Doomed coal ship captain’s penny-pinching cost him dearly

The luckless Thrasher was the victim of poor navigation, even negligence. But whose? Today, the deep waters off Nanaimo are known world-wide as an underwater playground. Numerous ship hulks having been deliberately sunk as artificial reefs to attract divers from afar.

Every so often, as occurred Every so often, as occurred again last October with the deaths of two men diving near Snake Island, east of Departure Bay, tragedy strikes.

It’s easy to say that diving is a dangerous sport. So is going to sea -and never more so than in the age of sail, when these "sheltered" waters knew several shipwrecks of the unintentional kind. And not always during stormy weather.

Take the 1,512-ton American barkentine Thrasher. She was the victim not of storm, but of faulty navigation, even negligence. Whose? Her captain’s? Or that of the tugboat captains who were towing her? This was the question that was appealed all the way to the B.C. Supreme Court for answer.

Surely, as she cleared Nanaimo Harbour astern of the tugs, Etta White and Beaver, early in the evening of July 13, 1880, Capt. Robert Bosworth had no fear of disaster, imminent or otherwise. Laden with 2,600 tons of coal, Thrasher, only four years old, was bound for San Francisco via the Inside Passage, and Haro and Juan de Fuca Straits. He’d not done this route before but, all in all, it was just business as usual. But not for long.

As he later explained in court, he’d been unable to secure the services of a single large tug, the Alexander, having to settle, after some dispute, for the Beaver and the White. Despite the fact that he believed the White to be underpowered, he’d declined the services of a pilot. He relied instead upon the tugboats’ masters, Capt. James Christensen and Capt. Henry Smith, to tow him safely to Cape Flattery. After all, wasn’t that their job? Wasn’t that what he was paying them for? In court, he’d declare that he took it for granted that both masters were qualified pilots.

That night, just hours after clearing Departure Bay, in calm, clear weather and while meekly tethered to her tenders, Thrasher stuck bottom, and hard, in only three fathoms a mile off the southeastern tip of Gabriola Island.

The shock was so great that it parted the towline to the White and threw the full strain onto Beaver’s hawser. By the time the White’s crew could reattach themselves, Thrasher’s pumps were being overwhelmed by the waters flooding through her shattered bow and she was rapidly settling by the stern.

Faced with the reality that his ship was sinking, Bosworth ordered his men to salvage what they could of sails, rigging, fittings and furniture before they abandoned ship. Soon all were safely ashore on Gabriola where they camped out while Bosworth rushed to Nanaimo to alert the authorities in Victoria of the disaster.

Days later, after naval divers patched a five-foot-wide hole in the collier’s bow and removed some of the coal from her forward hold, an attempt was made to pull Thrasher free.

But she stuck fast and winter storms finished the job. Previously, the Receiver of Wrecks and Salvage had sold the hulk and cargo, by then half-submerged, to Nanaimo coal merchants Dunsmuir and Diggle for $520.

Capt. Bosworth, a part-owner (which likely explains his frugality in hiring a pilot) and his partners sued the White’s and Etta’s owners, alleging that their masters had been negligent in towing the Thrasher onto a reef. None other than the infamous "Hanging Judge" Matthew Baillie Begbie heard the case. In ruling for the defendants, he cited Bosworth’s economy in foregoing the services of a pilot and refuted Bosworth’s having placed the onus of navigation on the tugboat captains.

Legally, they couldn’t provide pilotage services, he noted. Bosworth, by refusing to take on a pilot, had "very imprudently" assumed all the responsibilities of a pilot. As to the question of who was actually in command of the convoy, Begbie said that international law was clear: Bosworth had, de facto, complete responsibility for the "act[s] and neglects (not being violations of duty) of those whom he chooses to employ".

Leaving his mate in charge of the ship while he went below, said Begbie, was "surely terrible neglect". As for the mate, he’d admitted to his having twigged to the fact that the tugs were almost a compass point off-course (a fact attributed to a surge of fresh water from the Fraser River) but doing nothing about it. Begbie was clear: Just as the tugs had a responsibility to the tow, the tow had a responsibility to the tugs, and the mate’s failure to communicate

with them was "a clear breach of duty". It was this deviation of course, he ruled, that was "undoubtedly the sole cause of the accident".

Seamen of the day seem to have accepted Begbie’s verdict as a reasonable and just one. Nevertheless, the owners of the Thrasher appealed and, for a time, created something of a contretemps, it being questioned whether the Supreme Court of B.C. could in fact hear the case after recent provincial legislation that restricted the Appeals Court to sitting but once a year, which it had done just five months before.

Their Honours ultimately overruled the B.C. attorney-general’s arguments, declared themselves to be independent of provincial authority, and proceeded to hear the Thrasher appeal.

Not to the benefit of Bosworth and partners, as it turned out.

The hapless Thrasher, at least what’s left of her, is there today, in the murky depths a mile offshore and at the farthest reach of Gabriola Reef.

Her final resting place is marked by a beacon, a stone cairn and her name on marine charts, and she, too, has long been an attraction for recreational divers despite some danger from swift tides.

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