That sinking feeling

Imagine! It's late, you're just getting ready for bed when the phone rings. You neighbor says, "your boat is sinking!" You better do something. But what? When you get to the dock you find your boat is full of water, but it's tied to the dock and sitting on the bottom, it's not going anywhere. It's a real fine mess, but not in any danger. So you call around to borrow a pump when a friend recommends you try Boat US. Good idea, you have a contract with them. They come out, pump out the boat close a few sea cocks and hand you a bill ... for $6000.

You see, your contract is only for towing ... period. Only towing! Nothing else! Just towing! Anything else they do comes under the general heading of SALVAGE and the operator is free to make any deal they can. In fact anyone that might help can place a lien on your boat for an astronomical amount of money. Then you have to defend yourself. That's the law!

The players, insurance companies and salvage captains, will tell you that this law is supposed to encourage people to help a distressed vessel. That is the worst excuse for legalized piracy imaginable. Every boater knows that they must render assistance to any boat in distress. It's the unwritten law of the sea. Every boater should be willing to do so without a thought of financial gain. Every boater should know that the next time it might be their turn to be in trouble. There isn't any need for this kind of highway robbery on the water. At least not within US territorial waters and certainly not among pleasure boaters.

I should point out that at least in Boat US's case the fox is in charge of the hen house. Here's how that works. Boat US sells you a towing service contract. But it doesn't cover anything except towing. So Boat US sells you insurance to cover salvage situations. So far so good, right? Well finding yourself in a salvage scenario you get a "bill" from the salvage captain (who is under contract and being paid by Boat US) that you in turn submit to Boat US (insurance) to pay the captain even more. The captain gets paid twice, Boat US gets their cut ... twice. And you learn a valuable lesson, "There's a sucker born every minute and you're it!" Don't like that? You can go through arbitration (big smile here). The Boat US salvage contract the captain slipped under your nose but didn't explain binds you to arbitration by .... Boat US.

I'm reminded of the good ole days when coastal residents would lure passing ships onto the rocks with false lights and steal their cargo. what is the difference between the salvage operators' tactics and Somali pirates? Well OK guns, but other than that they're the same, aren't they?

Well, I think we all agree that this is unfair and needs to change. But how? You can't just throw out the law. There are situations where salvage should apply. A few years ago a dock buddy found a new Island Packet abandoned at sea. Now that was salvage. If they hadn't acted the boat would have been totally lost. No wait, the boat was totally lost. The owner had abandoned it. I'm thinking finders keepers, but salvage law also prevents you from just claiming lost property. In that case the owner paid a hefty price, but got to keep his boat. However, that's a long long way from a grounded boat or a leaky sea cock.

I heard of another case this winter. A boat was in danger of hitting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in high seas and wind. The Coast Guard dispatched a commercial towing company to assist. Personally I'm very disappointed that the Coast Guard didn't come out themselves. I guess they just don't care about us any more. A long long time ago, before congress made one of their worst decisions ever, the Coast Guard would come to your rescue. It was their mandate. It was why we paid taxes to support them. Then congress decided the Coast Guard was strictly law enforcement and we boaters were out of luck. Thanks guys, we really appreciate your thoughtlessness. Not only did we lose Coast Guard services, but that change created a vacuum to be filled by towing services like Sea Tow and Towboat. Filled at a price!

How do we fix this? I doubt that congress will put the Coast Guard back in the game. That would take business away from the insurance companies and towing operators. They would throw lots and lots of money at congress to keep the status quo. Congress would take the money and look the other way .... wouldn't they? And I doubt that Congress will regulate the towing companies to stop this piracy. Think more special interest, more money, Congress still blinded.

What should you do? Write Towboat, Sea Tow, and your local towing operators! Tell them you want a service contract that covers ANY and ALL situations. Tell them you want a price guarantee no matter what the service. Tell them you want a "time and materials" clause in your contract. A clause that sets the maximum rate they will charge for services not covered (prepaid) in your contract. Tell them you won't be their patsy anymore. Write your Congressman too. Tell them to put a stop to this insanity. Tell them to impose a "windfall tax" on anyone claiming salvage on inland and coastal waters. They did it to the oil companies, they can do it to the salvage operators. If $6000 for an hour at the dock isn't windfall I don't understand the meaning of the word. Tell the towing services that you want a fair deal and don't buy a towing contract unless they give you one. Now that you know that your towing contract doesn't really protect you from anything you probably don't want one anyway. You can usually get a tow from a fellow boater. Anything other than towing isn't covered by your contract so what use is it if you are in real trouble.

The thing that bothers me the most about all of this is that salvage operators are taking advantage of boat owners at their most vulnerable moment. When the owner's property or health are in danger these pirates offer service at over inflated prices. Owners are supposed to compose themselves, call their lawyers and negotiate complicated contracts without regard to the urgency of the situation.

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