SALVAGE LAW: Do You Get to Keep an Abandoned Boat?

15 Jul

Boat on beach

I’ve been posting a bit lately about abandoned boats, and my SAILfeed colleague Clark Beek has rightly pointed out that it is high time I bloviated on the subject of salvage rights. Many people believe that if you find an abandoned boat it automatically belongs to you, and yes, I intentionally played into and exploited that popular misconception in the title of my first post on Wolfhound, the abandoned Swan 48 now adrift 600 miles east of Bermuda. But in fact the law isn’t that simple.

Salvage law is very old and dates back to medieval times, when men went to sea primarily to engage in commerce. A vessel in trouble often carried cargo worth as much or more than the ship itself, and the men attracted by her distress were just as likely to plunder her as to save her. Thus the core principle of salvage law has always been that honest men who risk their own lives and vessels trying to save other vessels should be very well rewarded.

Under current U.S. admiralty law, which conforms to international salvage law as laid out in the Salvage Convention of 1989, assistance rendered another vessel is considered salvage when: 1) the assisted vessel is subject to a reasonable apprehension of marine peril; 2) the assistance is voluntary; and 3) the assistance is successful in whole or part.

A successful salvor is NOT entitled to just keep the salved vessel, under any circumstances, but is entitled to a generous award. The amount of the award, under the law, is based on the following factors: 1) the value of the vessel and its contents after the salvage is complete; 2) the salvor’s skill and initiative in minimizing damage to the environment; 3) the degree of success obtained by the salvor; 4) the level of peril to which the salvaged vessel was subject; 5) the salvor’s skill and initiative in saving the vessel, human lives, and other property; 6) the salvor’s labor and expenses; 7) the amount of risk run by the salvor; 8) the promptness of the services rendered; 9) the availability and use of any alternative salvage resources; and 10) the readiness, efficiency, and value of the salvor’s vessel and equipment.

Consider all these factors together, and you’ll note they strongly favor the salvor. The idea being that salvors should not only be compensated for their time and trouble; they should also receive a substantial premium as an inducement to render assistance in the first place. In a “low-order” salvage, where the risk to a salvor is negligible and the salvaged vessel was in little danger, the premium will be relatively small, but in a “high-order” salvage the total award can, under the law, be as high as (though it may not exceed) 100 percent of the value of the salvaged vessel and its contents. Also, salvors automatically get a high-priority lien on any vessel they save and may keep the vessel until the owner posts security.

This, of course, is where the misconception come from. If you are entitled to an award equaling 100 percent of the value of a vessel, some owners and most insurers may well propose that you simply keep the vessel, as this saves them the administrative and transactional costs of selling it to pay you off. Even if you don’t want the vessel, they can force the situation by not paying you, thereby compelling you to seize the boat.

In the immediate example, salvaging Wolfhound, a vessel that most likely has already been given up for lost by its insurer (the owner, I assume, has been paid off and is out of the picture), would certainly entitle you to a “high-order” award. You will have either towed the vessel hundreds of miles, or you will have put crew aboard to rehabilitate and navigate the boat to shore, a decidedly risky proposition. The vessel, in perfect condition, is worth $500-600K. In her present condition, she may be worth $200K or so. So I’d guess you’d have a good chance of getting to keep her… if you wanted her.

On the other hand, if Wolfhound drifts on to a beach somewhere, like Running Free on Martha’s Vineyard, and all you do is put a line on her and pull her off, it is not likely you’ll have earned an award equal to 100 percent of her value.

When Is a Tow Not a Tow?

The more pertinent question for most of us involves commercial towing services like Sea Tow and TowBoat/US. Lots of people sign up as members of these services and pay a flat annual fee they think covers any troublesome situation they might get themselves into. But in fact in many circumstances where you most need help, your service contract does not apply and the guys helping you are entitled to claim a salvage award, which can be very large, depending on the circumstances.

In one particularly egregious example I found online, a guy in a leaky fishing skiff, a Sea Tow member, reports that a Sea Tow skipper demanded a $2,000 salvage fee after loaning him a pump in a marina for not more than 10 minutes. This sort of abuse no doubt is the exception rather the rule, but the current legal landscape does give the towing services a huge advantage.

Boat under tow

The fact is nearly everything a towing service does is salvage under the law, for the definition of “marine peril” has historically been very broad. The peril need not be immediate, and any vessel that is disabled and adrift, and certainly if it is aground, is held to be “in apprehension” of danger. Most companies do however perform basic services, like straight tows of disabled vessels, “soft” ungroundings, or fuel drops, for a straight hourly fee, or for free, if you’re a dues-paying member. But different companies draw the line between salvage and “basic services” in different places. These differences are normally defined in the company contracts you sign (or impliedly agree to), but in almost all cases the bottom line is the same: when you’re really in trouble and need help the most, the amount you pay in the end can conceivably run as high as the value of your boat.

Is this fair? Most insurance companies, though they pay the bulk of salvage claims, don’t have a problem with it. They recognize that competent towing services spend a great deal of money on vessels and equipment. They appreciate the fact that these people are on call 24/7. And, of course, they would much rather pay a claim for a portion of a vessel’s value (which is what normally happens) than be confronted with a total loss.

How To Deal With Salvors

The best policy, of course, is to deal with them as little as possible. If you are serious about cruising, you should be prepared to get yourself out of trouble in most low-risk situations. If you do need to call for assistance you should:

A) Get in touch with your insurer and let them negotiate directly with the salvor if possible. Most salvors will welcome a chance to cut a deal up front, as this means they get paid much faster. A good marine insurer will maintain a 24-hour claims service. Note, too, some insurers limit their salvage exposure; a good policy will cover you for 100 percent of the value of your boat.

B) If you can’t reach your insurer (or don’t have one) negotiate yourself before any assistance is rendered. Never assume you’re contracting for a straight tow or other “basic services,” even when dealing with a towing service you are a member of. Establish clearly whether or not you’re in a salvage situation and understand how the bill will be calculated. Don’t be afraid to use your leverage, which is that a salvor cannot aid you against your will. Don’t be afraid to get on the radio and call other services for help if the people on the scene are not reasonable. (Note, however, salvors can act to save your vessel without your permission if you are not on the scene or if you do not expressly forbid it. The law presumes you want your boat saved, so you must be clear and firm when refusing help.)

C) If the sh*t is hitting the fan and there is no time to negotiate, you should at least establish that the salvor is working on a no cure/no pay basis. Under the law, they are not entitled to an award if they don’t save your boat. There is, however, one exception to this rule, which is that salvors do get paid something if they prevent or minimize environmental harm while failing to save your boat, which is only fair, as you’d be on the hook for the damage done in any event.

The Bottom Line advice: When choosing a towing service to join as a member (which in most cases is well worth it if you do much coastal sailing), study the service contract closely. Find the language describing what services are covered and what is considered salvage (or “vessel recovery”) and make sure you understand it. The more precise the language the better. You can assume the service provider will try to take advantage of any vague “weasel words” (as I used to call them in law school). Also, you want an arbitration clause. You certainly do not want to have to go to federal court to settle a dispute over payment (or anything else).


  1. matt ignatowski

    I helped a guy on a rented jet ski who hit rocks. the ski was bobbing out of the water and the operator was a poor swimmer. his two friends would not help him as they were also poor swimmers. i attached a line to the ski and kept it upright while my girlfriend used my ski to tow us to shore. all while a 300 pound man was hanging off the back of me while i was hanging off the back of the water filled jetski.. am i entitled to anything?

  2. Charlie

    @Matt: You left out part of the title of that post you are referring to. It had IMHO tacked on to the end of it. It was just an opinion, and clearly identified as such. Did a Bermuda admiralty attorney really tell you $45K was a fair flat-rate salvage fee for that boat??? You didn’t mention this in your article. And I still believe you would have been entitled to significantly more. American law is also based on British common law, and admiralty law is international in any event. You were attempting a very difficult salvage that posed considerable risk to you and your vessel. Had you been successful you would have been entitled a high-order award. If I was your attorney (I was one once) I would have argued your award should be 90 to 100 percent the value of the boat. Even in the shape it was in, I’d say it was worth considerably more than $45K.

  3. Matt Rutherford

    That first (incorrect) article was called MATT RUTHERFORD ALMOST GETS RIPPED OFF. Which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Bermuda uses British common law to deal with salvages. I called a admiralty lawyer in Bermuda on a sat phone when I found Wolfhound, he told me everything. I made a well informed decision, I didn’t almost get ripped off. You should have contacted me first and talked to me before writing your blog about how I almost got ripped off.

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  5. Terry j. Tavis

    I saved a 31 foot sailboat,the owner is deceased,his family doesn’t want the old boat. I do.what should I do?

  6. Todd

    Question, my fathers yacht broke anchor and is currently wrecked on rocks in queensland waters, MSQ say he must remove the wreck (sounds simple). Problem is the boat is owned by a company that is insolvent (albeit not wound up at this stage) he is the sole director. he was also the master at the time of the incident, and is an aged pensioner with no money to facilitate the removal – we have offered the wreck to local salvage and no one wants it…. what can we do and what can MSQ do??? TIA

  7. claude morneau

    Hi. Can you tell me if I find a boat that is half submerged and has been there a long time. Can i remove it and fix it and than keep it.Thank you very much for your time.I am in British Columbia Canada

  8. Richard Mears

    I found a boat abandoned in a field how to I go about getting it Title search ? then contact owner?? how do I go about acquiring the vessel

  9. Evan

    I have a question about this. I live in BC Canada and i cant find a clear answer on this. I work for a marina. If a boat is left here, not paid for, and we have no idea who it belongs to, after we lock it up for the season and still no one comes to say anything can we do anything with it? If so what can we do? Is it considered abandoned and can we salvage it or is it theft?

  10. Harry Whittelsey

    Early November in Long Island Sound. I last a lower and the wing mast followed on my Atlantic 46MKII.
    SeaTow and two other Tow companies suddenly showed up as we were cutting the mast away. Tried boarding I told them they should salvage the Wing mast with New Main and Genoa whose new value exceeded $100K. They wanted to Tow me I said No Way have two diesels which work and if they didn’t want to salvage mast I would set adrift and mark it. They watched us cut it away I informed the Cost Guard of the situation. Reported Loss to Insurance.
    Two weeks later I was called by my insurance company and told Mast and sails were recovered. I went to inspect all had been damaged on rocks must have spend days getting torn up on the bricks No Value!

  11. Jason N.

    Yes, always negotiate with the tow company ahead of time. Last summer I ran aground on a sand bar on Lake Erie on my 23′ sailboat. We had breached the hull and were taking on water. I radioed the Coast Guard. A commercial tow boat was monitoring ch. 16 and arrived before the coast guard vessel. The tow boat captain told me that because I was aground it would be a salvage, not a tow. He quoted me “$100-150 per foot”, ($2,300 – $3,450)! Since we were only in 3-4 feet of water (thanks to the sand bar) I said “never mind, we’ll get out and push it off and let you just tow us in”! He told us to wait while he went back to his boat and radioed his boss. When he returned he quoted me $600. I accepted the offer and he pulled us off the sandbar and towed us back to a marina. Overall, I was happy with his service (and it was a more difficult job than either of us imagined), but I’m glad I negotiated a cheaper price up front. I love my boat, but to be honest, it’s an older sailboat and it’s not worth a whole lot more than $3,500. If he’d insisted on that price I probably would have said “leave it here as a warning to others – how much for a ride back to shore?”
    Great article – thanks!

  12. Michael

    What happens if you are given a boat and you have the title but cannot find the original owner? Is there any law that I can have a new title in my name since we cannot contact the original owner (possible decease)?

  13. james l. pitney

    What if you find a $300.00 tube floating in the lake that is attached to the great lakes

  14. The Truth

    @Captain Chuck, you’ve needed a tow service 10 times in 5 years? Perhaps it’s time to find a new hobby or profession since you don’t seem to be competent on a boat.

  15. Charles Doane

    @Capt. Chuck: Sounds like you have made good use of your Sea Tow membership. I hope that none of the “over 10 times” you’ve called for their help were terribly serious. As for my sources, there’s nothing controversial, or “anti-tow-service” in here. The outline of salvage elements are straight “hornbook” law, as we used to call it in school; the info re the differences between what tow services consider salvage and what they consider “basic services” comes from tow-service contracts. Give your Sea Tow contract a close read. You’ll find nothing in there that contradicts anything here. The info on insurer attitudes comes from interviews I did some time ago when I wrote an article on this same subject for Cruising World. Thanks for the comment!~ charlie

  16. Cpt Chuck

    Thank you for this info. However, this sounds a bit like an anti tow service article. Though I’m pretty sure that you didn’t mean it that way.
    Ok, so…,
    I’m a Sea Tow member of 5 years. I have a DownEaser 38 cutter. I have used their services over 10 times in that 5 years for a variety of things. I have never had any of those captains try to get money from me directly for any of these situations… Nor have they ever even suggested such a thing. While I understand the nature of this post as pertaining to self awareness in marine law, I must state that these services are not to be feared. If not for these services I would have been left to the “wolves” of the sea a number of times now. I purchase memberships in order to protect myself from the very things mentioned in this article.
    Also, I see no accreditation. Where did this info come from, if you don’t mine the asking?

  17. Ron York

    In my experience it is monumentally important to negotiate before you get a tow. When I was in trouble, I said I was going to radio in and find someone else and the price dropped 200 dollars just like that.

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