Know Your Rights: Towing vs. Salvage

My boat went aground recently after losing power near the entrance to our marina. The boat was not badly damaged, and she was refloated the next day with the help of a towing company and several local residents. During the course of the project, the ’helpers’ took several pieces of equipment off the boat to lighten the load and make her easier to refloat. They are now refusing to return the property, claiming that they are entitled to keep it since they helped to save the boat. Is this legal? Also, I have not received a bill from the towing company, but I was advised by a friend that the company is entitled to be compensated for salvage, in an amount equal to the value of the boat. Is that true? What are my rights?
Salvage is an area of maritime law that is frequently misunderstood by the yachting community. The short answers to your questions are (1) the people who took the equipment have committed theft and may be criminally prosecuted; and (2) the compensation owed to the towing company will be much less than the value of the boat.

’Salvage’ is often confused with ’towing,’ since both services are frequently performed by a towing company, and both may be rendered to a vessel in peril. Salvage is distinguished, however, by the ’no cure-no pay’ nature of the services. In a salvage job, the company gets paid nothing unless the vessel is successfully recovered. If the company gets paid regardless of its success, the job is a ’tow,’ and the company will get its regular rate for towing services.

Even if a salvage job and the salvage is successful, many salvage operations do not have a predetermined amount for the salvage fee. The ambiguity surrounding the amount of compensation owed to a salvage company has confused judges and lawyers for centuries, so it’s not surprising that the yachting community has a few questions.

Upon completion of a successful salvage where there was no predetermined fee, a salvage company will typically enter into a negotiation with the vessel’s insurance company. Those negotiations will consider a series of six factors in connection with the salvage operation: (1) the labor expended in rendering the salvage service; (2) the promptness, skill and energy in rendering the service and saving the vessel; (3) the value of the towing vessels and other property used in rendering the service and the danger to which such property was exposed; (4) the risk incurred in securing the vessel from the impending peril; (5) the value of the vessel saved; and (6) the degree of danger from which the vessel was rescued.

The calculation of a salvage award will consider these six factors and determine an amount that is a percentage of the post-incident value of the boat. If the case involves a quick tow off a sandy beach with no surf, the award may be about 5 to 10 percent of the value of the boat. A strong onshore wind on an exposed rocky point, where rescuers are risking their lives will lead to a very high award. Regardless, awards that exceed 60 or 70 percent of the vessel’s value are extremely rare. Unfortunately, it is not a clear and objective calculation, so salvage claims frequently end up in court.

As for the people who took the equipment off your boat, there is never a circumstance that allows someone to simply walk away with your property, even if the boat appears to have been abandoned. ’Finders keepers’ is not a valid legal principle, except in rare instances where the property has been abandoned for so long that it has been effectively ’returned to the state of nature.’

This may be possible in the case of an ancient, long-lost shipwreck, but even then, the rules of salvage described previously would be applied if the vessel’s owners (or more likely the modern affiliates of the vessel’s insurance company) came forward.

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