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Salvage vs. Towing

Historically and legally, salvage is any voluntary and successful rescue of a boat, its cargo and/or its passengers from a peril at sea. BoatU.S. narrows this definition. When contracting for towing services on behalf of its over half a million members, it requires that marine assistance companies distinguish between simple towing and/or soft ungroundings and the more serious and expensive salvage efforts where distress or danger exist. Understanding the difference between towing and salvage can save boaters money and aggravation.

The distinction between towing and salvage is reflected in the different types of programs available to boaters. Towing assistance, like the pre-paid service available to BoatU.S. members from the TowBoatU.S. fleet, provides help for breakdowns and soft ungroundings. The far more expensive salvage claims are covered only by marine insurance policies.

All boaters should review their marine insurance coverage with their agent. The best protection against a salvage bill is adequate insurance. Boaters should make sure the policy provides for salvage up to the full value of the boat, not a percentage of its value, and that there is no deductible for salvage costs. The BoatU.S. marine insurance program offers this level of service.

Since the same marine assistance company often provides both towing and salvage services, it is essential that the boat owner reach an understanding with the marine assistance provider before action is taken, cautions Jerry Cardarelli, BoatU.S. Vice President of Towing Services. BoatU.S. Towing Service Providers are required to inform the captain of a boat before beginning any work if the procedure is salvage, not towing. If this isn't possible due to wind and sea conditions, the towing company should tell the captain as soon as possible.

However, boaters should not assume they will always be told. Boaters should always ask whether the job is towing or salvage before they accept a tow. If the answer is "salvage," the boater should ask if the company - or "salvor" - will give a fixed price or one based on time and materials before beginning the job. If so, get the price in writing or, if an oral agreement, try to have someone witness it, Cardarelli suggests.

If the salvor wants to do the job first and says he does not know what the cost will be but will make a salvage claim afterwards, the final charge will be decided one of three ways: negotiation with the boater's insurance company; binding arbitration (a variety of forums exist, including the BoatU.S. Salvage Arbitration Program, a low-cost option available to all boat owners, marine assistance and insurance companies); or - rarely - through litigation in federal admiralty courts. If the salvor does not give a price before doing the job, the boater should ask the salvor if he uses or will agree to use the BoatU.S. Open Form Yacht Salvage Contract, which assures any claim can go to binding arbitration if negotiation fails.

To further protect the interests of the boating public, BoatU.S requires, when contracting for towing services on behalf of its over half a million members, that marine assistance companies distinguish between simple towing/soft groundings and the much more serious and expensive salvage efforts where distress or danger exist.

To be an approved BoatU.S. Towing Operator, marine assistance companies must agree that Towing/Ungrounding is any operation not involving immediate danger to the boat or to a legally protected marine environment. It requires just one towing vessel with lines attached to a grounded boat to re-float it or to the disabled boat to tow it. If a grounded boat can rest without peril until the tide returns to float her free, or a boat is drifting in calm conditions after losing power, it almost always calls for towing, not salvage.

Salvage, on the other hand, involves imminent peril to a grounded, sinking or stranded boat or to a protected marine environment, or the use of more than one towing vessel and/or special salvage equipment such as air bags or high capacity pumps.

The United States Coast Guard no longer tows recreational boats unless it's a life-threatening situation, however, they will help boaters contact commercial assistance and stand by on the radio to make sure they get that help. You can ask the Coast Guard to call the BoatU.S. 24 hour dispatch service for you.