Salvage Laws

How they can affect you

Salvage is a voluntary service, which, when a boat is in danger at sea, saves the boat and contributes to the safety of those within the boat and its cargo. But under the laws governing salvage, being rescued can be costly if you don’t know what you’re bargaining for.

Salvage services include towing, pilotage, navigating, or standing by a boat. Taking off any equipment or taking a passenger ashore could also be salvage. Floating a stranded boat (or raising one which is sunken) or saving a derelict or wreck are readily recognised as salvage.

Salvage is very often carried out under a Salvage Contract, but this is not a prerequisite. So what are Salvage Laws and how would they affect you in an emergency situation? 

Would you feel completely confident what to do if you ran out of fuel coming into harbour or if you found yourself struggling at sea in a storm? What about if you ran aground on a falling tide or suffered some other form of nautical mishap? Seek immediate assistance would obviously be the first answer!

But where would that help come from, and how would you ensure you minimised the cost of any rescue you may experience? 

Under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and other such regulations, there is a statutory duty to assist any boat in distress and to save life. When a boat gets into trouble at sea it will be a stressful situation for all concerned and the priority will always be to look after the people on board.

Once you and your crew are safe, though, the last thing you want to discover at a later date is a salvage claim is being made against you or your boat. You will be in a better position to avoid such a sting in the tail if you have an understanding the principles of salvage.

So what is salvage?

Salvage Laws have evolved from the philosophy that the protection of maritime property at sea is considered of sufficient importance that it should be encouraged by the courts through the offer of rewards to those who go to the assistance of others.

Under Salvage Law a person who recovers another person’s boat or cargo from danger at sea is entitled to a reward based on the value of the property saved.

This is considered fair to the boat owner and salvor, based on the principle that a reasonable owner (or their insurer) who has avoided the total loss of their boat or other property through the intervention of a third party should be prepared to pay for the assistance offered, and also the person providing assistance shouldn’t be left out of pocket for doing so.

The underlying principles governing a salvage claim are:

  • The service must be used by legally recognisable subjects of salvage, that is to say, any boat or property in danger in navigable waters
  • The service must be voluntary and not under a pre-arranged contract
  • The subject of salvage must be in danger
  • The service must either be successful or prevent or minimise damage to the environment
  • The service must be performed in tidal waters (including harbours)

Given that the reward is normally payable out of the value of the property saved, for a salvor to be entitled to a reward something of value must be saved! This is known as the ‘no cure, no pay’ principle.

In assessing the amount of an award for a salvage service, a Court will look at all these factors:

  • The value of each boat involved in the operation
  • Value of the property saved
  • Danger to boats and salvors
  • Expense, skill and time involved
  • The status of the salvor (whether professional or amateur)
  • Conduct and skill displayed by the salvage team

Boat skippers should therefore:

  • Take careful note of all circumstances
  • Show themselves as being in control of the situation
  • Keep weather reports, charts, or well-kept log available in case of dispute


So where does all this leave you in a required rescue situation?

RYA Legal Manager, Mandy Peters, says: “Recreational boaters are invariably keen to help one other out, especially when someone has run into difficulty, and it’s unusual for those offering assistance to claim salvage. If you are worried about a claim for salvage being made, however, it is usually cheaper to agree a payment for assistance in advance rather than to leave it to be determined after the event.

“So, if you are in a situation that doesn’t warrant calling the emergency services, you would probably be better off being up-front about fixing a price with the person offering assistance.

“If the danger is imminent, however, you should always call the emergency services. HM Coastguard and the RNLI do not normally make claims for salvage.”

There will be occasions where a boat is in imminent danger and salvage has to be accepted without an agreement on payment (i.e. the amount of any payment will be settled later), and therefore a skipper and salvor should be very clear on what is being agreed at the time.

If a boat is distress, the skipper will be unlikely in many cases to be able to arrange a written agreement. A verbal agreement, witnessed by other crew members or individuals aboard, of ‘salvage services’ upon the principle of ‘no cure, no pay’ should be offered.

Skippers should also consider trying to agree salvage subject to the terms of the Lloyd’s Open Form, which is a simple form of salvage agreement and gives jurisdiction to determine the reward to Lloyd’s of London arbitrators, rather than the courts.

RYA members are entitled to free legal advice on any salvage or towage issues, while also having access to further in-depth salvage and towage information, including a download of the Lloyd's Standard Form of Salvage Agreement, online.

Text © Royal Yachting Association