Making Sense Of Towing Vs. Salvage
A towing service provides towing and light ungroundings, boat insurance policies
cover salvage. How can a boat owner tell which is which?
few months ago, a grounded
sailboat was narrowly saved one
stormy night from being battered
to pieces against a stone jetty at
Oceanside Harbor on the California coast.
After informing the owner that his boat
would be salvaged, Captain Robert Butler
of BoatU.S. Vessel Assist Shelter Island
worked quickly and skillfully to get the
boat back to open water before low tide.
It was a textbook example of what it takes
to complete a successful salvage on open
water. The $19,000 salvage fee — 20
percent of the boat’s post-casualty value
— may seem high considering the rescue
was done in a few hours, but for centuries,
courts have allowed “excessive compensation” when a salvor voluntarily rescues a
vessel and/or crew from peril. This is done
in order to encourage mariners to invest
in equipment and take risks that will save
lives and property. More recently, courts
have added peril to the environment as a
determinant in awarding salvage claims.
Towing or salvage? Make sure you know the difference.
When Butler informed the skipper
that his boat was being salvaged, it was
more than just a casual comment on how
hard it was aground; it had to do with
the cost of the work that was about to be
done and who would eventually be paying.
Towing services provide assistance for routine breakdowns — boats that are out of
fuel, have dead batteries, bent props, and
so on. A salvage claim — the successful
rescue of a boat from imminent peril — is
not provided by a towing service. In those
instances, the cost of salvage is covered
by the skipper’s insurance policy. Note
that there is always some degree of peril,
however slight, when a boat is disabled
on open water. But the definition of “a
high degree of peril” can sometimes be
fuzzy, for example, when wind and seas are
moderately large. This gray area still exists
throughout the industry. The question for
a boat owner is, how do you tell the difference?
Disagreements Over “Peril”
A sailboat gliding quietly through the
water is stopped suddenly on an unseen
pile of rocks. Within seconds, the boat
is firmly aground. High tide — the last
good chance for the sailboat to be lifted
off the rocks — is only a half-hour away.
A VHF call is put out to the Coast Guard,
but before a boat can be sent, a private
towboat is standing by offering assistance.
The skipper is told that his boat will need
to be salvaged, and the beleaguered boat
Using the spinnaker halyard, the towboat’s captain deftly heels the sailboat and
in a few minutes, the sailboat is re-floated.
To the salvor, the sailboat had been in peril
on the rocks and in danger of breaking up,
in what he claimed were two- to four-foot
The tide was almost high, and would
soon begin falling, so the towboat captain
further reasoned that his quick response
prevented an already bad situation from
becoming worse. Damage is limited to
a few scrapes and a slight gouge on the
keel. The salvor presents a bill to the boat
owner’s insurance company for $16,000.