By John K. Fulweiler, Esq.

My girl is out of the Opti and into a Laser 4.7. She’s a stringbean, so it’ll be something for her when the southerly rolls down the Bay. I keep telling her it’s like she’s stepping up to the Formula 1 circuit, but there’s a wee look of bemusement on her face. Whatever the case, COVID has gutted the race calendar and this summer is for knocking around and learning her new ride. Of course, that hasn’t stopped us ordering new sails, foils and the other knick-knacks that make kitting out your newest dinghy fun.

And all these supplies had me thinking about something called a “slop chest,” which is a phrase you don’t hardly ever encounter ashore. A slop chest is a nautical phrase for a shipboard supply of various things. Depending on where you’re sailing from and the size of the vessel, certain United States vessels must maintain slop chests per federal law. And here’s the punchline to this frolic and detour: there’s a United States statute mandating the minimum sort of items a vessel owner must stock in its slop chest. Things like hats, boots, shoes, caps, outer clothing, foul weather gear and “everything necessary for the wear of a seaman” are all required rudiments. And ‘lo the slop chest must also have “a complete supply of tobacco and blankets.” Huh? In this age of health consciousness, hiding in plain sight is a law requiring vessel owners supply tobacco. Ha, ha. Makes me chuckle at it all…well, I’m also chuckling as to the scrivener’s reasoning in companioning “blankets” with “tobacco.” I mean, tobacco and chocolate or tobacco and a pipe, but blankets?

And this slop chest statute wanders into even stranger seas when in its final couple of sentences it excludes the slop chest requirements for vessels on a voyage to Canada, Bermuda, the West Indies or Central America and on fishing vessels. What? Maybe in a bygone era all this wording made sense.

With a pandemic sluicing across our life’s decks, bygone eras have been in the spotlight. Apparently, we might have all done well to spend a little more time worrying the 1918 pandemic than the North Korean leader’s willingness to lob a nuke in our direction. (I sense most of us armchair strategists always had trouble swallowing the notion that this fellow would so willingly abandon his indulgences!) Whatever the case, circumstances had me reviewing Rhode Island law on vessel quarantine. Had I put money down on there being very little on the subject, I would’ve lost that money.

The Rhode Island law on the subject is fairly developed. There are code sections speaking to the appointment of “seaport health officers” and other sections mandating how local communities should go about identifying locations where vessels in quarantine should be “subject to examination or quarantine” and how long they should be made to stay. There’s even a whole section authorizing local communities to appoint “sentinels” who shall be stationed at some “convenient place on shore” to hail and direct vessels to specialized anchoring areas where they can be boarded by health officers.

There’s also consideration of the nomination and payment of security guards near the vessel to prevent “unauthorized communication.” While all of this law seems appropriate and timely, the penalties (which remain on the books) reveal the true age of these quarantine laws. If you ignore the sentinel and ignore instructions to anchor in quarantine, you risk a penalty of between $20 and $500. If you abandon the quarantine, you’re liable for a fine of not greater than $20. If you depart an “infected” vessel without permission, it’s a straight $40 fine and confinement “in a convenient place that appears to the city or town council most effectual to prevent the spreading of any infection.”

The thing is, the wording of these laws (all of which seem dated around 1896) is like an old marine radio broadcast that we’re just now hearing. These old laws underscore that public health and the crisis brought about by a global infection are not a burden we share alone. These old laws show that pandemics might be as neatly cyclical (albeit on a slightly longer arc of time) as a hurricane or winter nor’easter. We’d do well to keep that in mind and Rhode Island would do well to revise the penalty structure in its quarantine laws. Maybe too, we can learn something from these old laws which seem matter of fact in their willingness to erode some individual rights in aid of keeping the community safe – a tradeoff that’s neither distasteful nor emasculating as some folks seem to think.

Who knows, but these old laws floating back into relevance did make me think of that Blood, Sweat & Tears lyric. You know the one: “Spinnin’ wheel got to go ‘round.”

Underway and making way. ■

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.

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