Part 20. The Law of Salvage With our heroes safely aboard Sparky, our heroine continued to take on water as the salvage crew worked to secure her for safe towing. Just finding and boarding Restive had been hair-raising enough to validate the salvage company’s “many misgivings” about making the trip at all.
You may be under the impression, as I was, that ships abandoned at sea belong to the person who finds them. But it’s not so simple. While salvage law dates back to the 6th-century reign of the emperor Justinian, no branch is “so little understood,” one scholar wrote, “as the question pertaining to ownership of distressed, abandoned, or wrecked property at sea.”
Common law recognizes four categories of goods lost at sea: wreck (boats and cargo washed ashore); flotsam (still afloat); jetsam (sunken goods thrown overboard to save the ship); and ligan (sunken goods tied to a buoy to facilitate recovery). Restive was now legally “flotsam;” and here U.S. law is clear: an owner must both abandon the property and relinquish ownership to cede rightful possession. The finder, however, is entitled to compensation “commensurate with the value of the property” – and the greater the value and more dangerous the mission, the more compensation the finder can demand.
“Sleep deprivation and sea sickness [took] a severe toll on the crew,” the salvage company subsequently reported to the insurer, “and as a result they could not sleep for fear, if they lost the rudder, they would sink before getting out of the vessel.”