Boat salvage rights

Written by tom lutzenberger
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Boat salvage rights
A beached boat wreck (Image by, courtesy of Nelson Diogo)

Salvage at sea or the recovery of boat wrecks and related items is an age-old practice. Moreover, it can be a very lucrative activity. For example, the discovery of the Titanic has produced millions of dollars in revenue, just from the few artefacts already brought up to the surface, with a potential for millions more still under water. Since treasure finds and equipment can still be very valuable, rules have been established on an international level to govern the practice.


"Salvors" was the name given to maritimers who made a living looking for sunken or damaged vessels. The key factor is that these entrepreneurs of the water didn't own the boat they recovered and were never part of the original crew that left it when sinking or damaged.

Salvaging operations themselves can involve a variety of activities, including cranes to lift items off the seabed, flotation devices, diving operations, and use of pulling by boat to drag the sunken target closer to shallow water. Salvaging does not always involve recovery. Sometimes, it can simply involve the removal of sunken boats to clear boating channels.

Different Categories of Salvage Allowed

Offshore salvage is the pursuit of boats that have sunk or are partially sunk in exposed waters. Since it involves going after wrecks basically pinned or sunk in wave activity area, the pursuit has some of the highest risks involved.

Harbor salvage goes after wrecks or sunken items in areas that are within a harbour, breakwater, or generally sheltered area. Being close to land and resources, these projects tend to be significantly easier to perform.

Cargo and equipment recoveries usually involve emptying a stranded vessel or a sunken one of its cargo that is still usable. Often times the cargo still has value if not broken and kept in its containers.

Wreck removal is the most obvious of salvaging operations and involves not only going into the wreck but relocating it from the area where it sits. Many times this kind of salvage is generally a junk removal job with little value in the recovered material itself.

Afloat salvage or partially sunk vessels can be extremely hazardous because they are essentially still moving along in the water. It's hard to get close to such a vessel in rough waters, and the internal chambers of the boat may already be somewhat flooded.

Legal Aspects

Salvaging has generally been an activity of rewarding those who take on the risks to get the wreck and its contents. There is no payment up front many times; however, the recovery of contents can more than pay for themselves on the right projects. Generally, if the owner is on the vessel, a salvor has to ask permission to help or board. If no one is on board and the boat is abandoned, it is free game to go after.

Codified Salvage Laws

The first salvaging codification was provided in the 1910 Brussels Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules with Respect to Assistance and Salvage at Sea. It was revised by the 1989 International Convention on Salvage, which was honoured and treated as law by 20 countries by July 1996. The U.S. honours this legal collection and gives it the same legal power as domestic federal law.

Ownership Results are not Always Clear

Many parties wait until someone has actually salvaged a loss and then complicate matters with a lawsuit to seek the items recovered. Although salvage law generally rewards the salvor, anybody with funds can hire a lawyer to complicate matters in court. A recent example is the current court hearing on future recoveries from the Titanic. The current owner by salvage, RMS Titanic Inc., is being legally challenged for ownership, by both the judge hearing the case and a previously unknown party now filing a new competing claim to the wreck.

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