There’s no small wonder in securing the mooring rode to the bow cleat after a hard day’s voyage. While the event is often viewed in terms of the accomplishment, maybe it should be weighed in terms of what didn’t go wrong.

Boating has always been fraught with the unexpected, be it gale plagued weather coasts, springing planks, and untrustworthy chronometers to wet plugs, blown out-drives and stubborn diesels. Worse still, once fixed, patched or plugged, the prudent boater must still steer through the shallows of admiralty law’s hoary crags while skirting the shoals of encroaching government regulation. All told, a successful voyage is more than just etching your way across your favorite bight of water; it’s a reflection of having been prepared for and, on occasion, successfully dealing with the unexpected.

When it comes to boats, the unexpected blossoms from the day you first set eyes on your new hull. Where the unknowing rush in, the prudent boater allows his or her passions to ebb with the tide while ticking off some of the important issues that predicate any vessel purchase.

Consider that a vessel is treated under the law as a legal entity capable of being sued and committing wrongs much like a corporation. Thus, a vessel can accrue debts known as liens which may adhere to the vessel even if sold to an unwitting purchaser. Shipyard repairs, fuel and dockage are just a few examples of such liens. Practically speaking, the worst-case result is that whoever claims the line could physically arrest the vessel so as to seek its sale to satisfy the outstanding amounts. This scenario has the potential of ruining any maiden voyage especially since the lien affixes to the vessel and isn’t lost by the vessel’s sale.

In addition to seeking the advice of maritime counsel, the prudent boater can calm these waters by requesting a copy of the vessel’s abstract of title from the National Vessel Documentation Center for a nominal fee. This document will give you a heads-up as to some of the liens and should give you a flavor for the way in which the prior owners ran their ship. While it’s possible for other liens to exist, your maritime counsel should be able to give you a measure of how the seascape looks.

Not only do you not want to set sail in a vessel encumbered with liens, but much like the case of an automobile, you want to make sure you got what you purchased. Some investigation on your part with the marina where the vessel is currently berthed should alert you to any red flags with the way in which the boat was maintained and/or operated. In fact, don’t be afraid to ask the owner for permission to obtain copies of the service invoices directly from the marina. Most marinas will accommodate such a request in exchange for payment of the copying charges and this is a great way to get the real skinny on your vessel’s history.

Similarly, and in the case of documented vessels, the U.S. Coast Guard web site offers a database which provides a history of a vessel’s prior significant marine incidents such as groundings, safety violations and fuel spills. In the broadest of terms, the key to purchasing a vessel is akin to safely navigating in a thick New England fog; go slow, keep your eyes and ears open, and be patient. Once you’ve slipped the ways, the unique status a vessel enjoys under the Admiralty law can give rise to a myriad of unexpected and almost always unpleasant situations.

More than one maiden voyage has ended with the ceremonial and oft unintentional grounding. If prayer, a kedge and a voluminous cursing fail to cure the problem, you may need to seek the assistance of a salvage company. In this scenario, the unexpected event is the charge for these services. What may seem to you to be a fifteen-minute tow may be viewed by the salvor (and the maritime law) as a salvage claim and therein lies the rub.

Salvage is voluntary assistance lent a vessel in peril which assistance successfully preserves a vessel from damage or loss. In likely nod to the importance of maritime commerce, this barnacled law provides the successful salvor with an “award” for her services in lieu of a time and materials calculation.

As a result, under certain circumstances what appears to be a short endeavor may yield a salvage award based on a percentage of your vessel’s hull value! While perhaps shocking, the salvage award is meant to encourage this kind of voluntary conduct which preserves property. Call it what you will, but it probably explains why nowadays a single distress call will rustle up quality salvage assistance in almost every coastal location.

Notwithstanding its philosophical tentacles, there are ways to level the sea. Typically, whether a service amounts to salvage will turn on the issue of “peril.” Accordingly, a disposable camera stowed in your nav station will prove invaluable in rebutting any inflated claims of high seas and treacherous coral heads.

To venture across a clear sea with an unbroken horizon is as near an escape from this earthly setting as is possible. It is a chance to follow in the wake of countless centuries of voyages and an opportunity to test yourself against the elements – in whatever form they may take. Success in this arena doesn’t come from last minute worrying or fretting but, instead, from proper planning, competence and an appreciation for the unexpected.

Expecting the unexpected is the hallmark of a prudent boater.

Underway and making way. ■

John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or, or visit his website at