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Adrift and Powerless

Lead Line — June 2003
By Richard Thiel

Adrift and Powerless
Many boaters are ignorant of the nuances of salvaging and towing.
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The moment Ben Ellison turned in his article "Bad Day at Hillsboro" (January 2003), I knew we had a hell of a story. Sure enough, days after it appeared in our January issue, letters and e-mails started pouring in. In fact, there have been so many comments, compliments, and complaints, we've devoted an entire expanded "Mail Drop" to them this month.

Read these letters, and you'll see this is an emotional issue. On one side are boaters who, finding themselves in dire straits, expect help from a towing company for a few hundred dollars. Instead, they're told their boat is being "salvaged"--an alien term for many--and the charge will be in the thousands. Little wonder they feel they are being ripped off.

On the other side are towing operators who say they're following established protocols and seeking just compensation. Many complain that boaters are often ignorant of the basic rules of marine salvage, specifically what determines whether a job is considered a tow or a salvage.

Who's right? There's plenty of blame to go around. Many boaters are ignorant of the nuances of salvaging and towing, perhaps assuming that the same principals that govern automotive towing apply to the marine version. Those who've read Ellison's story and subsequent pieces in PMY now know that marine towing is governed by complex maritime salvage laws, with the defining concept being "peril." If a boat is in peril, she is subject to salvage. (A boat can also be salvaged if she places the environment--say a reef--in peril.) The distinction is clearly open to interpretation, and--here's the rub--the towing operator/salvor is the one who ultimately makes it. That leaves you, the boater, essentially powerless.

Say a towing operator shows up after your boat has grounded. Your running gear is damaged, and you're taking on water, although your pumps are keeping up. You know you're in no danger of sinking, but the salvor says your boat's in peril. What happens now? Three options present themselves. One, the salvor wishes you good luck and leaves. Two, you agree to his judgment, and (hopefully) your insurance company pays the bill. Three, you negotiate for the best price you can--assuming there is time for negotiation. Unfortunately, it seems the issue often never arises until the boat has been towed back to the dock. By then you have no leverage and it's too late to do anything but plead.

How can you protect yourself? The March issue of BoatU.S. Magazine, published by BoatU.S. (which runs its own towing service), offered some suggestions. One is calling your insurance company so it can negotiate with the salvor, which might be impractical if time is a factor. (Imagine trying to navigate a telephone menu to reach an actual human being as the water rises.) Another is asking for a fixed price before a salvor begins work--the operative word being "asking." Face it, the guy has you over a barrel. Finally, BoatU.S. suggests you "try to get any agreement in writing." Again, time and your perilous situation could work against this.

So what do you do? Start by educating yourself about this issue so you aren't shell-shocked when it happens to you. If it does, hope that you get a reputable towing operator (according to our mail, there are plenty), and keep in mind that while property and money are important, safety trumps all. When in doubt, take the tow and worry about the cost later.

This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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