Ask A Maritime Attorney: Is there such thing as a “safe harbor” law and does it apply to a tenant whose slip rent is overdue?

Question

            I manage a small marina in Northern California and was recently confronted with a “safe harbor” question.  One of our tenants was extremely delinquent on their slip rent and facing eviction.  The boat is in terrible shape.  The owner claims the engines don’t run and, even if they did, he would be unable to move the boat because he can’t find another slip.  To make matters worse, the owner is elderly, and he apparently can’t afford to hire a captain and crew, or even a towboat, to help move the boat.  He now claims that it would be dangerous to move the boat during the current spell of bad weather and, as such, we are legally required to provide “safe harbor” to him rather than force him to move the boat a time such as this with a bad weather forecast.  Is this true?  Is there a “safe harbor” law?  What are my rights here as a marina operator?

Answer

“Safe Harbor” laws do not apply to private marina operators, but there are nonetheless a few practical guidelines that need to be observed.

It should first be noted that the concept of a “Safe Harbor” (more properly referred to as a “Port of Refuge”) was developed to provide large merchant vessels a safe environment in which to conduct repairs or for salvage operations to proceed safely.  The legal framework was enacted through an international treaty in 2003, when the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted a resolution to provide “Guidelines on Places of Refuge for Ships in Need of Assistance.”

The IMO resolution was drawn up in response to significant events involving oil tankers that broke apart and sank, resulting in catastrophic environmental damage to coastal nations due to spilled oil. The purpose of the IMO resolution was to encourage coastal nations, who do not want a maritime pollution disaster to occur in their waters, to adopt systems to balance the needs of the vessel with the needs of the coastal nation, and make sound decisions to enhance maritime safety and the protection of the marine environment.

In the context of our reader’s question and recreational boating in general, it is important to note that the IMO resolution applies to nation states and the shipping ports operated by each nation, but not to private marinas.  We should also note that, even for big ships, the IMO resolution provides guidelines for allowing a ship in distress to enter your port, rather than to allow ships that are already in the port to stay there indefinitely.

So with this international legal framework in mind, what rules, if any, apply to a private marina?  Can a recreational boat in a private marina borrow rules that are intended for big ships in government-operated commercial ports?  The answer is “maybe.”

As recreational boaters, we are often subject to regulations and laws that are intended for big ships.  Maritime law does not generally carve out exceptions for small boats.  As such, a small boat in distress would certainly be allowed to enter a port or harbor under circumstances that would threaten the safety of the boat or its crew.  This scenario would also extend to allowing the boat to anchor at a safe public anchorage while it conducts necessary repairs to make the vessel seaworthy.

There is nothing in this legal framework that requires a private marina to offer a berth to the distressed vessel, particularly where a safe anchorage is available in the port or harbor.  Similarly, there is nothing in this legal framework that would allow a vessel to remain at a dock or an anchorage indefinitely because the owner is elderly or cannot afford to repair the boat or hire a crew or a towboat to move it.

Finally, we should point out that individual harbors or municipalities may have local statutes that would specifically address these cases.  And, a marina cannot simply cut a boat’s mooring lines and set it adrift, even in good weather.  Our reader will therefore need to initiate an eviction procedure just as he would for a boat that does not claim a “safe harbor” status.  Marina operators and boat owners should each therefore contact a maritime attorney who is familiar with marina tenancy laws before taking any action on their own.

 

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

 

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com,  or via email at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

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