The schooner rigged iron steamship Croma was launched from the Sunderland yard of J L Thompson and Sons on 4th August 1883. She measured 330.3′ x 43.7′ x 27.3′ an her tonnage was 3187 gross tons, 2071 net tons. She was powered by two compound surface condensing steam engines by Wallsend Slipway and Eng’g Co Ltd delivering 300 horse power She was owned by the Croma Shipping Co Ltd., Newcastle.
The Croma left Dundee on at 5am on 13th July, 1889 bound for New York with a 500 ton general cargo. Captain Jonas Claxton was in charge of a crew of twenty seven. The morning was fine with a smooth sea and light winds. By 2pm they were off Rattray Head and a course was set to take them to the entrance to the Pentland Firth. All went well and around 9:30pm the Pentland Skerries Light was spotted bearing NW at around seven miles. The course was altered again to take them south of the Skerries and into the Firth despite the fact that they were now steaming against the flood tide sweeping east through the firth. At this stage the weather began to deteriorate with fog reducing the visibility. Captain Claxton ordered the engines slowed to half speed. An hour later with visibility continuing to reduce the speed was reduced once again to slow ahead. At this stage the captain went below, ostensibly to consult his chart of the area, leaving no additional instructions with the crew. The first officer, Sivert Hendelin, was in charge of the bridge.
At midnight the second officer took charge of the watch and the first officer went below to consult with the captain who had not returned to the bridge. He found Captain Claxton asleep on a sofa. He roused the captain and informed him of the poor visibility and the predicament of the ship in the unpredictable tides of the Pentland Firth. The Captain indicated he would come to the bridge immediately. Hendelin then returned to the bridge and took charge once more. At 1am a brief clearing in the fog revealed the light of Stroma almost dead ahead. He ordered the helm hard to port and the engines full ahead to take her north of the light. This manoeuvre was successful and the Stroma Light passed off their port quarter. For second time Hendelin rushed below finding the captain asleep once again. He roused him once more before returning to the wheel but now, with the flooding tide running strongly pushing the bow of the Croma to the north she was heading straight towards the south end of Swona. He then ordered the helm to starboard and engines full ahead intending a turn to the west to take her south of Swona. However the rushing tide resisted efforts to bring her on a course to the west and, at 1:30am, she ran hard aground on the south tip of Swona near Sooth Clett. Again, the first officer went below and roused the sleeping captain who finally came to the bridge.
The ship and crew were in no immediate danger as she was now aground in the shelter of the island on a flat calm night. The boats were prepared while efforts were made to get the ship off by reversing engines but she was stuck fast. An inspection below revealed damage to the hull and holds filling fast. The boats were launched and the crew made it safely to the shore.
The subsequent enquiry focussed on two areas. First and foremost the condition of the master. His initial decision to take his ship through the dangerous waters of the Pentland Firth at night and in fog was clearly imprudent but the real issue was that, despite his claims to the contrary, he was found to be drunk at the time of the passage and, as such, incapable of safely taking charge of his ship. The enquiry also examined the actions of the first officer. His actions to avoid initially grounding on Stroma were held to be correct but the enquiry felt that he should then have let the ship drift back to the east with the tide rather than try to take her through the narrow channel between Stroma and Swona at full speed. Clearly the captain’s drunkeness was the most critical causeof the accident…. his certificate was suspended for twelve months …. but the first officer’s decisions also contributed to her loss …….. his certificate was suspended for three months.