceeding at a high speed through a dense fog, the steamer ran onto the breakwater off Toronto's Western Gap, knocking the breakwater some ten feet out of line and seriously damaging the boat.

As usual, the Dominion Wreck Commissioner hastened to investigate both occurrences. The findings in both cases are extremely interesting but those in the case of the collision with TORONTO are most unusually so in view of the evidence that was presented. The text of the findings of the Enquiry is reproduced from the September 1924 issue of Canadian Railway and Marine World.

"Enquiry held at Toronto, July 15, 16 and 17, 1924, by Capt. L. A. Demers, Dominion Wreck Commissioner, assisted by Capts. J. B. Foote and John Williams, as nautical assessors, into the collision between Canada Steamship Lines' steamships MODJESKA and TORONTO in Toronto Harbour, about 400 or 500 yards from their wharves, on July 5, about 8:00 a.m., when each suffered material damage to its hull above water. The witnesses examined were Percy Grant, resident manager, Canada Steamship Lines, Toronto; Capt. Jas. Henderson, master; Thos. Manson, first officer; Ernest Mason, second officer; and the first engineer and two wheelsmen of MODJESKA; Capt. C. A. Booth, master; H. W. Webster, first officer; Chas. Hann, second officer; and the first engineer and wheelsman of the TORONTO. Francis King, K.C., represented Canada Steamship Lines and F. L. Webb appeared for Capt. Henderson. Following are extracts from report and finding delivered July 28.

"The MODJESKA master's evidence shows that the TORONTO had left her wharf, also the DALHOUSIE CITY, about 8 minutes before the MODJESKA cast off her lines. The weather was clear, a breeze of about 4 or 5 miles blowing across the harbour from the eastward. The master avers that he was 5 minutes later than the usual hour; that he had on board 500 passengers; that one short blast of the whistle, not sonorous, was given, serving to direct the casting off of the lines, and that the injunction was obeyed. The mate was stationed astern, the second mate forward, the master being alone on the bridge with two wheelsmen who were manipulating a hand steering gear. A full speed astern order on the starboard engine was given and when the stern was about 10 feet from the wharf, full speed astern on the port engine was ordered, therefore both engines worked jointly to impel the ship sternward until she had attained a sternway of 7 miles, when it was noticed, with some degree of trepidation, by MODJESKA's master, that TORONTO was crossing her path.

"The helm was aport and in obedience to the position of the rudder and the force of the wind the stern was veering over to the eastward. A signal of two blasts was given to indicate that the ship was turning to starboard, though the helm was aport. Not receiving an answer, a second two-blast signal followed within an interval of seconds, which was also unanswered, the ship's engines being stopped, and when at 200 feet an alarm signal was given and the ship put at full speed ahead, the impact occurring 15 seconds after this order was given, at the same moment the DALHOUSIE CITY's stern was towards and close to him. It is said that the danger signal was given when it was seen that TORONTO's wheels were going ahead, that the danger signal was sounded twice, and that when the collision occurred MODJESKA's speed sternway was nearly stopped. TORONTO had left her pier adjacent to the MODJESKA's somewhat before 8 o'clock, after disembarking her passengers, to go to the coal dock. The master was not on the bridge, the first officer being in command pro tem, this being an old custom approved by former managers. She was turning inward to go toward the east where the coal chutes are. The mate heard one signal, which he did not understand, also the two signals of danger, but he did not reply, keeping full speed on his ship with a hard port helm. The engines were reversed before the collision but only for an appreciable moment.

"It has been established that ships belonging to the Canada Steamship Lines are ordered to leave their wharves at a specified time, the interval between each departure having proved in the past to be sufficient to enable each ship to have a clear passage when backing from the slip and evoluting until the respective ships were heading on their course. On July 5, sometime before 8 a.m., the TORONTO backed from her wharf, which is the one next westerly to that at which MODJESKA was moored. She gave a long blast, the usual signal of advice to other ships in the harbour, or ships about to leave. The TORONTO had been somewhat delayed owing to the reluctance of passengers to disembark promptly when the gangways were in position. At 8:08 a.m., the MODJESKA, without giving the long blast of warning, also backed at full speed from her slip. The wind, which was fresh from the eastward, caused both ships in their evolutions to bring the stern to the wind. The TORONTO was turning inwards on a port helm, while MODJESKA was turning outwards. At a distance said to be 200 yards, MODJESKA gave one signal of 2 blasts while under sternway at a speed of 7 miles. This was followed immediately by another two blasts. Both signals were unanswered by the TORONTO.

"The court fails to comprehend the significance of such a signal. The master said that it was indicating that he was directing his course to port. This was erroneous in the extreme. The ship had sternway and her stern was going to starboard, while TORONTO was advancing towards her, dangerously near. This was realized and the signals of 2 blasts were given in rapid succession. When at 200 ft. distant or thereabouts, two distinct danger signals were given and the engines put full speed ahead, the collision occurring almost simultaneously with the last danger signal. None of these signals were answered by TORONTO. It is stated that the first two-blast signal was not heard, that the second was indistinct and its meaning not comprehended by the TORONTO.

"The court is of the opinion that the Rules of the Road in this instance did not apply, that it was purely a case of judgment and ordinary seamanship to avoid each other. The MODJESKA, having so many passengers, failed first to sound the long warning blast when leaving the slip. While that signal was immaterial in importance with respect to the TORONTO, as the latter knew of the moment of MODJESKA's departure, which is a daily performance, yet it indicates, on the part of the master, an indifference to the application of a signal, the meaning of which is known and understood by all. The sounding of the two-blast signal was wrong. The signal that should have been sounded was a danger signal, and a corresponding order given to the engineroom to stop, and go ahead if needed. The master should have had uppermost in his mind the safety of his passengers, instead of endeavouring to cross the path of TORONTO and relying on the latter to keep out of the way in his anxiety to get his ship on her course. He was wrong in waiting till he was 200 ft. from the TORONTO before an order to go full speed ahead was given. He was also wrong in basing his conduct and the manoeuvring of his ship on the expectation as to what the TORONTO would do and should have done.

"Rules 27, 37 and 38 have not been complied with by the MODJESKA, for which the master is held in default. The court is unaware of any rules existing which give a passenger steamship precedence or right of way over another which is not carrying passengers, as in the case under review; but it is believed that it has been considered a moral obligation, as well as a matter of professional etiquette, for the freight steamship, or one which did not have any passengers, to permit the former to proceed on. If the court is wrong in its impressions, it would suggest that the harbour authorities give the matter their consideration.

"However, in this instance, it is evidence that TORONTO, being the first out manoeuvring for a position, felt that she had precedence and therefore ignored the signals given. An old custom established by former managers of the company, gave the master the liberty to either take the ship out of the dock himself or leave that duty to the mate, and this was instituted and countenanced in order to permit, or with a view of educating the mate as to such duties. The court is of the opinion that there are times when the master for personal or official reasons may entrust his officer to moor or unmoor the ship, in order to move her to some other wharf, slip or dock, but in this instance it fails to see the utility of making it a practice, especially for the reason given. Since the practice was established at the instance of former managers and countenanced by the present one, the master cannot be held in default for the happenings, but the court advises against a continuation of the system. It is satisfied that in view of the result, the manager will issue orders against such transfer of responsibilities.

"The court finds that the first mate, Webster, failed sadly, wilfully in the carrying out of Rule 22. The court has stated previously that the Rules of the Road were inapplicable in this case. It had reference to the meeting and crossing signals. Rule 22 is a general rule and therefore should have been applied. Webster states that he did not hear the first two-blast signal but heard the second two-blast signal which to him was indistinct. If such was the case, his bounden duty was to sound an alarm signal as directed by Rule 22. He states that he heard the danger signals which he also ignored. He has therefore violated grossly the rule. Rule 30 in this instance is not applicable as this is meant for ships having already shaped a course. By this rule also it is made obligatory to sound a danger signal when signals are misunderstood or compliance impossible. Rules 37 and 38 were also violated.

"The court finds that both ships were in default, but TORONTO more flagrantly violated all rules of prudence, good judgment and elementary seamanship and navigation. It also finds James Henderson, master of MODJESKA, in default for lack of prudence but owing to his good record and the special conditions attending the casualty, the court will show some clemency and will suspend his certificate for two months from July 18 to Sept. 18, 1924 inclusively. The MODJESKA officers are exonerated from blame. The court exonerates TORONTO'S master from any participation in this casualty but advises him that if the first officer has to be educated, it must be under his personal guidance.

"With respect to first officer Webster, the court, viewing his evidence from every angle, is bound, in view of his wilfulness in ignoring the signals heard, to suspend his certificate (No. 10,048) for the remainder of the navigation season. There is not a semblance of error of judgment perceptible in the whole of his evidence but unwillingness to give way to the other ship is manifestly indicated. The court is of the opinion that the time of departure of each ship should be controlled, also by the harbour authorities."

We have only two comments to make on the subject of the court's findings of 53 years ago. First is that Capt. Demers was unusually and unexpectedly lenient in terms of punishment levied in this case. Second is that we wish there were still enough passenger steamboats around for this problem (dangerous as it was) to exist in 1977!


Previous    Next

Return to Home Port or Toronto Marine Historical Society's Scanner

Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.