Having served at sea for a period of forty-two years, I began to have thoughts of retiring, and in 1885 I finally resolved to come ashore for good. I had been master of sailing vessels for fourteen years and in command of steamships for a dozen years, and never lost a ship. I had minor mishaps no doubt, but I never had a serious accident or lost a life at sea. I had not been very long ashore when I received an appointment from the Home Secretary to act as Nautical Assessor in Board of Trade Investigations throughout the United Kingdom. The appointment did not carry very large remuneration, but it was very gratifying to me, as I was the first Scottish sailor who had up to that time been appointed. work was very congenial, and I had now the opportunity of investigating the facts and circumstances of many a tale of the sea. The attitude of mind I brought to bear in these cases was that of friendliness to the shipmaster. I never could forget the innumerable perils with which the course of the most careful navigator is constantly beset, and if an error in judgement only had been made I was in favour of acquittal.
One thing has struck me as very remarkable. In the hundreds of cases on which I sat, and in as many others which came more or less under my observation, I found very few accidents arising from drink. It was rare indeed that there was even the allegation of it. I believe that the masters and officers navigating our ships, large and small, are as a class as steady a body of men as can be found in any profession in the world. The type of the old hard- drinking skipper has practically become extinct, and our ships are officered by a set of very clever, intelligent and sober fellows, vastly superior in many respects to those in charge when I went first to sea. At the same time I was not long engaged in these investigations when I discovered a very common cause of accident which to me was a very great surprise. I found that when accidents occurred not due to stress of weather or to excusable errors of judgement, they almost invariably arose from over-confidence. The comparative immunity from any mishap which a navigator may for a time enjoy is apt to engender carelessness in the navigation of his ship. Every shipmaster has to be on his guard against this tendency. He omits taking a cast of the lead – he does not think it necessary – and as a result the ship goes on the rocks. He did not take the trouble to verify his position by bearance when he had the opportunity, and before morning his ship is ashore. He goes right through a thick bank of fog in the neighbourhood of land without slowing down his engines, and comes to grief.
The most fruitful source of accident is trusting to dead reckoning – a calculation or estimate of what the ship is supposed to have run good enough as an auxiliary or as a check to other means, but a most untrustworthy method alone. Cases of culpable neglect of the most ordinary and simple precautions are rightly dealt with by suspension of certificate. No man in charge of a ship has any justification for not using constantly every available means for avoiding every possible risk or danger, and if at the end of it all he meets with disaster, a court of inquiry will not deal hardly with him.
In a few cases- I am glad to say they were very few – the suspicion of criminality on the part of the owner in sending his ship away in an untrustworthy condition, or with the evident intention of the vessel being lost, did come in, but the difficulty in such cases was to get legal proof to warrant a conviction. Happily such cases are not of frequent occurrence, and are entirely confined to the class of “tramp ” steamer, which cannot be too closely watched.
One cause of disaster I have investigated with intense interest, having many years ago been convinced of its existence – I refer to the rules laid down for averting a collision. My attention was first directed to the subject by having had some unfortunate experience of it. I had in my time, three collisions – not of great magnitude as to losses sustained, but at the time startling enough. In two of these cases, an experienced and capable pilot was in charge. In all three the same thing occurred – the ship did not answer her helm when the engines were reversed while the ship was still going ahead at full speed. It happened to me in three different steamers. I spoke to very many steamer captains on the subject, but got no confirmation of my view from any one of them, as far as I recollect. They rather ridiculed the idea, and set it down as a mere fancy at a moment of excitement. So firmly convinced, however, was I that one day in the Bay of Bengal, having an opportunity, I laid down a barrel by way of experiment, and spent an hour or two practising the manoeuvre on it. The result of my experiment satisfied me that the peculiarity I had observed in the steering of a screw steamer under the conditions usually attendant on a collision did exist, and was the cause of frequent accidents. The fact that it had not been observed by captains and officers of screw steamers was to be accounted for by the circumstance that the sudden stoppage of the engines and a reversal “full speed astern” is seldom required except in cases of threatened or actual collision or similar casualties. I sometimes took occasion to practise it with a star for an object, and the results were the same. During my experience as a Nautical Assessor, I had further proof of the effects of it. Time and again, the master of the steamer related how he had, on observing the ship in his way, given the orders – “Hard a-port,” – “Stop her,” -”Full speed astern,” and yet somehow he did not clear, though he expected he would have done so.
In 1893, I resolved to draw public attention to the matter by reading a paper before the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, and at their meeting on 21st November of that year the subject was discussed. The points I submitted were these : –
1st. If the helm is put hard a-port on board a screw steamer, with a right-handed propeller, going full speed or nearly full speed ahead, and at the same instant the engines are reversed, her head (provided there are no disturbing influences present) will cant to port instead of to starboard.
2nd. That if the helm is put, or rather allowed to run hard a-starboard, the instant the engines are reversed full speed her head will cant to starboard as on a pivot.
3rd. That if a steamer, with a screw such as have described, going full steam ahead, has another vessel close to on her starboard bow, and that in trying to clear her the helm is put hard a-starboard and the engines reversed full speed, a collision is almost certain.
It follows then, that in the event of a collision being imminent with a vessel on the port bow, the helm should be put hard a-starboard the moment the engines are reversed, and if the vessel or danger to be avoided is on the starboard bow, the helm should be put hard a-port the moment the screw is turned astern. The members of the Institution generally agreed with my views, but it was apparent that most of them had to accept my facts on trust.
And yet it turned out that the point I had been pressing for so many years was not a new thing. At the meeting of the British Association at Bristol in 1875, I found that Professor Osborne Reynolds had brought up the matter, and a Committee consisting of Mr James R. Napier, Sir William Thomson, Mr William Froude (one of the scientific advisers of the Admiralty), and Professor Osborne Reynolds, were appoi ted to carry out an investigation into the whole subject of the action of the screw on the steering of vessels. That Committee conducted a series of trials with the steam yachts of the Earl of Glasgow and the Duke of Argyll, and a steam hopper barge belonging to the Clyde Navigation Trust, and subsequently with Sir Donald Currie’s mail steamer “Melrose,” and their report, given in in 1877 to the British Association at its meeting in Glasgow, shows that all that I had been contending for had been proved beyond all doubt. No action whatever had been taken regarding it, and collision after collision has been going on ever since in ignorance of there being any such peculiarity in the steering of screw steamers. The press gave me valuable assistance in bringing the matter before the public once more, and I am aware that Sir Robert Finlay, Solicitor-General for England, privately drew the attention of the Lords of the Admiralty to the subject. I have subsequently had some communication with Sir George Nares in reference to it, but no action has yet been taken to avert the serious consequences which are constantly taking place in collisions at sea by adherence to a wrong rule of the road in the case of screw steamers.
My last service at sea was on board a lifeboat. I was at Nairn in the autumn of 1885 spending my holidays. One morning at breakfast I received a note from Mr H. T. Donaldson, the local Secretary of the National Lifeboat Institution, informing me that telegrams had been received from Burghead and Findhorn that a vessel was ashore on the Culbin Sands, and asking that the lifeboat stationed at Nairn might be sent to the scene of the wreck, but the fishermen being away, he (the Secretary) had no crew to man the boat – would I help him in the circumstances? A few minutes later I was at the lifeboat house on the beach, and had donned, for the first time in my life, the cork jacket of the lifeboat man. Mr James C. Crawford, a gentleman resident in the place, joined me in doing likewise. By beating up, we got together a volunteer crew. The coxswain of the boat was available, but not more than two or three had ever been in the boat before – in fact, the majority of the “volunteers ” were not sailors. Still they had pluck and hardihood, and were anxious to save life even at the risk of their own. We got the boat launched into the surf, and then our difficulties began. For nearly an hour we laboured at the oar trying to get her off shore out of the broken water. It had been a wild night, a tremendous sea was breaking on the shore, and the storm was still raging. We managed to keep her head to the sea, and eventually got clear. With a low sail, we ran eastwards to where the vessel lay, a distance of seven or eight miles.
We found the vessel stranded on a sand bank opposite the Culbin Sands, a tremendous sea breaking over her. The Moray Firth narrows at this point, like the neck of a bottle. The Culbin Sands consist of great mounds of drifted sand, extending over an area of many miles. Beneath them lie buried the mansion of Culbin, the farm houses and cottages, fertile farms and luxuriant gardens – nothing is to be seen but a desert of sand, requiring but very little wind to set it in commotion, like the billowy sea. It was outside this inhospitable region that the ship had been driven ashore. As we got round her, we found that her crew still clung to the rigging, and we made signs to them to be ready. But they would not respond. They took us for a crew of savages bent on plunder, and preferred death by drowning to assassination by the hands of the fierce-looking pirates with red night- caps and jackets made of cork, out in a mysterious- looking craft! They had never seen a lifeboat before. We were in a dilemma, but the difficulty was overcome by one of our crew, a smart young English sailor, Clarence Howe, volunteering to jump on board the vessel with a line. It was a ticklish business, but Clarence managed it, and succeeded in making the foreigners understand we were friends who had come to save them. And then we began to take them off the wreck. A far abler pen than mine (that of the late Rev. Dr. M’Leod, Birkenhead) has so vividly described the rescue that I prefer quoting his words.
“The heaviest toil of all awaited them when they came to the spot where the wreck was caught. The waves rose high as hills and dashed upon the wreck, and then sucking backwards for many yards, came on again with fiercer blows. The crew in the lifeboat had to catch their chance in the brief moments when the waves were rushing towards the vessel. In those brief moments, bringing their boat near, they saved ten men. moment only was possible each time. At that moment the lifeboat drew near, a man jumped on board, and one by one, all who were on the wrecked vessel were saved. Only brave men could have done the work; only men with skilful hands and loyal hearts. But now they turn their prow back towards Nairn with their precious load. What a pull that was back over the seven miles the wind beating fiercely, the waves terrible for size. The brave men never lost heart. On they came, nearer to safety by every stroke of their oars -nearer and nearer still. At last they turned the corner of the Old Bar, and the harbour was in view. There, on the pier and along the shore, great crowds were watching. Although they could not share the brave labour of the lifeboat, they shared the sympathy of the heroic men. And when the lifeboat was sighted coming round the coast a great shout of joy burst from the entire crowd. Louder and louder it rose, as, peering into the distance, the people discovered that there were saved men on board. But when the boat swept into the harbour, and it became known that every man of the wrecked crew had been saved, and when the very men, one by one, rescued from near death, stepped ashore, shouting could no longer express the joy that was felt. Many burst into tears, others seized the strangers and embraced them as if they had been sons and brothers.”
One or two little details may be added to this description. On the return journey, several times the lifeboat appeared as if she were going to be swamped. The Norwegian skipper became alarmed, and cried out, “Where is de bucket!” He wanted to bale her out. He saw the water was knee-deep, and the next sea we shipped would fill her. He could not understand how we could laugh at his apprehensions. But his wonder and amazement grew when he saw that when we mounted the next crest of the wave the water we had shipped disappeared through the bottom of the boat! The mechanism of the self-acting valve was entirely new to him.
Our Norwegian friends were very grateful to us. They were a very respectable set of fellows, and nearly all belonged to the same village. The vessel was the barque “Himalaya” of Tvedestrand, of 391 tons, laden with a cargo of timber from Sundswall in Sweden, and was bound for Inverness. She had encountered the full fury of the gale during the night, and at six o’clock in the morning was driven ashore on the sands as described. The vessel became a total wreck, and as an illustration of the character of the place where she had stranded, the hull in the course of a few months disappeared beneath the sand. The official record of the rescue states that the number of men savėd was nine- there were ten, but the captain in giving his report forgot to count himself. The National Lifeboat Institution voted us their thanks for our services, and their vellum address was presented to Mr Crawford and myself at a public function by the Lord-Lieutenant of the County. The King of Norway and Sweden also presented us with medals, bearing the legend – “For ÆEdel Daad” – (For a Brave Deed). I received my medal through the Glasgow Local Marine Board under circumstances of peculiar gratification to me. The Chairman on the occasion was Mr George Smith, of the City Line, whose character is an inspiration to every seafaring man on Clyde, and another member of the Board was Mr James Stobo, my partner in business and one of my dearest friends on earth. By chance, I witnessed the presentation of similar medals to three of my shipmates – Mr Crawford, Clarence Howe, and Adam Piercey. It took place at the close of a concert by the Nairn Rowing Club – a very appropriate connection – and I had the honour and pleasure of replying for the lifeboat crew. The rest of the men received pecuniary rewards. The little incident led me to take a greater interest in the lifeboat service than I had hitherto done, and when the Lifeboat Saturday Demonstrations came to be organised in Glasgow I gave all the assistance I could. My holiday experience had convinced me of the great and noble service these boats are rendering to the poor sailor in a time of storm, and nothing I have ever been engaged in gave me so much pleasure and satisfaction as the raising of a sum of £3000 in the City of Glasgow for a steam lifeboat by the combined efforts of all classes.
The Lifeboat Institution in Glasgow has a very capable representative in Mr William Martin. He is just the sort of man one likes to work with in any big undertaking – enthusiastic, quick to see an advantage, and untiring in his efforts to achieve success. I formed a very high opinion of the management of the Lifeboat Institution, both at headquarters in London and in the provinces. There will always be croakers in the world to find fault with every good work without much reason, but as an independent observer having had a good deal of practical experience of one kind or another, I unhesitatingly state that the Institution is worthy of the fullest confidence and the most generous support of the public. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution needs no testimonial from me or anybody else – its work speaks for itself – but as a volunteer hand in its service both at sea and on shore, I feel bound to acknowledge the noble service it is rendering to the country. .
One thing I had omitted to do in pursuing my career as a sailor – I had never taken the “extra-master’s” certificate. The opportunity for doing so really never occurred in my busy life. To pass “extra” should be the ambition of every sailor. I had now been on shore for some years, and I knew it would be much more difficult for me to pass than it would have been when I was a younger man, but an occasion happening, I set to work for the examination, and went up – but failed! I had made some clerical blunder in working out a calculation, and was rightly put back. I was not going to give in, however, and I appeared at the next examination and passed all right. The examination for this certificate is now a very stiff one, but it seemed rather absurd that I should have to begin with second mate’s work—a requirement totally unnecessary in the case of any master holding all the previous certificates. With this parchment in my possession my professional rank as a sailor could go no higher.
The life of a sailor has many drawbacks, but it has also its compensations. The romantic dreams of youth are soon rudely disturbed, and a lad wakens up to the stern realities of hardship, privation and peril. But after all there is an undoubted charm in the constant change of scene and country – the shifting from one quarter of the globe to another, with its endless diversity of interest and beauty ; and the very perils and dangers of the sea, which make a life on the ocean wave so precarious, add when over a zest to the enjoyment of existence with which the landsman is entirely unacquainted. It is a noble profession, with possibilities of position and rewards free to all who can win them.