When a towboat arrives to assist with an on-the-water water mishap, it’s important that boaters know whether the service is a tow or a salvage job.
Why? There could be big difference in the cost of each service, and the type of service also determines who foots the bill. If you’re in doubt, ask the towboat crew, says the Boat Owners Association of the United States (BoatUS).
While the line between what constitutes towing and salvage is often a fine one, there are a few clear indicators that point to each.
“Salvage requires the existence of peril to the distressed vessel or persons aboard, or peril to the rescue boat and its crew, or the marine environment,” said Vice President of BoatUS Towing Services Adam Wheeler.
Historically and legally, salvage is any voluntary and successful rescue of a boat, its cargo and/or its passengers from peril at sea. Today, that definition includes the successful avoidance of damage to a legally protected marine environment.
Vessels hard aground, on rocks, taking on water or sunk are salvage, as are collisions, fires, breakaways or other types of immediate danger. Salvage also comes into play when specialized equipment such as pumps, air bags, or divers are called for — even if the boat is at the dock.
Boat owners should be informed before a salvage operation starts. If the owner is not onboard or the conditions are so perilous and the rescue of the boat requires immediate action, the owner is to be notified as soon as possible after saving the boat.
If there is little or no peril involved and no damage to the vessel, it’s a towing situation, Wheeler said.
“A typical example is when you run out of gas or have a dead battery, and have subsequently dropped anchor to await assistance,” he said. “Waters are calm, you’re no threat to navigation, your crew and boat are fine and there’s no peril to those on the response boat.”
Of the 65,000 requests for assistance made last year by boaters to BoatUS’s 24-hour Dispatch Centers, 98 percent were for routine towing services.
Nationwide, towing and soft ungrounding costs average about $600 and $800, respectively, according to BoatUS. Those are either paid by an annual towing service plan or out-of-pocket by the boater.
Salvage cases are usually covered by insurance and are much more expensive than a tow. Salvage is considered compensation for rescuers prepared to risk their vessels and personal safety for others, and often results in a charge based on the length of the vessel saved or a request for a percentage of the boat’s post-incident value.
The charge typically factors in the degree of peril, as well as the risk to the salvor and his or her crew.
“There are significant expenses in operating and maintaining a professional towing operation, such as captain’s and staff salaries, insurance, equipment maintenance and increasing fuel costs, not to mention capital expenses such as towboats and other specialized recovery equipment — and it all has to be ready to go at a moment’s notice,” Wheeler said.
Time and circumstances permitting, Wheeler suggests that in the case of a salvage job, boaters should try to call their insurance company so they can negotiate with the salvor before the operation gets underway. If that’s not possible, he recommends asking the salvor to confirm the price and put it in writing.
Boaters should review their vessel’s insurance policy to ensure it fully covers salvage, Wheeler said. Some policies have limits or high deductibles, or may not include environmental damage, which would then have to be paid out of pocket.
BoatUS also suggests having a copy of the BoatUS Open Form Yacht Salvage Contract aboard at all times, which assures that any salvage claim will go to local binding arbitration if negotiations between your insurance company and salvor fails. The contract is available at no cost here or by calling 800.937.1937.