This Web Extra accompanies an article by maritime attorney Greg Dahl that appears in the November-December 2013 issue of PassageMaker. In it, Dahl details the legal ramifications of towing and being towed and explains salvage law.
M/V St. Yves, a 1983 61-foot Hatteras motoryacht, was purchased in Florida in August 1999. The new owner and two of his friends decided to cruise St. Yves from Florida to her new home in Boston. Late on the third night of the voyage, they attempted to enter the port of Savannah, Georgia.
With the new owner at the helm, St. Yves struck the inshore side of the rock jetty that guards the northern flank of the Savannah River channel. The hull sustained severe damage, including numerous large holes and fractures at the bow. At 2:43 a.m., the Coast Guard, responding to a Mayday radio call from the vessel, arrived to find the owner and crew in life jackets, with their luggage packed, waiting for rescue. The owner and his two crewmen (without their luggage) were transferred to the Coast Guard patrol boat. The Coast Guard directed the owner to arrange for a commercial salvage service to remove St. Yves from her position on the Savannah River jetty.
The owner hired Sea Tow of Savannah by radio. The salvage vessel, M/V Wideload, arrived on the scene about 3:00 a.m. By then, St. Yves was without power, grinding on the rocks and taking on water. Shortly after the salvage vessel arrived, St. Yves slid back off the breakwater. The crew of Wideload was able to get a line on the yacht, but as St. Yves filled with water, she rolled over to a keel-up position and continued to sink.
The salvors managed to pull St. Yves out of the ship channel to a position of relative safety, attach an anchor and line, and set a strobe light above the partially submerged wreck. At the owner’s request, the salvors monitored the wreck around the clock until it was finally removed from the waterway.
The owner refused to pay the salvage charges. The owner and his insurance company sued the salvage company, claiming the salvor’s negligence contributed to the total loss of the vessel.
After hearing the testimony of several salvage experts, the admiralty court threw out the owner’s claims, found that the cause of the loss of St. Yves was an owner and crew that were “totally negligent in causing the sinking,” and awarded the salvors their full contract damages, plus attorney fees and court costs.
Under a traditional “no cure, no pay” salvage agreement, the salvors of St. Yves would likely have received no salvage award—the vessel was not saved; she sank and was a total loss. In this case, however, the court found that when the owner had called Sea Tow on the radio, he had agreed to a modified salvage contract and was bound to pay for the services provided, even if the salvage attempt proved unsuccessful.