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Towing vs. Salvage: What Boaters Should Know

Published on May 12th, 2014

On the water breakdowns, running aground or other mishaps can ruin a day of boating or fishing. But when a boat offering assistance arrives on the scene, how do you know if the service is a “tow” or a “salvage” job? If you’re ever in doubt, ask the boat’s captain. That’s because there could be a big difference in the cost of each service and who will pay the bill, says Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS).

While there is sometimes a fine line between the towing and salvage, there are a few clear indicators that point to each. With salvage, it is the existence of “peril.” Historically and legally, salvage is any voluntary and successful rescue of a boat and/or its cargo from a peril at sea. Today that definition also includes avoiding or reducing damage to a marine environment.

Providing voluntary and successful service to vessels hard aground, on rocks, taking on water or sunk is generally considered salvage, as are rescues necessitated by collisions, fires, breakaways or other types of immediate peril. Salvage may also come into play when specialized equipment such as pumps, air bags, or divers are called for – even if the boat is at the dock.

On the other hand, when there is very little or no peril or damage to a vessel – you have a towing situation, which is far more common. Technically, this service is still salvage but of a “low order,” meaning minimal peril. A typical example is when you run out of gas or have a dead battery, and have subsequently dropped anchor to await assistance. Waters are calm, you’re no threat to navigation, and your crew and boat are fine. Ninety-nine percent of the 70,000 requests to BoatUS 24-Hour Dispatch Centers for on the water assistance last year were for routine towing services.

Nationwide, towing and soft ungrounding costs average about $600 and $800, respectively. However, salvage services are much more expensive than a tow.

Salvage awards are the legal system’s way to award a rescuer who risks their boat and themselves to save a boat in peril. Salvage charges can be calculated based on the length of the vessel saved or a request for a percentage of the boat’s post-casualty value. While it’s a reward for successful and voluntary service, the dollar amount awarded factors in, among other things, the degree of peril as well as the risk to the salvor and their crew.

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