Gilligan’s Island Tale Helps Federal Judge Sort Out Shipwreck Dispute

judge invokes gilligans island

Betting the professor was this federal judge’s favorite Gilligan’s Island character.

In an opinion that is part period-piece shipwreck thriller and part Gilligan’s Island pop-culture fun, Chief U.S. District Judge William Steele (S.D. Ala.) attempted to unravel a dispute over the ownership rights to an unidentified shipwreck off the coast of Alabama. The wreck is believed to be either the Clipper Ship ROBERT H. DIXEY or the British barque AMSTEL.

Several parties, including the United States and Alabama, claimed title to the wreck. Unfortunately, whichever ship it was, it sank more than 150 years ago, leaving Judge Steele to observe in a footnote that historical scholars were better-suited than a federal judge to determine the ship’s identity:

FN4. This procedural posture is highly unusual. For starters, the proper identity of Shipwreck # 1 is a matter better suited for spirited scholarly discourse than black-letter judicial construction. Yet the parties have submitted their dispute to a federal judge, not a 19th century maritime historian. Furthermore, while both sides agree that 100% certainty as to the vessel’s identity is not possible, resolution of this factual issue does not turn on the sort of credibility determinations for which an evidentiary hearing would be appropriate. The underlying events having taken place a century and a half ago, there are no live witnesses to recount the circumstances under which the DIXEY and the AMSTEL sank. Nor are there dueling expert witnesses whose theories might be poked and prodded via cross-examination. Instead, as the DIXEY Claimants succinctly state, “[t]here is what there is.”

But Judge Steele did a pretty good scholarly job himself in recounting the interesting history of both ships, starting with the DIXEY, where he invoked the 1960s sitcom, Gilligan’s Island, for a unifying thread (Gilligan’s Island references have been bolded):

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip. It did not start in a tropic port, nor aboard a tiny ship. On August 15, 1860, the Clipper Ship ROBERT H. DIXEY set sail that day from New York to Mobile, carrying a cargo described only as “miscellaneous hardware.” The DIXEY reached an anchorage in Mobile Bay on the evening of September 14, 1860. By inopportune coincidence, the DIXEY arrived at the Bay just hours ahead of a Category 1 hurricane. Wary of the approaching storm, Captain Dixey (by all accounts a skipper brave and sure) put out “double anchors and all chain” at 10 p.m., and took “all measures to ride out a storm.”

The hurricane struck at approximately 2:00 a.m. on September 15, 1860. The DIXEY actually weathered the first few hours of the storm well. With the winds out of the south, the DIXEY was sheltered by the buffering presence of Dauphin Island (to the vessel’s south) from the worst of the rough seas, at least initially. After 8:00 a.m., however, the eye of the hurricane passed, and fierce winds shifted to the north. The weather started getting rough, and the mighty ship was tossed. In its anchored position, the DIXEY was exposed to approximately 17 miles of open shallow water stretching all the way to Mobile. As a result, the DIXEY was pounded by the punishing winds and roiling seas. The first anchor’s chain broke at around 10:00 a.m. The DIXEY’s crew began working feverishly to cut away its masts and sails, thereby lightening the ship and reducing its wind exposure, even as the DIXEY took on water for over an hour. If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the DIXEY would have been lost. Alas, the gale continued to worsen and the other anchor chain snapped, causing the DIXEY to be buffeted by the hurricane, tossed around in the shallow water like a child’s toy. The wind and seas pushed the helpless DIXEY south down the shipping channel of Mobile Bay for some 12 miles. [The DIXIE ultimately was pounded to pieces by the storm.]

Judge Steele also recounted the AMSTEL’s fate, another interesting story, but left out any pop culture references. Aw, come on, Judge. As Sammy Hagar sang with Van Halen, you gotta finish what you started. Maybe he ran dry on Gilligan’s Island’s references, but he always could have switched to a Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald theme.

In the end, the judge ruled that the ship was the AMSTEL, but ordered the parties to continue gathering evidence and let him know if he got it wrong.

From the scholarly bent of this opinion–setting aside the Gilligan’s Island references–I’m guessing “The Professor” was Judge Steele’s favorite Gilligan’s Island character.

Fathom Exploration, L.L.C. v. The Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel or Vessels, etc., in rem, Civil Action No. 04-0685-S-M. (S.D. Ala., Mar. 12, 2012).

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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