Clan Gordon (2)

30.7.1919 capsized and sank 140 miles S.E. of Cape Hatteras whilst on a voyage from New York to Dairen via the Panama Canal with a cargo of case oil and wax..

CLAN GORDON, had left New York on 28th July 1919 with case oil and bags of wax for North China ports via Panama Canal.

When clear of land her Master tested the ships stability by putting the helm over each way with no resulting heeling. Two days later in the morning, he decided to pump out the water in No’s 1 and 2 double bottom ballast tanks. This would put the ship down a little by the stern to give the propeller better power in the water and so increase speed, and also in the mistaken belief that this would improve her bad weather handling.

During the afternoon the ship took a list of five degrees, but worse followed at 4.40 p.m. when the helm was put over to port to swing the ship for sun bearings and the ship heeled right over and capsized.

There was no time to launch the lifeboats and the crew walked along the side of the ship and on to her bottom, where, they sat on the upturned keel until they were rescued, CLAN GORDON floated upside down for some time before sinking.

In the matter of a Formal Investigation held at Glasgow on the 14th, 15th, and 17th days of January, 1920, before William HARVEY, Esquire, Advocate, Sheriff Substitute of Lanarkshire, assisted by Commander C. B. GRAVES, O.B.E., R.N.R., Captain Peter Wm. TAIT, and A. SCOTT YOUNGER, Esq. into the circumstances attending the capsizing and loss of the British Steamship "CLAN GORDON," of Glasgow, No. 111269, in or near Lat. 33°8'N., Long. 74°12'W., North Atlantic Ocean, on or about the 30th day of July, 1919, whereby loss of life ensued.

The Court having carefully inquired into the circumstances attending the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds for the reasons stated in the Annex hereto, that the capsizing and consequent sinking of the vessel were caused by loss of stability, which was due to a serious error of judgment on the part of the Master, Mr. John Gray McLean, in pumping out the Nos. 1 and 2 Ballast Tanks, when to maintain stability they should have been allowed to remain full.

Dated this 17th day of January, 1920.

W. HARVEY, Judge.

We concur in the above Report:






This inquiry was held at the County Buildings, Glasgow, before Mr. Sheriff Harvey, on the 14th, 15th and 17th days of January, 1920. Mr. T. W. Donald, Writer, 172, St. Vincent Street, Glasgow, appeared for the Solicitor to the Board of Trade, Mr. W. J. Taylor, Writer, 150, St. Vincent Street, Glasgow, for the Owners of the vessel, Mr. A. W. Hunter, Writer, 113, St.Vincent Street, Glasgow, for the Master of the vessel, and Mr. H. B. Spens, Writer, 169 West George Street, Glasgow, for the Cargo Underwriters, was made a party to the proceedings under Rule 5 of The Shipping Casualties and Appeals and Re-Hearings Rules, 1907. Mr. Thomas Barr, the Registered Manager, and Mr. John Gray McLean were parties to the inquiry and attended in person.

The "Clan Gordon," Official No. 111269, was a steel screw steamship, built at Sunderland in 1900 by Messrs. William Doxford & Sons Limited, and she was registered at Glasgow and classed by the British Corporation. The dimensions of the vessel are: ”length 355 feet, beam 45·65 feet, and depth in hold from tonnage deck to ceiling at amidship 24·7 feet. She was fitted with triple expansion engines of 2080 indicated horse power which gave her an average speed of 10 knots. Her gross tonnage was 3588·98 and her registered tonnage 2285·95. The owners of the vessel were the Clan Line Steamers, Limited, of 109, Hope Street, Glasgow, and Mr. Thomas Barr of the same address was designated the person to whom the management of the vessel was entrusted by and on behalf of the owners.

The vessel was built to Doxford's patent turret deck type with a flat plate keel, and bilge keels fitted for the length of flat amidships. The propelling machinery was fitted amidships, and she had a cellular double bottom fore and aft, which was subdivided transversely into 6 separate watertight compartments, with after peak tank, and deep tank forward of boiler room to height of main deck. The double bottom under the deep ballast tank was a separate watertight compartment. None of the ballast tanks were subdivided longitudinally. The crew spaces and officers and other accommodation was placed above the turret deck. The "Clan Gordon" at the time of the casualty had on board four lifeboats, six liferafts, six lifebuoys, and sixtyeight life jackets. The lifeboats were fitted amidships, one on each side of the bridge and one on each side of what is termed the fiddley deck. Three of the rafts were stowed on the poop and three on the fiddley deck between the lifeboats. Each member of the crew was supplied with a life jacket which was kept either in the man's bunk or in a handy position thereto. The ship was efficiently manned by a crew of 62 all told.

The vessel was dry docked in New York, and certain repairs were carried out, including patching of No. 3 Ballast Tank. This tank appears to have been in a somewhat doubtful condition, but according to the evidence it was tested when repairs were completed, and found to be tight. As no material issue depends on the state of this tank the Court attaches no importance to its condition.

The cargo consisting of case oil and bags of wax appears to have been properly loaded and stowed, and when completed the holds were all quite full. In addition to the cargo the vessel had on board 770 tons of bunker coal. The cargo was distributed as follows:

No. 1 Hold 460 tons.

No. 1 'Tween Deck 340 tons.

No. 2 Hold 650 tons.

No. 2 & 3 'Tween Decks 751 tons.

No. 3 Hold 530 tons.

No. 4 Hold 30 tons.

No. 4 'Tween Deck 478 tons.

No. 5 Hold 250 tons.

No. 5 'Tween Deck 343 tons

Total 4,432 tons.

The bunker coal was stowed as follows

No. 3 'Tween Decks 240 tons.

Permanent Lower Bunkers 160 tons.

Permanent 'Tween Decks, and Chute 370 tons.

Total 770 tons.

In addition to the above the master estimated that his Stores, Dunnage, wood, etc., weighed 100 tons.

During the loading Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6 Water Ballast Tanks were filled, but Nos. 5 and 6 were pumped out before loading was completed. This left Nos. 1 and 2 full, giving a weight of 290 tons water, and with this total weight of approximately 5,600 tons on board the draught of the vessel was 22 feet 11 inches. The master allowed that she would rise 3 inches when she got into salt water and the draught of 22 feet 8 inches is accepted.

The "Clan Gordon" left New York on the 28th July, 1919, bound for Dalny and another port in North China, via the Panama Canal, at 5 p.m., and discharged her pilot at 6.30 p.m., and the master stated that shortly afterwards he tested the ship for stability by putting the helm hard over each way, and found that she was quite stable. It appears that he had decided to pump out Nos. I and 2 tanks before sailing, but for some reason deferred this operation until after leaving the port. He was closely questioned by the Court as to his reason for taking this ballast out of the ship and he stated that as he had no doubts whatever as to her stability under the prevailing conditions, he simply wished to improve her trim, and thereby probably increase her speed and enable her to better withstand bad weather. The bad weather which might be expected in the hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico. On July 30th, the sea being moderate with light N.N.E. wind, the master about 8 a.m. ordered these two tanks to be pumped out, and at noon the chief officer reported to him that No. 1 was empty and that No. 2 had been started. During the afternoon it was observed that the vessel took a list of about 5 or 6 degrees, but this caused no alarm as this big No. 2 tank, holding 195 tons, was being emptied, it was stated by several of the witnesses that this list was somewhat less about 4 p.m. but there is some doubt on the matter. About 4.30 p.m. the master intending to take bearings for compass error, told the quartermaster to port the helm, and immediately this was done and the vessel commenced to swing, she started to heel overto port and went over to about 60 or 70 degrees. The master at once saw the serious position and ordered the boats to be cleared and lowered, but this was found to be impracticable, and the final stages in the casualty occurred so quickly that it was a case of every man for himself. The chief officer stated that he cut the falls of the boats on the port side, which were then awash and partly filled with water. Unfortunately the heeling over had occurred so suddenly that the second engineer, who was on watch in the engine room at the time, had no opportunity of stopping the engines. Indeed he stated in Court that he received no orders to do so, and he had to hurriedly get out of the engine room by walking up the front of one of the main columns. Therefore the vessel continued to have considerable headway and the boats quickly drifted clear of the ship. The same cause affected the rafts, and although a number of men were able to get on to them, the majority had to take to the water and keep themselves afloat as well as possible until help arrived. Fortunately the life jackets were handy and these appear to have been utilised fully.

The vessel had by this time turned bottom up, and all hands were clear of her, most of them swimming and kept afloat by various means. The weather was fine, with a light N.N.E. wind and slight sea, and fortunately at this time the s.s. "Abangarez" hove in sight and bore down to the scene. The survivors were all picked up, but three men were missing, viz., the wireless operator and two Lascars another Lascar, an old man, died soon after being taken on board the rescuing steamer. As far as could be ascertained, good discipline was maintained on the " Clan Gordon," but the casualty occurred with such suddenness, that as stated before, it was quickly a case of every man for himself no evidence was forthcoming as to the actual manner in which the three men lost their lives and the fourth received such injuries as to cause his death, but probably they could not swim, or they may have received injuries when trying to get clear. The wireless operator was standing with the third officer amidships when the vessel heeled over, and as the port side went under they were washed aft under the whaleback. The officer got clear but the wireless operator was not seen again.

In reviewing the whole of the evidence the Court found :

(1) That the cargo as loaded was for practical purposes homogeneous, and filled completely the cubic space in the holds and 'tween deck.

(2) That the greater part of the bunker coal was stowed in the 'tween deck bunkers and chute, and that, as coal was used from the lower bunkers, a corresponding quanity would run down from the 'tween decks to the lower bunkers, thus tending to increase the stability of the ship.

In view therefore of the facts that the cargo was properly stowed and unable to shift its position; that Nos. 1 and 2 ballast tanks were full, and that the using up of the bunker coal tended to stiffen the vessel, the Court were of opinion that the vessel had sufficient stability on her leaving New York.

Coming to the conduct of the master, it appears that whilst loading was proceeding at New York, he consulted with a number of shipmasters, and also with his agents, as to the nature of this cargo of case oil and wax, and according to his evidence he was informed that his ship would be perfectly stable with a full cargo of this description without any water ballast. He appears to have gone into the question of its density, and to have satisfied himself that ballast would not be needed. He had in fact, decided to pump out the Nos. 1 and 2 tanks before sailing, but at the last moment deferred doing so until clear of the port, not from any doubts as to his vessel's stability, but because he thought it convenient to defer doing so. After discharging his pilot and testing the stability of his ship by putting the helm hard over either way, and finding that his ship took no list under this test, the master proceeded confidently on his voyage, and on the morning of 30th July gave the orders to pump out the tanks.

The design of this turret ship was in some respects peculiar, and it appears that in 1910, the builders issued certain general instructions to the owners as to her stability and loading. These instructions were somewhat involved; but they were no doubt most important, and should have been passed on to each master of this particular type of vessel. The very first paragraph of this document states that: "This vessel is not intended to load down to her marks with a homogeneous cargo without water ballast." This sentence alone would have put a prudent master on the alert, for the cargo in question approached very nearly to this description. In fact the master stated that had he had these instructions before him he would not have pumped out his tanks.

The Court therefore refrained from censuring the master, although finding that he committed a serious error of judgment; and attached blame to the managing owner for not seeing that these most important instructions were put before the master. Evidence was given by other masters to the effect that they were not intelligible, but even if this were the case, the builders could have been asked for any needed explanation.

The Court is further of opinion that the master did all that was practicable after the position of his ship was hopeless, to save the lives of his crew, but as stated above, the ship turned over so quickly that very little could be done. He also attempted to save the ship's papers, and held on to the box containing them as long as possible, but had finally to let it go to keep himself afloat.

The Court considers that credit is due to those in charge of the s.s. "Abangarez" for the prompt manner in which the survivors were picked up and attended to.

The names of the men who lost their lives are as follows :

James A. W. Nixon, Wireless Operator.

W. Safaith, Lascar.

Meerallie, Lascar.

Calcuttie Golam, Lascar.

At the conclusion of the evidence Mr. T. W. Donald on behalf of the Board of Trade submitted the following questions to the Court:


1. What was the cost of the s.s. " Clan Gordon to her owners?

What was her value when she last left New York?

What Insurances were effected upon and in connection with the ship?

2. What boats and life saving appliances had the vessel?

Where and how were they carried?

3. What instructions did the registered manager, Mr. Thomas Barr, give to the master as to conditions relating to the stability of the ship or her loading?

Were such instructions adequate?

If no such instructions were given to the master by the registered manager, Mr. Thomas Barr, ought he under all circumstances to have given them?

4. When the vessel last left New York on the 26th July, 1919:

(a) Was the cargo properly stowed and secured and the weights properly distributed?

(b) Had the vessel the required freeboard?

(c) As laden had the vessel sufficient stability?

5. For what reason did the master order No. 1 and No. 2 ballast tanks to be pumped out when at sea on the 30th July, 1919?

Was he then justified in ordering the tanks to be emptied?

6. What was the cause of the vessel-taking a heavy list to port at or about 4.30 p.m. of the 30th July, 1919, and subsequently turning bottom up ?

7. What was the cause of the loss of life ?

8. Was the loss of the s.s " Clan Gordon " and/or the loss of life caused by the wrongful act or default of the master Captain John Gray McLean ?

Does blame attach to Mr. Thomas Barr, Registered Manager, to whom the management of the ship was entrusted by or on behalf of the owner ?

Mr. Hunter having addressed the Court on behalf of the master, Mr. Taylor on behalf of the owners of the vessel, Mr. Spans on behalf of the Underwriters of the cargo, and Mr. Donald for the Board of Trade, the court gave judgment and returned the following answers to the questions :

1. The purchase price of the vessel in 1900 was £52.918 and a sum of about £37,518 has been spent on her at various times in effecting renewals and repairs. The value of the vessel was estimated to be about £125,000 when she last left New York. An amount of £95,000 was effected, made up as follows hull and machinery £75,000, increased value £10,000 and an insurance on freight of £10,000. This latter was a time policy but in addition to this there was a further sum of £16,000 effected on freight on voyage in question. A proportion of these amounts was underwritten by owners. There was also an insurance by cargo owners on cargo of £109,876.

2. The vessel had four lifeboats, six rafts, six lifebuoys and sixty-eight lifejackets.

Lifeboals. These were carried amidships, two on each side.

Rafts. Three were on the poop and three amidships on bridge deck.

Lifebuoys.Four were on the upper bridge, one on the lower bridge deck, and one on the poop.

Lifejackets. Each member of the crew had one in his berth or bunk.

3. No instructions were given to the master by Mr. Barr regarding the stability of the ship or her loading, except that the latter point is mentioned in a book of general instructions issued by the Clan Line, to the effect that the master is to personally superintend the stowage of the cargo.

Such instructions were not adequate.

It appears that certain instructions regarding the stability and loading were issued by the builders of the vessel to her owners in 1910. These instructions were not set forth in a very clear manner but were of a most useful character, and should certainly have been passed on to the masters of vessels of this type and dimensions. Any needed explanation could have been obtained from the builders and a clear and intelligible copy put in the hands of the master.

4. When the vessel left New York on 28th July, 1919:

(a) The cargo was properly stowed and secured and the weights were properly distributed.

(b) She had the required freeboard.

(c) The vessel had sufficient stability as laden, with the addition of the water ballast in Nos. 1 and 2 tanks, which at that time were full.

5. The master stated that he pumped out these two tanks in order to lift his ship up forward by which he expected she would make better speed and weather. He was not justified in so doing.

6. The pumping out of Nos. 1 and 2 water ballast tanks.

7. The vessel capsized so quickly that boats on the port side had to be cut away, and as engines had not been stopped the boats quickly washed clear of the ship. There was no lack of discipline, and most of the crew had to take to the water, and probably those who lost their lives could not swim or were fatally injured in getting clear of the ship. No evidence was forthcoming as to the actual manner of their death.

8. The loss of the " Clan Gordon" and the consequent loss of life was caused by a serious error of judgment on the part of the master, Mr. John Gray McLean.

Certain blame does attach to Mr. Thomas Barr, the Manager, in that important instructions regarding the stability and loading of the vessel were furnished by the builders in 1910, and that these instructions were not placed before the master in an intelligible form, or in fact, in any manner at all.

No application was made in regard to costs.

W. HARVEY, Judge.

We concur:


P. W. TAIT, Assessors.


Issued by the Board of Trade in London, on Monday, the 8th March, 1920.

Source Clan Line - Illustrated Fleet History

BOT Wreck Report for Clan Gordon - 1920





Clan Gordon (2)


1920 Capsized and sank 140 miles from Cape Hatteras


Official Number

Ship Builder

Engine Builder

Engine Type




Wm Doxford


Wm Doxford


Steam 3 Cyl

342 NHP

2080 IHP


Clan Line Home Page
Home Page   Email the Site     The Group Register   Previous Page Next Page Clan Line Home Page