Inquiry: Waikouaiti captain’s error of judgment

Evening Post, 22 December 1939, Page 9


Although it held that Captain J. Bruce, of the Union Steam Ship Company’s intercolonial freighter Waikouaiti, had committed an error of judgment, the Court of Inquiry which heard evidence concerning the loss of the steamer off Dog Island, near Bluff, in its decision given today, returned a clean certificate to the master and did not mulct him in costs.

The Court consisted of Mr A.M. Goulding, S.M., with Captains L.C.H. Worrall and J. Mawson as nautical assessors. The Court’s finding was as follows:

1. The cause of the casualty was that after 8 p.m. on November 28 the master of the ship proceeded on his course at a normal speed of 9 to 10 knots when fog and weather conditions rendered Dog Island light and all neighbouring landmarks invisible; and when the vessel should not have proceeded.

2. In so proceeding upon his course the master committed an error of judgment.


Giving the reasons for the Court’s decision, the Magistrate said that from 2 p.m. on the afternoon of November 28 until 8 p.m. the Waikouaiti had steered upon a course which brought her to a point 2 1/2 miles off Bluff Hill and 5 1/2 miles west of Dog Island light. This light, in normal weather, was visible for a distance of 18 miles. The course from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. was charted by bearings from time to time, the latest being at 7.56 p.m., when the position of the vessel was fixed as stated. Between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. the course showed no deviation, but log readings between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. showed that the vessel was making against an ebb tide. The tide tables would suggest that after 8 o’clock the ebb was still running, and the master expected that if there was any set it would tend to take the ship south of the course he had set.

At 8 p.m. the Dog Island light and Bluff Hill were invisible owing to fog. Even the rocks along the shore were invisible, but the sea was calm. The master was in charge of the vessel. He remained on the same course between 7.56 p.m. and 8.15 p.m., when he ordered a change in course of 1 1/2 points southwards. There was no alteration in speed. The Dog Island light was not seen until after the stranding, the point of which was later fixed at somewhat less than half a mile from the light and almost due west of it.


In finding that there was an error of judgment in proceeding on the course after 8. p.m., the Court drew attention to the warning in the Nautical Almanac concerning tides around Bluff Harbour. That warning stated that the tides had been found to vary occasionally by three-quarters of an hour on the tabulated predictions, and that there was a large body of water behind Bluff Harbour which caused the tides to set very strongly in and out of the harbour. There was no evidence from which the Court could properly infer that the ship was set off her course by any unusual tide set, but there may have been such a set, and if there was, it occurred after the position was fixed at 7.56 p.m., and in the distance of 5 1/2 miles from there to the place of stranding. The warning in the Nautical Almanac seemed to be an additional reason why extra precautions were necessary, and rendered it still more necessary not to proceed. The master was no stranger to the locality, and should have been aware of the warning. In proceeding as he did the master steered a course to take him south of Dog Island. The Court thought he took a risk which was not warranted, but did not think that he was guilty of any wrongful act in the management of the ship. After the disaster he took all proper steps. In the circumstances the Court returned a clean certificate to the master, whose long and unblemished record extended for nearly twenty years, and it did not mulct him in costs.

The Magistrate added that the 7.56 fix was the result of a bearing taken in failing light, and one of the points was Mount Anglem, some 20 miles away. The Court accepted the evidence of the ship’s position then, but drew attention to the possibility of error in such circumstances, though error had not been established.


In his address to the Court on behalf of Captain Bruce yesterday afternoon, Mr E.K. Kirkcaldie said that there was no question of any wrongful act or default in the case. The question to be decided was whether the captain had exercised the discretion vested in him honestly.

Mr Kirkcaldie referred to the good record of Captain Bruce, and said that the ship’s chart showed the good seamanship of those in charge of navigating the Waikouaiti. In covering 60 miles that afternoon they had taken ten fixes by cross-bearings, and that in fine weather, though the ship was approaching the edge of a fogbank as she neared Bluff.

Detailed reference to the run of the tides in Foveaux Strait was made by counsel, who said that tidal predictions appeared to establish that there would be an ebb tide in the strait until low water at Bluff between 8.57 and 9.23 p.m.

Mr Kirkcaldie asked the Court not to approach the question on the res ipsa loquitur principle, but on the principle that the master could be guided only by knowledge and information he had prior to the event. The course set should have taken the vessel one and a half miles south of Dog Island. There was a distance of only about 5 1/2 miles between Dog Island and Ruapuke Island and the master would not set a course wide of Dog Island for two reasons, one being that he did not want to approach too near to Ruapuke and the other that he wanted to keep near the Dog Island light to use it as a point of departure on the next leg of the voyage to Lyttelton.

Replying to the suggestion that Captain Bruce should have anchored, Mr Kirkcaldie said that there were better anchorages than the immediate vicinity of Dog Island, where there were strong currents and a fairway; and, moreover, there was no hint of danger. The presence of currents in the strait also meant that it would be better to maintain than to slacken speed. A continuation of the same speed would keep the value of the data previously accumulated that afternoon and evening.


On the evidence, said Mr Kirkcaldie. the Court could find only that the captain was not guilty of any wrongful act or default. The captain might have been deceived from the twilight and the state of the atmosphere in his estimate of the distance from land, or the ship might have been deflected by an unexpected change in the tide. Another possibility was that the navigating instruments were affected by the approach of the ship with a lot of steel in her cargo to magnetic land masses.

The Magistrate: That influence would be constant?

Mr Kirkcaldie replied in the negative, and explained that in passing magnetic country the varying distances from the shore would affect the instruments differently at different points. In this case he thought the influence would increase as the ship neared Bluff.

The Magistrate said that any deviation in the instruments must have occurred in the five miles covered since the last positive fix at 7.56 p.m. Mr Kirkcaldie agreed.

Counsel said that it was not for him to establish anything about the wreck except that the master had acted honestly in the exercise of his profession, and counsel submitted that the evidence showed he did.

Mr J. Prendeville appeared for the Marine Department, and Mr A.E. White for the Union Steam Ship Company. Neither addressed the Court.