A vessel's running lights, those red and green aids to navigation, are indispensable in plotting her position and direction at night. Without them she is lost to others.
On September 26, 1910 the CITY OF ERIE left Cleveland at 9:00 P.M., on her scheduled voyage to Buffalo. On leaving Cleveland, the wind was from the northeast and it was raining. As soon as the vessel was outside of the Cleveland breakwater, Edward S. Picked, the pilot, relieved the captain and took charge. From Fairport Point he plotted a course further to the northward than usual on account of the sea, which was running from the northward. At 2:37 A.M. the morning of September 27, the vessel passed Long Point. Shortly thereafter the regular lookout relieved the regular wheelsman at the wheel while he went below, and an extra watchman, who is kept for the purpose of relieving the regular lookout whenever it becomes necessary, had taken the regular lookoutÆs place in the "eyes of the ship." After this exchange of lookouts, a red light was seen about a point and a half off the steamerÆs starboard bow. The pilot took his glasses and looked at the light, but could see no other except a red one. This indicated to him that it belonged to a sailing vessel headed to the northward across the City of ErieÆs course. An order was given to the wheelsman to port, in order to go under the vesselÆs stern. When the bearing of the red light did not change fast enough, the pilot ordered the wheelsman to put his wheel hard aport, and this was done to make the steamer swing faster. When the red light was nearly dead ahead, it was shut out entirely. The pilot signaled to the engine room first to stop and directly afterward rang full astern. Shortly afterwards the sailing vessel, which proved to be the schooner SIR C.T. VAN STRAUBENZIE, was seen standing across the CITY OF ERIEÆs course, and someone was heard calling on the schooner; "hard up! hard up!" The two vessels came together at an angle of about 5 points, the CITY OF ERIEÆs stem striking the schooner on the starboard side at about the main rigging. After the collision, the engines of the CITY OF ERIE were stopped, and the schooner quickly sank. Lifeboats were lowered in order to try to save the crew of the SIR C.T. VAN STRAUBENZIE. Only two of the crew were saved.
The only member of the crew of the schooner to testify was William T. Garner. He testified, in substance, that the schooner left Port Colborne at 11:00 P.M. bound for Cleveland; æthat shortly after leaving Port Colborne, he turned in. When he left the deck the wind was well from the northward, a whole sail breeze; that the sails were out to port, and they had the north 3 or 5 points free on the starboard side, and were going seven to eight miles an hour; that he went to sleep and woke up, as he thought, about 4:00 Eastern Time, and he heard the captain talking, and soon thereafter, he heard the captain calling, "hard up! hard up." and then he heard the captain running aft; that he thought there was something wrong, and that while he was getting up, he heard the crash of the collision, and he ran out onto the decks with Hollis (the other man saved) following him; that when he got on deck, he saw that the steamer was right into them; that when the steamer began to pull clear of them, and he could feel the settling schooner, that he saw Hollis jump into the main rigging, and he ran and climbed into the forerigging as the schooner was sinking. He then swam to the surface of the water and was later rescued. He stated that he did not know what the course of the schooner was, except the way she lay with the wind, which was from the northward. He also stated that while he was climbing up into the forerigging, he climbed over the green light and noticed that it was burning.
The important issue in the case was whether of not the SIR C.T. VAN STRAUBENZIE's green light was burning or was visible to those on the CITY OF ERIE at the time the red light was first sighted. If the green light was not burning, it is quite possible that the schooner was either on a course about parallel with the CITY OF ERIE's course and a little to starboard of the CITY OF ERIE's course, or else was heading slightly toward the CITY OF ERIE's starboard bow. If she were on either of these courses and both the green and red lights were burning, they could have been seen on the CITY OF ERIE. The court was faced with the problem of whether to believe the crew of the CITY OF ERIE or the survivor of the schooner. The court chose to believe the CITY OF ERIE, not because it thought the survivor to be a liar, but because if both lights had been operating on the schooner, it would have taken the most gross form of negligence on the part of the crew of the CITY OF ERIE to cause a collision. Running lights are a necessary part of nighttime navigation, but, like so many things in life, it takes two!
by Robert I. Schellig, Jr.
Steam paddle wheel CITY OF ERIE. U. S. No. 127242. Of 2,498 tons gross; 1,280 tons net. Built Wyandotte, Mich., 1898. Home port, Cleveland, Ohio. 316.0 x 44.0 x 18.0 Passenger service. Crew of 93. Of 2,200 indicated horsepower.
Merchant Vessel List, U. S. 1906