Cabotage laws require the transportation of passengers or cargo between U.S. ports to be performed aboard ’U.S.-flagged’ vessels (vessels registered under the laws of the United States), and U.S.-built vessels. These laws are a form of protectionist legislation, and they have been a component of U.S. transportation law for more than a century. The current cabotage statutes that establish these restrictions include the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 and its amendments (popularly known as the Jones Act), the Passenger Services Act and various other provisions of the United States Code that define and regulate foreign vessels and U.S. Coastwise Trade.
A bill of lading for ocean transportation is a classic example of ’fine-print legalese,’ and I congratulate anyone who has the eyesight and the patience to actually read it. Unfortunately, bills of lading are mainly drafted to protect the steamship company and to place most of the risk of the voyage on the owner of the cargo.
Cargo owners are assumed to know and understand the contents of a bill of lading, and to take whatever steps they may deem necessary to protect themselves. This is a reasonable assumption if the cargo is owned by Wal-Mart or Sony, but most people who retain a yacht transport company to ship their boat are not experienced shippers.
The most onerous concept in the ocean transportation of cargo is the limitation of liability provided under the U.S. Carriage of Goods at Sea Act (COGSA). Under COGSA, the steamship line may limit its liability to $500 per ’package.’ The definition of a package may be open to discussion, but a yacht will always be deemed to be a single package. As such, a steamship line’s liability for damage to your yacht will likely be limited to $500.
A bill of lading may also require a lawsuit to be brought within a very short period of time, and it may require a suit to be brought in a foreign country (China, for example) that had no connection whatsoever to the actual voyage.
The reference to ’general average’ is probably the least-onerous term of a typical bill of lading. General average refers to a circumstance where the crew of a ship needs to sacrifice some of the cargo to save the ship after some sort of casualty. The classic example of this is where the crew throws cargo overboard to lighten the load after the ship has run aground. In such a case, the remaining cargo shares the loss of the cargo that was jettisoned, on the theory that ’we’re all in this together.’
The simple solution to all of this is to get a cargo insurance policy for the voyage. This is extremely important, since a regular yacht insurance policy will generally not insure a boat during this period.
The shipping company will refer you to a company that offers cargo insurance, or you can get a referral from your regular insurance agent or broker. Talk to the cargo insurance people about the extent of their coverage to confirm that you are fully protected, and ask them to explain the bill of lading to you.
Finally, don’t rule out the trucking option completely. You may find it prohibitively expensive for a 65-foot boat, but trucking companies do move boats of that size. The terms of a motor carrier’s bill of lading may include many of the same restrictions that are found in an ocean bill of lading, but it will nonetheless be a little less onerous. And a truck is not subject to the cabotage laws, so it can deliver the boat directly to your nearest shipyard.
The best solution, of course, is to talk to a maritime or transportation attorney and ask him or her to walk you through the process in greater detail.