IN the matter of the formal Investigation held at Westminster, on the 17th, 18th, and 20th of July 1882, before H. C. ROTHERY, Esquire, Wreck Commissioner, assisted by Captains BEASLEY and COMYN, and J. H. HALLETT, Esquire, as Assessors, into the circumstances attending the abandonment of the British steamship "ATHLETE," of Liverpool, on the 20th of May last, whilst on a voyage from Bilbao to Swansea.

Report of Court.

The Court, having carefully inquired into the circumstances of the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds, for the reasons annexed, that the loss of the said vessel was due partly to the defective state of her machinery, partly to the weight of her cargo, and partly to the insufficient supply of coals which she had on board for the return voyage; and for which blame more or less attaches both to Arthur O'Leary, the master, and to John Charles Davies, the chief engineer. The Court is also of opinion that Arthur O'Leary was to blame for not having accepted the services of the steamer which offered to tow him either to Falmouth or to Scilly on the night of Wednesday the 17th, when his coals had run out and the water was gaining upon them. Believing, however, that the faults of which we have found them guilty amount only to errors of judgment, the Court will not deal with their certificates.

The Court makes no order as to costs.

Dated the 20th day of July 1882.


H. C. ROTHERY, Wreck Commissioner.

We concur in the above report.






Annex to the Report.

This case came before the Court at Westminster on the 17th and 18th days of July instant, when Mr. Marsden appeared for the Board of Trade, and Mr. Baden Powell for the master of the "Athlete." The owner of the vessel was present, but was not represented by either counsel or solicitor. Nine witnesses having been produced by the Board of Trade and examined, Mr. Marsden handed in a statement of the questions upon which the Board of Trade desired the opinion of the Court. The owner of the "Athlete" thereupon asked for an adjournment to enable him to obtain legal assistance and to produce evidence. The case accordingly stood over until the 20th instant, when Mr. Moorsom appeared for the owner, and recalled the owner and the master of the "Athlete," and produced a further witness. Mr. Baden Powell and Mr. Moorsom then addressed the Court on behalf of their respective parties; and the chief engineer having been heard on his own behalf, and Mr. Marsden for the Board of Trade, the Court proceeded to give judgment on the questions upon which its opinion had been asked.

The Court was placed in a position of some difficulty in this case owing to the loss of the ship's log book and to the master having left his private log at Liverpool. We had, therefore, only the recollection of the witnesses and the brief statements contained in the official log book on which to rely for the facts; and even these could hardly be trusted, for the master admitted that his memory was very defective, and the entries in the official log book, although, according to the master, made at the times of the occurrences to which they relate, were certainly not signed until after the vessel had gone down, and whilst they were on their way home. So far, however, as we have been able to ascertain the facts they would seem to have been as follows:

The "Athlete" was an iron screw steamship, schooner rigged, belonging to the Port of Liverpool, of 363 tons gross and 230 tons net register, and was fitted with engines of 80 horse power. She was built at Bristol in the year 1855, and at the time of her loss was the property of Mr. James Jeffreys Wallace, of East India Chambers, No. 23, Leadenhall Street, in the City of London, who was likewise the managing owner. She left Swansea on the 4th of May last for Bordeaux, with a crew of 12 hands all told, and a cargo of 375 tons of patent fuel, besides 65 tons of bunker coal.

She arrived at Bordeaux on the following Sunday, the 7th, but on getting into the river we are told that her boiler primed, and that she touched on going up. Having discharged her cargo, she left on the following Tuesday for Bilboa, and arrived there on Friday, the 12th. Having transferred 20 tons of coal from the after hold, where it had been stowed on the outward voyage, to the bunkers, she took in a cargo of 410 tons of iron ore, of which 200 tons were stowed in the main hold, 90 in the fore hold, and 120 in the after hold; and thus laden, and with from 30 to 33 tons of coal in her bunkers, she left at noon of Sunday, the 14th of May, bound to Swansea. At first the weather was fine, and the wind from the westward, and the vessel proceeded at full speed, making from 8 to 8 1/2 knots an hour; but at midnight the wind veered round to the eastward, blowing strong, with a high cross sea, after which the boiler, which had been priming more or less ever since they left Bilboa, became worse, so that it was necessary to reduce the pressure of the steam. The weather continued to be bad during that and the following day, and on Tuesday she seems to have laboured and strained very heavily, and according to the captain she shipped a great quantity of water on her deck. On this day one of the bunker lids was washed off, and a good deal of water went down into the bunkers, and washed about 3 tons of the coal into the bilges, choking the pumps. The bunker lid was, however, at once put on again, and the suction pipe having been cut, the pumps were again got to work. During all this time we are told that the vessel was making a good deal of water through the seams and butts of the decks, if not below, and as the engines got slower, the water naturally began to gain upon them.

At 1 a.m. of Wednesday, the 17th, they were in latitude 49° 33' north, and longitude 5° 30' west; and finding that they had not sufficient coal to take them to Swansea, the master altered the course for Falmouth, to obtain a fresh supply. They were then about 27 or 28 miles from the Lizard, and about 40 miles from Falmouth, but the engines got gradually slower and slower, and at length at about 2 p.m. they stopped altogether, and the vessel then began to drift to the westward, the wind being still from the eastward. In the course of that afternoon some fishing boats came alongside and offered their services, but they were not accepted; and the same evening we are told that a passing steamer came up and offered to tow them either to Falmouth or to Scilly; as, however, the evidence on these points is somewhat conflicting, we will leave them for future consideration.

On the Thursday morning, the 18th, the engineers discovered that there was a false bottom to the port bunker, and that there were some 3 tons of coal stowed under it; with these coals then, and with the woodwork from the bunks in the cabin and forecastle, steam was again got up at about 2 p.m., and was kept up till between 6 and 8 the same evening, when they had consumed every thing on board, and the vessel began again to drift to the westward, the wind being still from the eastward. At this time the Lizard bore E. by N. 1/2 N., distant 8 miles.

Early on the Friday morning they spoke a barque coal laden, which on being asked to do so consented to supply them with some coal, and accordingly the "Athlete's" boat was lowered, and the chief mate and two hands having got into her, they pulled towards the barque, but before they reached her they found that the sea was too heavy, and they were obliged to return.

At noon that day a steam vessel, called the "Labourrre," came near, and was asked to take them in tow, but she declined to do so, the weather being then too bad; she, however, offered to take the crew off, but the master refused to abandon his ship.

During the night she continued to drift to the westward, the wind being still from the east, and at daylight of the following morning a steam vessel, called the "Alliance," came near. At this time there were 5 feet of water in the after hold, and 3 feet 6 in the main hold, and it was gaining upon them; accordingly the captain determined to leave her, and a boat having been lowered, the whole of the crew were transferred from the "Athlete" to the "Alliance" in four trips. The master and the chief engineer, who were the last, left her at about a quarter after 8 o'clock, and within 10 minutes or a quarter of an hour afterwards she went down. The "Alliance" then continued her voyage, and landed the "Athlete's" crew at Gibraltar, whence they were sent to this country.

These being the facts of the case, the first question which we have been asked is, "When the vessel left Swansea, were the engines, boiler, and machinery in proper order, and were they in proper order when she left Bilboa?" The vessel was, as I have stated, built in the year 1855, so that she was 27 years old when she was lost; her engines, however, were only 17 years old, having been put into her in 1865. What has been her past history we are not informed, save that she was surveyed by Lloyd's in March 1881, and was then classed In February last she was bought by Mr. Wallace from a Mr. Allingham, of Waterford, for the sum of £4,750., of which £4,000, we are told, was paid in cash, and the balance in ten monthly instalments of £75. each. Mr. Wallace told us that he was guided in purchasing the vessel chiefly by the character which she had in Lloyd's book; but that he did send down a Mr. Fawcus, the son of an intimate friend, and a marine engineer, to look at her, and on his report he purchased her.

Her first voyage was to Caen, but having on the return voyage been run into and seriously damaged, she was on her arrival at Cardiff put into dry dock and repaired under the inspection of Lloyd's surveyor, at an expense of from £1,000. To £1,100. Since then she made one voyage from Cardiff to St. Malo with coals, and thence to Bilbao, returning with iron ore to Swansea; and she was in course of returning from Bilbao with another cargo of iron ore when she was lost.

Now, it should be observed that the class which she had at Lloyd's, is not a very high class, and is given only to very old vessels. And besides her class at Lloyd's, what evidence have we of what was her condition? The only witnesses who could speak as to the state of the vessel and of her machinery and boiler before she left Swansea on her last voyage were Mr. Fawcus, who examined her for Mr. Wallace when he purchased her, Mr. Cole, Lloyd's surveyor at Cardiff, and Captain Lenty, the surveyor for some of the clubs in which she was insured, the two last named having examined her for the repair of the damages after the collision in March last. As to Mr. Fawcus, all that he seems to have done was to see that she had been properly kept up in accordance with the requirements of Lloyd's for a vessel of her class, which, as I have stated, is not of a very high order. As to Mr. Cole, he told us that his attention was chiefly directed to the repair of the damage, that he did examine the boiler, and found it in very good order, but that he had not examined the engines, the time for their survey not having arrived. Captain Lenty said very much the same; and all that these two last-named gentlemen did was to see that the damage done by the collision was properly repaired, but their attention not having been called to the engines and machinery, they had not specially examined them.

Now, it is important to observe that since Mr. Wallace has had her there have been three engineers in charge of the engines. First, there was the engineer who was in her when Mr. Wallace bought her, and who made the voyage to Caen and back; then there was an engineer whose name Mr. Wallace said that he did not know, and who was in her on the voyage from Cardiff to St. Malo, thence to Bilbao and home again; and, lastly, there was the engineer who was in her on her last voyage, and who only joined her late on the evening before she left Swansea. The only one of these three who has been produced before us is Davies, the last, who tells us that his predecessor was dismissed because he had neglected the engines so much. And now let us see what account Davies gives us of the condition of those engines when he took charge of them on the evening before she left Swansea on her last voyage. He tells us that the engines worked very badly from the first, and on being asked to particularize some of the defects, he said that they wanted the liners taken from the top and bottom ends, and that the link motion required letting together. He told us that he had only one clear day at Bordeaux, having arrived there on the Sunday and left again on the following Tuesday, and that during that time they had had to discharge 375 tons of patent fuel; but he said that he did what he could to get them into proper working order, that he let the top and bottom ends together, overhauled the feed pump and the after bilge pump. the valves of which had too much lift, and that he took off the water surface pipe, which he found full of mud, and cleared it. He stated that, although the engines worked a little better on leaving Bordeaux, the boiler continued to prime until they got out of the river, and that he then found the drag link slightly bent, and the throttle valve out of order, so that he had to work the engines with the stop valve. He told us also that he found that the mud from the river at Bordeaux had got into the boiler, but that he had no time to clean it out after his arrival at Bilbao, for that they had only arrived on the Friday and had left again at noon of the Sunday, and during all the time he had been required to keep up steam, in order to shift the vessel from berth to berth. He further told us that immediately on leaving Bilbao he found the boiler begin to prime again, that the set pin of the after top end connecting rod bolt had come out, and that they had to stop the engines twice to tighten up the nut and caulk the thread of the bolt to prevent the nut from slackening back. These are some of the defects which the chief engineer tells us that he found in the engines when and after he took charge of her, necessitating, as he said, a thorough overhaul of the whole of the machinery, without which, as he told the captain, he should not go to sea in her again. His evidence, too, was fully confirmed by the second engineer, who told us that he saw that the drag link was bent on the day they left Swansea, that even then the engines were in very bad condition, nothing working properly, that everything had been allowed to run out, that the bearings and shaft were jumping, and that it was to that he attributed the set pin coming out. With such evidence before us, and with no evidence to the contrary, it is impossible for us to say that the engines were in good and proper order when the vessel left Swansea, which is the question that we are asked. And if they were not in good order then it is obvious that they must have been in a worse condition when she left Bilbao, for the mud from the Bordeaux River had then got into the boiler, and we are told that they had no time to clean it out; but whether they had or not, the mud in the boiler would certainly make the engines less efficient than they were before.

The second question upon which our opinion has been asked is, "Was there sufficient coal on board to carry the vessel from Bilbao to Swansea, and did the chief engineer correctly report the quantity on board at Bilbao?" We are told that the chief engineer reported when they left Bilbao that she had about 33 tons of coal on board, and we have no reason to think that that was not the correct quantity; for it would appear that owing to the state of the machinery she consumed from 9 to 9 1/2 tons a day. and as she was under steam from noon of Sunday to about 2 p.m. of the following Wednesday, her daily consumption during that period added to the three tons said to have been washed into the bilges will very nearly make up the required amount. Assuming then that this was the amount which she had on board, were 33 tons sufficient for this vessel for a voyage from Bilbao to Swansea? We are told that her ordinary consumption of coal was from 7 to 7 1/2 tons a day, and that as the ordinary duration of the voyage was six tides, or three days, she would with favourable weather have burnt only some 22 to 23 tons, so that 33 tons would be ample for the voyage. But if owing to head winds or to unfavourable weather the journey was prolonged, it is clear that with only that amount on board she might easily run short; and we are told that this had actually occurred on the voyage immediately previous, when she had about the same quantity of coal on leaving Bilbao as she had on this voyage, and when she had been obliged to put into Falmouth to obtain a fresh supply. Captain Lenty, indeed, said that in his opinion it was a sufficient quantity, for that there were ports on the way, as, for instance, Brest, Scilly, and Falmouth, into which she could put and obtain a fresh supply if she required it; but it is not always so easy to reach a port when the coals have run short, as the events of the last voyage shew, and it certainly is not either a proper or an economical way of managing a ship to send her to sea with such an amount of coal on board that if she meets with bad weather she will inevitably run short and have to put into port for a fresh supply. Seeing, too, that this vessel, if her coals ran short, had not sufficient sail power for even moderate weather, and would in that case become a helpless log on the water, as she in fact did on this occasion, we think that the supply of coal with which she left Bilbao was not sufficient for the voyage, and that it was running it too fine.

The third question upon which our opinion is asked is, "Was the vessel overladen when she left Bilbao?" We are told that she took in on her last voyage 410 tons of iron ore, and had about 33 tons of coal in her bunkers; and it is said that this could not have been too much for her, for that on the previous voyage she had turned out, on her arrival at Swansea, 427 tons of iron ore, although she had about the same quantity of coal in her bunkers when she left Bilbao. But we have some difficulty in understanding this, for I find on examining the official log book that on the first voyage she drew on leaving Bilbao, with 427 tons of iron ore on board, 12 feet 1 forward and 13 feet 11 aft, giving a mean of 13 feet; and that on the last voyage, with only 410 tons on board, she drew, we are told, 11 feet 11 inches forward and 14 feet aft, giving a mean draught of 12 feet 11 1/2 inches, or only half an inch less than on the previous occasion, although she had, it is said, 17 tons less cargo, and about the same quantity of bunker coal. There must, therefore, evidently be some mistake here, and, judging from her draught of water, we should be inclined to think that she must have had very nearly the same amount of iron ore in her on the last voyage as she had had on the previous voyage, when she turned out 427 tons on her arrival at Swansea. With the bunker coal then which she had on board on leaving she would have a dead weight of something like 450 to 460 tons, which is very nearly double the amount of her registered tonnage. But let us see what her freeboard was. The captain has told us that her load line was 2 feet below the line of the deck, and that she was loaded so that the water was one inch below the centre of the disc, thus giving her a freeboard of 2 feet 1. He also said that she would rise about an inch and a half or two inches on passing from fresh to salt water, so that when she got to sea she would have a freeboard of from 2 feet 2 1/2 to 2 feet 3. Now is this sufficient for a vessel of her dimensions, having regard to her age and character? On referring to the tables issued by the Board of Trade, I find that a steam vessel of her length should have 1.8 inches of freeboard for every foot depth of hold, and as the depth of this vessel's hold was 13.9 feet, that would give a freeboard of 2 feet 1 inch as the proper amount. By Lloyd's rules, however, it would seem that a vessel with a co-efficient of fineness of .66, and with a moulded depth of, say, 15 feet, which are about what she had, should have a freeboard of about 2 feet 5. The mean between the two would be 2 feet 3, which is the freeboard that she had when she got to sea. On the other hand, it must be remembered that this vessel was 27 years old, and that we are told that the freeboard given in the tables is the minimum allowance for first class vessels, and is to be increased in case of age or weak construction; and seeing that this vessel was 27 years old, and was classed we are of opinion that a freeboard of 2 feet 3, the minimum allowance for a first-class vessel of her dimensions, was not sufficient for her, and that, having regard to her age, character, and class, she was too deeply laden when she left Bilbao.

The fourth question upon which our opinion has been asked is, "What was the cause of the boiler priming on the 7th of May and subsequently? Was it caused by the boiler being dirty?" It seems that the boiler first primed after they had entered the Garonne River, but that it ceased to do so as soon as they were out of the river and until their arrival at Bilbao; but after leaving Bilbao it began again to prime immediately. At that time, however, we know that there was a quantity of mud in the machinery, which the engineers had not cleaned out. Now the presence of this mud in the boiler would, I am advised by the assessors, be quite sufficient to account for its priming, so that there seems to be no doubt that the cause of the boiler priming was the dirty condition in which it was.

The fifth question which we are asked is, "Was the bunker hatch properly secured on the voyage to Swansea, and what was the cause of its coming off?" it was, no doubt, the heavy seas which caused the bunker hatch to come off, but I am told by the assessors that it is not an uncommon circumstance in bad weather. It appears to have been very quickly replaced, and all the bunker lids were then properly secured with battens nailed over them.

The sixth question is, "What was the cause of the bending of the drag link, and of the set pin coming adrift?" it is difficult to say to what the bending of the drag link was due; it may, however, have been owing to the looseness of the links. We were told by the second engineer that he had observed it soon after leaving Swansea, although the first engineer seems not to have seen it till after they had left Bordeaux; but it got worse after leaving Bilbao. As to the loosening of the set pin, this was probably due to the vibration of the engines, arising from their defective condition.

The seventh question which we are asked is, "What was the cause of the vessel making water on her voyage to Swansea, and were proper steps taken to keep it under?" According to the captain the vessel made water chiefly through the seams and butts of the deck, and, possibly, also from below. It it possible that she may have sustained some damage when she touched the ground in going up the Garonne River, and that so long as the engines continued working the engine room pumps would keep the vessel free, but that when they ceased to work properly the water would gain upon them. Whether this was so or not it is not possible to say. We think, however, that the great age of the vessel, and the amount of the cargo which she had in her, are quite sufficient to account for her making water. We are told that she laboured and strained very heavily, and took a great deal of water on deck; had she not been so deeply laden she would probably not have made water, at all events to such an extent, the weather not being of so violent a character as to endanger a good seaworthy vessel not too deeply laden. The cause of her making so much water was, no doubt, her great age and condition, and her having been so .deeply laden; but we have no reason to think that every effort was not made by the master and crew to keep it under.

The eighth question which we are asked is, "When the coal ran short on Wednesday May the 17th, did the master take proper steps to save the ship and crew" We are told that on Wednesday afternoon after the engines had stopped some fishing smacks came alongside, and the captain then offered them £20. if they would go to Falmouth and bring him 10 tons of coals; this offer was, however, refused, but they said that two of the boats would go and fetch it for £100., or that three of them would tow him to Falmouth for £100. each. The offer, however, was declined, the captain being unwilling to pay so much for the coals, and believing that they were not competent to tow him. The same evening, at about 10 p.m., we are told that a steamer came alongside and offered her services, but these were also declined. The captain indeed admits that a steamer did come near him at about that time, and that he shewed her the binnacle light to warn her off, fearing that she was going to run into them, but that he held no other communication whatever with her. On the other hand, the 1st and 2nd engineers, an A.B., and a fireman, all agree in saying that the steamer did come up to them in obedience to a signal made by the captain's orders; that she was asked to take them in tow, and that she thereupon offered to tow them to Falmouth or Scilly; that the captain then asked what they would charge for doing so, and that upon their saying that they would make no agreement, the captain declined their services. Now I think that we have no option but to accept the evidence of these four witnesses in preference to that of the captain, and to hold that the steamer did offer to take them in tow, and that that offer was declined by the captain. Nor do we think that the master's statement, that although the steamer passed very near to them he neither hailed her nor held any communication with her, makes the case any better, so far as he is concerned. At this time the water was gaining upon them, the coals in the bunkers were all consumed, and the vessel was drifting helplessly to leeward before an easterly wind, and it was, therefore, his duty to have obtained assistance to get her into port. Whether then he did or did not communicate with this steamer he is, in our opinion, in default; he had an opportunity of saving the ship, and he neglected to avail himself of it. He said that he thought that if a change of wind came he would have been able to get her into port without assistance; but he had no right to trust to such a chance, and thus risk the lives of all on board. We do not blame him for not having accepted the services of the fishing boats; but we do for not having accepted that of the steamer. These seem to have been the only opportunities which presented themselves of saving the vessel; and in not accepting the assistance of the steamer we think that he did not take all the measures in his power to save the vessel.

The ninth question which we are asked is, "Was the ship properly navigated on the voyage to Swansea?" It was suggested that he might have put into Brest, and there obtained a fresh supply of coals. Seeing, however, that when he was first told that the coals were running short, and that they would not take him to his port of destination, he was in latitude 49° 33' north and longitude 5° 30' west, which would place him some 27 miles from the Lizard, 40 miles from Falmouth, and above 70 miles to the north of Ushant, we think that he exercised a very wise discretion in attempting to get to Falmouth instead of putting about and making for Brest. In our opinion there is nothing to complain of in the way in which the master navigated the vessel.

The tenth question is, "Was she prematurely abandoned?" Most certainly not, for she foundered within a quarter of an hour of their leaving her.

The last question upon which our opinion is asked is, "Was the casualty caused by the wrongful act and default of the master, the chief engineer, or either, and which of them?" and it is added, "that in the opinion of " the Board of Trade the certificates of Arthur O'Leary, " the master, and of John Charles Davies, the chief  engineer, should be dealt with."

Now there are three charges brought against the master: first, that he omitted to take a sufficient quantity of coal for the voyage from Bilbao; secondly, that he left Bilbao with his vessel overladen; and, thirdly, he neglected or refused to accept the assistance offered to him to take the vessel into a port of safety.

So far as the coal is concerned, no doubt the master is to blame for not having taken a sufficient quantity on board, the more so as on the voyage immediately previous he had run short and been obliged to put into Falmouth, but at the utmost that would amount to a mere error of judgment.

As regards the overloading, if the vessel had been a first class vessel, and not so old, no doubt the cargo which she had on board would probably not have been too much for her, and the master had before him the fact that on the previous voyage she had carried what he believed to be a larger cargo in exceptionally bad weather, and without meeting with any damage. If, therefore, he erred in having allowed too much cargo to be put into her, it was again rather an error of judgment on his part than an act of wilful neglect or default.

Thirdly, although we are not disposed to blame the master for having declined the services of the fishing boats, we think that he was wrong not to have accepted the offer of the steamer on the Wednesday evening. Here, too, again the master was guilty of an error of judgment, for which we should not deal with his certificate; and in refusing to leave his vessel when the master of the "Labourrre" offered on the Friday to take him off, the master shewed a determination to stick to his ship to the last which is deserving of all praise.

Under these circumstances we shall not touch the master's certificate.

As regards the chief engineer, some blame no doubt attaches to him for not having informed the master of the state of the engines and boiler before they left Bilbao. It is quite true that he had but a very short time both at Bordeaux and Bilbao, at the former place having arrived on Sunday and left on the following Tuesday, and at the latter place having arrived on the Friday and left on the following Sunday at mid-day. He had therefore obviously very little time to repair and clean the engines, but he did all that it was possible for him to do in the time. What, however, in our opinion, he should have done, was to have informed the master of the state of the engines, and have asked him to give him time enough to clean them and put them in order before leaving Bilbao.

Had he done this, he would have been free from blame. On the whole, however, it appears to us that it was in his case also an error of judgment, and we shall therefore not deal with his certificate.

At the conclusion of the inquiry Mr. Baden Powell asked, on behalf of the master, for the costs of the adjournment, which had been granted at the request of the owner. It appeared to me, however, that the adjournment had in no degree added to the costs of the inquiry, for it had been granted towards the close of the second day, and even had the owner appeared by counsel in the first instance, the case must have occupied a third day.

Mr. Moorsom also asked for the costs on behalf of the owner. Seeing, however, that the owner has not, in our opinion, shown that he is wholly free from blame for having sent this vessel to sea in an unseaworthy state, and too deeply laden, I shall not give him his costs.


H. C. ROTHERY, Wreck Commissioner.

We concur.






This is not Athlete but it is a similar schooner rigged steamship of about the same tonnage

Official Number

Ship Builder

Engine Builder

Engine Type


J M Hyde & Co







BOT Wreck Report for Athlete - 1882

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