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Towing versus Salvage…

Not understanding the difference could cost you a small fortune

Several years ago, we had a situation where we lost all power just offshore heading toward Montauk from the Atlantic. We were sailing along nicely keeping track of our DR position trying to get ourselves into harbor or at least close enough to call for a tow. That's when the wind died, the fog started to roll off the land, and we were drifting -- no lights, no electronics, a handlheld radio about to give out -- smack in the middle of one of the businest shipping lanes in the world. We literally hung a candle in the rigging and called in to the Coast Guard to let them know our presumed position. When it became clear that we were drifting in toward shore and visibility would soon be nil, we dropped an anchor overboard in about 200 feet of water and opted for a tow. I know we were on a sailboat, but the forecast was for a still and foggy night. Those conditions suggested that taking a chance was not a good thing. We were nearly invisible, with only a small radar reflector and a candle. We wouldn't be able to see anything soon and no one would be able to see us either; we made the decision to call for a tow before our radio gave out completely.

Well our DR must have been pretty good, because in no time at all, the towboat operator found us pretty much where we thought we were and when he got close enough he actually saw us on radar which helped him make out our candle before the fog engulfed us. We could barely see his vessel ahead of us as the fog thickened. He asked us to certify that we were in no immediate danger, asked if we wanted to get off the boat, then took us into Montauk on a stern tow. We answered correctly and were charged several hundred dollars for the tow. Had we answered incorrectly, we might have had a case of salvage where instead of several hundred dollars, he might have been due several thousand dollars in salvage rights instead of towing fees. Towing fees are charged an hourly rate. Salvage fees consist of a percentage of the post-casualty value of the vessel. It pays mightily to know the difference.

A couple of years later, we heard a story about junior sailors participating in a race who went hard aground. They called a towing service who got them off the hard and took them off the boat. Their parents received a bill for many thousands of dollars in salvage rights afterward. We heard that they were involved in arbitration to settle the percentage several weeks later.

The maritime laws are steeped in more than 3000 years of maritime principles and were instituted in 1869 in the US, so they are relatively well established. It was a time when merchant mariners were well schooled in such matters and towing and salvage services were not readily available. If there was a problem, it was usually pretty risky. Today, mariners call for help when they foul a prop or run out of fuel - not necessarily dire situations. But if there's any gray area involved in your situation, be sure to stop and think about the consequences. If you voluntarily ask for help, you may get more than you bargained for. Remember, the guys helping you know all the rules that you may not. Here are a few good references to help you understand a little more.

Understanding the difference between towing and salvage
by Stephen F. White
Excellent article on the Vessel Assist website. Click on "Towing Information", then "Towing vs Salvage", then on the link at the bottom.
Boat US Towing Services - Salvage
The Salvage Truth (must be a BoatUS member to view)
Salvage Contract (a sample contract that a salvor may ask you to sign before rendering assistance)
Intended to save boats, salvage laws ruin, too
by Lucy Chabot Reed, The Triton June 2004.
Where salvage laws get tricky...
Read this account of one incident and how Boat/US experts interpreted the situation.
Past Salvage Efforts
Salvage law, Salvors' Compensation, The Salvage Award
A useful overview of the law and a comprehensive list of related links, as well as a great account of the issues surrounding the sinking and salvage of the SS Republic.

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