By John K. Fulweiler
Crouched in the companionway, you watch the seawater slosh and squirt around the floorboards. A fellow competitor is standing by to take you off. You’re far enough out in the bending blue where decisions like these mean something. You and your crew step clear. You bum your first cigarette in twenty years, and through its acrid familiarity watch your sailing steed fade into the evening’s darkness. “So, that’s that,” you think.
Maybe, maybe not.
What happens if someone finds your vessel, prevents it from sinking and gets it safely into port? This scenario invites the sailor to consider two maritime law considerations: the law of finds and the law of salvage. And like the bowline or sheepshank, these issues are worth knowing.
Think of the law of salvage as being your guardian angel of sorts. The salvor is rewarded for leaping into the breach to save what you deemed to be a loss. The salvor plucks value from the ocean’s maw and instead of a time and materials payment, we encourage this behavior with an award. The award is almost always many multiples of a time and materials charge, but that’s okay. We can’t really expect someone to risk his own life and equipment to save someone else’s property unless the pay-off makes you pucker, right? And when your marine insurer speaks ill of the salvor's endeavor, pause to consider the salvor sent his vessel and crew scores of miles offshore, maybe chartered an aircraft, sweated the details, plotted set and drift and otherwise spent the last so-many tens of hours committed to the recovery of your property! Indeed, you might ask in retort: “Why, Mrs. Insurer, are you reluctant to pay a salvage claim when you were spared having to pay the full value of the loss?”
Sort of like getting a little too far into greasing the winch, there can be a lot of bits and pieces to deciding how much a salvor should receive for its endeavors. If the vessel is a derelict (as was the scenario I described), a salvor may expect a claim of fifty-percent (and maybe better) of the salved vessel’s value when it arrives back in port, depending on the circumstances. (That's the value as-is with the water damage, not the value prior to the salvage.) Indeed, when it comes to salvage awards some of the largest awards relate to derelict vessels likely because of the very high degree of peril. Without the salvor’s efforts, the argument goes, your vessel would’ve been lost to the sea.
When you get queasy at the thought of someone happening upon the boat you left behind for the safety of another, remember you’ll never likely lose ownership. A claim seeking title to a vessel as opposed to a salvage award would be a claim arising under the law of finds. However, and I’m speaking broadly here, you’d have to graffiti the mainsail with something like the message: “I’m relinquishing all right, title and interest in this pig!” for the law of finds to apply, and even that might not be sufficient. In other words, to trigger a claim under the law of finds where the courts apply a “finders-keepers” wisdom, you typically have to show the vessel’s owner expressly relinquished title to the vessel. And while in physical terms, the abandonment of your sinking vessel is relatively easy to accomplish, proving an owner abandoned title to the vessel is a very difficult battle. In fact, that battle begins with a headwind in that there’s a presumption against application of the doctrine.
Maybe I haven’t seen a sufficient stack of wind chop atop serious sea swell, but I'd swim off before I’d step off. (As a paunched pilot once told me as he rolled a bottle of St. Pauli Girl between his palms, “How it is, if something goes wrong I’m going to keep trying to fly her right into the ground.”) Like I said, I probably haven’t seen enough blue water action to judge (much less condemn) anyone’s decision, but when you bail, remember all’s not lost; a salvor just might save your sailing steed.
This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies.
Underway and making way.
Admiralty attorney John K. Fulweiler, Esq. practices maritime law on the East and Gulf Coasts. As a former partner of a Manhattan maritime firm, John now helms his own practice located in Newport, Rhode Island where he helps individuals and businesses navigate the choppy waters of the maritime law. John can be reached anytime at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or via e-mail at email@example.com.