Salvage or not?

The tug captain calls in the early hours. A ship was in collision with the barge. The towing bridle was severed and the barge with its precious cargo is drifting towards oilfield platforms. The emergency connection was also damaged and is inoperable. The crew will have to board the barge, but the weather remains dreadful. Volunteers from the crew, some old salvage hands, launched the zodiac and will be attempting to do so on the barge’s lee. Another vessel is standing by to assist.

He calls back two hours later. They have succeeded in hooking up. Two broken tank ventpipes on deck are bunged. Certain seafastenings have parted. At daylight the crew will re-secure. The flotilla is hove to and all is looking up. The weather should clear thankfully.

You breathe a sign of relief and call the boss to relay the news. Now you know why he’s so well paid. “Well, don’t we have a salvage claim?” he barks, before returning to his comfortable bed. He has a point, as usual. If your crew hadn’t intervened it could have got very nasty indeed. This has gone beyond the call of duty. They saved the day. You sense that in all fairness there should be a salvage claim. But is there?

You fire up the home computer, flick down through the TOWCON 2008 and resist the temptation to call your son who’s despatched himself off to law school in the hope of not having to do a real job. Anyhow, he’s probably still in a nightclub. There it is: clause 15 – “Salvage”. Just three simple lines. It tells you that where the tow breaks away “the tug must render all reasonable services to re-connect without making a claim for salvage”. Hmmm, not so clear perhaps. Typical, you think to yourself, yet another conspiracy for those lawyers to have an argument. But is it really so complicated?

At what point then would such assistance merit a salvage award? Interestingly, those standard words in TOWCON can be traced back to two judgments of the English court in 1861, an important year for tug law. Remarkably though, we do not have many other decisions on the point, because in my experience most of the cases settle or, if not, go to private arbitration. What a tribunal will ask itself is likely to include whether the circumstances were unforeseen; were the services new in the sense that they fell outside what a sensible person in the shoes of the owners of the tug and tow contemplated when entering the contract; were the circumstances such and the services such that they went beyond what was reasonable?  I think I know what most of this magazine’s readers will think, and I would agree. That probably means a very large set of new four wheels from Stuttgart for our sleeping tug owner, and maybe a very welcome something for the crew – fair enough, they are the ones that risked their necks!

What if this had been on SUPPLYTIME? Well that’s another story.

Simon Tatham

Simon Tatham is a lead consultant with and has 30 years legal experience in the shipping business behind him.

Reproduced with kind permission of International Tug & OSV magazine