Maritime Salvage Laws: What Boaters Need To Know

Photo by Pete Markham

By Terry Gibson:

The maritime salvage laws on the books today originated well before the days of Christopher Columbus. Today, salvage laws remain relatively unchanged. Boaters in Florida and across the nation should understand how and when these laws apply to them. Otherwise, you could end up with a shocking bill for even basic assistance on the water.

A long-time friend of mine is a charter captain in Sebastian, Florida. He was fishing offshore with clients and noticed a slight crack in the hull, which let water in below decks. With an abundance of caution, he headed back to shore and contacted a popular maritime salvage and towing company to provide assistance. This company rushed a boat to his location and tossed him a pump to help minimize the effects of the leak. The company representative never set foot on my friend’s boat. A couple weeks later, my friend received a shocker of a bill—for $3,800.

I recently learned about another individual who received a bill for a salvage claim that was several times that amount. This particular individual was a few hundred yards from shore while traveling to Key West when he saw there was more water in the bilge than normal. He got on the radio and called for a friend to help, but a maritime salvage company met him and helped pump water from the bilge. The company employee was on the boat for less than five minutes. Because the company classified the service as “salvage,” this boat owner received a bill for $30,000 even though he had a membership agreement with this company.

I don’t share these stories to make people distrust maritime salvage and towing companies. I personally have a membership with one of these companies, and all the assistance they’ve provided was swift and above board.

More than half of Florida boat owners invest in a membership for maritime assistance. Every boater should be aware that when you receive assistance on the water, you could be on the hook for a huge bill–even if you have a membership. Unless you have a pre-arranged contract with a salver that protects you, that individual or company has the right to make what’s called a “salvage claim” against the value of your vessel if it’s in “impending peril.”

According to numerous maritime attorneys, the salvage fee amount depends upon factors including but not limited to the value of your vessel, the direness of the situation and the risk the salver took. Dishonest salvers know there’s legal gray area and that most salvage claims are settled in or out of admiralty courts.

You can prevent an unexpected bill when you need assistance by negotiating a fixed fee or a set hourly rate. That way everyone is clear on what assistance will be provided and what it will cost.

Mechanical and hull-integrity issues happen on the water; that’s the nature of boats. When they do, it’s good to know there are services available to help. To keep these challenging moments from turning into real financial problems, know what’s in store before calling on the help of a maritime salvage and towing company.

To learn more about this issue or to share you own story about a salvage experience, visit

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