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

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).

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45 Responses
  1. Very good article. Another point I would like clarification about is: Assume I salvaged an abandoned boat that has washed up on a marsh on an inland waterway. Would I become liable for any environmental damages caused by the vessel? Such as spilled fuel, battery leakage, damage to private or public property, etc.?

  2. Charlie

    @JH: That’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer. I assume you would be responsible for any mess you created as a result of your salvaging effort. But I think you are asking if you would assume liability for any mess created prior to your arrival on the scene. I would guess not, but environmental law can be very harsh when imposing liability, so I can’t say for sure. charlie

  3. ajdster

    From experience, anyone looking to salvage a boat from inland or coastal waters of the United States will be under the boat location’s State regulations regarding salvage (often the Department of Fisheries or Wildlife). State laws differ widely and differ even more if the boat is registered in another state or, worse yet, documented.

    Get the boat numbers and look up what you can do in that State online before you go thinking you can just ‘have’ it for salvage.

  4. Charlie

    @ ajdster: good point, federal admiralty law does not always apply. if the waters are not deemed “navigable” state law will control. here’s a link with a good description of how “navigable” is defined:

    cheers, charlie

  5. Cappy.C

    My wife and I are very new to the cruising community as we are in the process of buying a liveaboard sailboat! I am reading up as much as I can find, This article I am very glad to have stumbled across and thank you very much for posting it!


    Very good article. Another point I would like clarification about is: Assume I salvaged an abandoned boat that has washed up on a marsh on an inland waterway. Would I become liable for any environmental damages caused by the vessel? Such as spilled fuel, battery leakage, damage to private or public property, etc.?

  7. mr douglas booth. (Badger)

    salvage claims on a yacht that has been abandoned fo 11mths in turkey where pumping out was required every 2 weeks, No name on boat or papers onboard

  8. Charlie

    @douglas booth: Are you asking how do you assert a salvage claim on an abandoned vessel whose owner cannot be determined? In that case, I suppose, you really can just keep the vessel yourself. Although I have no idea what the law in Turkey might be!

  9. mark clegg

    If I live alone on a boat which I plan to do, and I die,does the boat become slavage laws, or remain part of my estate?

  10. mark

    Charlie, thank you for your answer. The boat that I am looking to buy is a 50 fast sea cruiser, which will be insured through Lloyds, but probably registered in the Bahamas, which is where I intend to make my retirement base. Do I need to stipulate ( which I will be doing anyway), in my will that the boat, that the boat is part of my estate, or do I need to file paperwork with Lloyds or some one. What further reading would you suggest? Also what laws apply to my defending my boat against pirates with firearms, which I intend to keep in the main cabin, as I will be living alone?

  11. Charlie

    @Mark: As long as the boat is legally yours, it is part of your estate. If you owe money on it, a lien-holder may have a stake, but you don’t have to do anything special to include it in your estate. As for guns, the local law applies where ever you happen to be. Which means in many places outside the U.S. you may not be allowed to keep them.

  12. Randall

    So if a houseboat washes up on an island in florida on the intercoastal. I can go get it and charge the owner my time boat value and expiences and if he don’t pay the boat is my boat. Correct?

  13. T

    Regarding the estate question, I think some clarification is necessary. The boat would generally be part of the estate. However, if you die and it’s adrift and at sea with or without your corpse in it, then that could potentially bring it under salvage law. In that scenario, the boat would likely fall under the categories for rescue and, while it would still belong to your estate, your estate could then incur the costs of salvage if the boast is rescued.

  14. Melanie

    We live on the Sacramento River. We saw a wave runner floating by, jumped on our own boat, and towed the wave runner to our dock where we now have it tied up. We’ve posted photos and a description of it on numerous websites and nobody has come forward to claim it. Can we keep it and re-register it under our own names?

  15. mark

    I am in fact enlarging my plans of life. Spending 2 years off a small island in the Bahamas, and then making my way round the world, not in the traditional sense, but I want to go into the Baltic, as well as the med, Black sea, up to Crimea head down to the Falklands, and up to Alaska, basically following some parts of history as well as adventure. Naturally this is going to take some effort, and I presume that a steel hulled vessel, due to ocean debris, from Japan etc would be too dangerous in any other type of hull. I am not sure how many shipping containers etc there still are in the Pacific from Japan.
    Any other advice is very much appriciated

  16. Tina

    Salvaging leaking abandoned boat. There is a strong argument that you would, instead, have prevented further environmental and property damage. Professional salvors would not save leaking oil tankers otherwise, but that is at sea. Your local fish & wildlife folks may see it differently. Is the boat worth the price of a lawyer/the damage already done? Take pictures. Talk to local marine insurance people; they will know.

  17. JHHaterras

    A 360,00 ton [c[size=24px][/size]olor=black][/color]barge broke loose in NC in hurricane matthew and ended up in my backyard aground. Is this a salvage situation?

  18. Tim

    I am raising a sunken WW2 barge that has been underwater for about 25 years
    And there is No Numbers or markings on it how do I claim salvage on it?

  19. Charlie

    @Tim: Doesn’t seem like a salvage situation to me. The vessel has already been lost for some time and what you are doing is raising a wreck. Not sure what rules apply, so I’d recommend you consult an admiralty lawyer.

  20. Dave

    I have a question, can someone help answer or direct me to where I could find a definitive answer. I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Allegheny county. My residence is actually within the city itself as is the vessel in question. There is a boat that has been abandoned on a city street in the city of Pittsburgh. Nobody in the area seems to know who owns the boat. It has been there for at least 2 years and it has not moved at all in this time period. Can I legally salvage this boat and take ownership? What steps would/should/could I take to take ownership legally?

  21. Charlie

    @Dave: It sounds like this vessel is not in the water. Is that right? In which case it’s not really a salvage situation. It’s just unclaimed property lying on the street. I’m sure the city would be grateful if you took it away. You might discuss details for taking possession with the city government.

  22. Christine Demetri

    My question is that the boat in question was behind my house full of trash, does that make for different laws applied to that circumstance?

  23. vroomncorvet

    While fishing there was talk about a boat within a near distance that has been adrift for 1 month. It is being said that the owner had passed away and the boat is abandoned. This would be considered a salvage right? What scenarios might I have to face? Expenses (especially if I decide not to keep it?)

  24. Theo

    randall. Ask the Fwc. They want a $600 research fee. Post ad in newspaper for 30 days. After 60 days fwc gives paper you take to judge .signs over to you after 90th day.

  25. Thomas

    Completely hypothetical situation, but one that I’ve been curious about for a while. Say I’m sailing in my personal yacht about 1,000 miles east of Florida, and I come across another personal yacht that is completely abandoned with no signs of life, no human remains, no evidence of any criminal activity, etc., and is completely clean, just drifting. If I were to tie up and tow it in to the nearest port, what could/should I do/expect?

  26. rw

    i definitely disagree with Arbitration. To a layperson, the rules are vague and definitely a lot harder to come by than federal or state law. Furthermore, the Arbitrator does not have to render a written opinion explaining himself, only give his decision; and if you don’t like it, you have no appeal other than to take it into court where you will find that most judges don’t know the difference between a federal arbitration agreement and a state arbitration agreement and the differences in case law regarding them. And once into court, all the judge can do is look at the contract, see if the provisions were or were not followed, and then only overturn an artibrators decision if it aligns with those provisions or the decision was clearly incorrect.

  27. Florida Sailor

    So if a houseboat washes up on an island in florida on the intercoastal. I can go get it and charge the owner my time boat value and expiences and if he don’t pay the boat is my boat. Correct?

    Not in Florida! For an ordinary citizen to initiate salvage in florida, you must fill out a multipage form, turn it in to a recognized florida law enforcement agency, wait for them to initiate & complete an investigation & return to you a certificate assigning the vessel to you for salvage.

    If you are found with a vessel for which you do not have official paperwork, you WILL be charged with theft.

    Ain’t bureaucracy grand?


  28. Taylor

    Not sure if it is international or Canadian law, but I am looking for information on my rights as a boat owner. I moored a few times at a public dock owned by First Nations, who agreed to keep the dock available for public use.

    However one or more residents have towed my boat away from the dock (this is the second time), first to a mooring ball, and second 1nm away. While I appreciate that they did secure the vessel quite well and didn’t just let it drift, but the threat was issued. It was also extremely inconvenient as they were towing the boat to a place I could not access it by land. In inquiring as to who on earth is moving my boat, I was told in no uncertain terms that I should never return my boat to that dock by a few residents.

    The second time I contacted the police, coast guard, and the First Nations dock owner, because it’s one thing to move my boat 200m to a mooring ball away from the dock (perhaps to free up space) but entirely another to move it to a private float a nautical mile away.

    Am I correct in assuming that this is technically theft of the vessel? I know the boat was not adrift as there were 5 lines tying it up to the dock and it was not heavy weather, the lines were just thrown all over the boat and were not damaged. I know how to tie a knot, I used double full hitches with a terminator line in the unlikely event of slippage.

    My boat is now at another dock in the area and I have used the ground tackle chain with a lock locking it to the piling, someone would need to be very determined to move her now – and it’s tied up with 9 lines two of which are the locked chain so it’s not going anywhere on its own even in heavy weather.

    My concern is what are my rights as a boat owner? The police don’t seem to want to do much investigation, although they know the private float it was tied to.

    The owner of the dock had nothing to do with the boats’ removal and was pretty choked, so choked he’s going to shut down everyone at the dock and initiate more standard marina rules requiring POI, moorage fees and some regulations. The dock is dormant until they decide what to do with it after buying it, and all the signage simply indicates “Use at your own risk” and gives a waterline length limit. He was under the impression that most people only use the floats for a couple days when they visit their vacation properties, and was surprised when I told him there are boats that have not moved in over 6 months so I don’t know what the residents are bellyaching about.

    Basically this is the case of a local resident (or residents) making up their own rules as to who can and can’t be at the dock and moving the boat to make it inconvenient for me to park there. First time it was moved the dock was full (Thanksgiving long weekend) and I had to do a bit of a kooky docking procudure at the end of a finger but it was secure, second time it was moved it was docked perfectly and the dock was half empty.

    I want the police to get this guy and at least have a strong word with him, if not charge him. Never in my life have I heard that people need to chain their boats to a dock because people are untying their lines and moving their boats in Canada. Even marina operators have a hard time removing a boat for non-payment or unauthorized parking.

  29. SteveWin

    As I understand salvage law, almost NOTHING that a towing service does for its prepaid, contracted members would count as “salvage”, because the law (via precedents) stipulates two important criteria: the salvor must work voluntarily, and must not be under contract. There have been cases where a ship’s Master has given an “abandon ship” order, effectively terminating the sailors’ contracts, after which some of the sailors (of their own volition, i.e., “voluntary”) remained with the vessel and effected salvage. Their claim was upheld. In other, very similar cases, ship crews performed extraordinary service to preserve the value of a ship & cargo, but since the Master never ordered “abandon ship”, they were still bound by their contractual obligation to serve the ship’s interests, and their salvage claim was denied.

    When a tow company sells you a towing service membership, they take your money in exchange for their obligation to assist your vessel in crisis. The only way they could become “salvors” would be if something in the nature of your vessel’s crisis exceeds some limitation or condition specified in the contract, or if the contract is otherwise broken by something like non-payment.

    Apart from salvage, the tow company can still claim a “maritime mechanic’s lien” against a boat, if the value of work performed exceeds what has been paid under the contract – but the amount claimed under mechanics lien must be approved by a judge,

  30. frank booher

    There is a sailboat that sunk in Clearwater Florida. The boat had been tied to anchor for 3 months and no one was using the boat, no one appears to be checking on the boat. The boat has sunk in shallow water and completely under water. Do I have a right to proceed with a salvage effort and would the boat be mine ?

  31. Roy Stephens Jr

    I found a sunken freighter broken in half. Can I claim rights to it? It is not in international water and not sure of the age. Will be diving there next week to check it out. Only sonar images for now.

  32. Matt

    MARK. This months Sail magazine addresses the issue of lost/floating shipping containers. It also mentioned Robert Redfords movie that illustrates exactly that nightmare of hitting one. Article said most sink, but didn’t mention that the 90,000 container ships at sea follow the same routes and currents that sailor do, condensing the area in which one could be encountered. Article said given the oceans size vs. containers statistically lost, it’s a non- issue for sailors. I disagree for reasons mentioned above

  33. Russell

    So as I was reading this it was brought to my attention there is a sailboat 30+ ft on its side in the slough by the entrance to the Pacific. It’s been there quite a while, and the keel is getting buried in the mud with each tide. Can I take it to a slip and have her? The owner must live out of State. To nice to let get buried.

  34. Russell

    There’s a boat abandoned here in Oregon at the mouth of a slough to the Pacific. I think the owner must live out of state. Can I get it? 30+ ft ,nice but getting buried with each tide.

  35. Honi Martin

    My ex-husband has a barge that floated away and beached itself on an Island 6 months ago. He owes me a substantial amount of money so I’m a bit worried that he may get into some kind of financial/legal trouble being that he hasn’t done a thing to recover the barge.
    I worry about it floating back out to sea…. And all the possible problems that could arise from that.

  36. Jon

    If u know where the barge is u should hire someone to tow it for u at a contract price before someone else tows it in and take u to court. Worst case possible if someone gets killed or hurt by it u are responsible for it. If someine tows it in the court with award them something the more of an envirmental hazard it is the more they will be awarded. If it is beached or on land it’s not really a salvage just an environmental hazard and u could be fined till it is removed

  37. Can you keep a boat that has been abandoned in international waters?

    Not directly, however, that likely falls under the concept of theft (taking with intent to deprive the rightful owner).

    On the other hand, you unquestionably have the right to salvage provided you get the abandoned boat safely to shore. How much that is depends on the specific circumstances, but it may be as much as 50% of the boat’s value plus any valuables or cargo on board (provided of course that those items are not contraband). A maritime court will decide what it is worth. by
    Powerful rights

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