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All day long yesterday, every hour or so, we heard a Pan Pan message being broadcast over the VHF by the nearby Martinique MRCC (Marine Rescue Coordination Center). The message centered on a 12m vessel which was reported adrift some 20 miles offshore of Marie-Galante, a large island NNE of here.

I found the message curious because unless it was spotted by an aircraft, in order for someone to give an accurate GPS fix on the vessel, they would have had to have been fairly close to it, especially to make a judgement of whether it was manned or not. If it was unmanned, I suppose it could have broken free of a mooring or dragged anchor. A much worse possibility could be that someone single handing the boat fell overboard. Of course, there is always the very real possibility that there was still someone on board and that he/she is ill or injured and perhaps just not visible. The truth of this could only be determined if someone boarded the vessel and my thought was that if you were going to board it and found it unmanned, why not put it under tow, especially if the conditions were not crazy? I am writing this with absolutely zero experience of towing a large yacht but it would seem to be worth the risk, at least on paper (or computer screen, as the case may be). If not put it under tow then at least leave someone on board to take command of the vessel. Surely one should be able to claim some kind of salvage rights? It would also eliminate a serious danger to navigation. Your thoughts?

We had planned on raising anchor today and moving 20 miles or so down the coast to Roseau to do some hiking and stage for our passage to Martinique. Yesterday, however, we were coerced by some friends at a cruisers’ get-together to postpone our departure for another day so that we can attend the Sunday evening barbecue party put on by the boat boys here. I guess we’re easily influenced as we’ve decided to stay another day. The Boiling Lake will still be there when we arrive, that much I’m sure of.



  1. Hi Mike,

    Great blog!

    How long does a boat have to be adrift before it is “salvageable”?


    • No idea. I really haven’t researched it. I think “salvage” is a complicated legal matter but again, I’m just speculating.

  2. Here is one adrift -sad story.

    Captain fell overboard and wife couldn’t help him.

  3. I can’t really comment on the legal side of salvage operations, other than to say yes, it is indeed very complicated.

    On the practical side: I’ve towed vessels up to about 4-5x the size of my own and floating debris (logs, etc) bigger than that, and as long as the tow boat is appropriately rigged and you do a good job of setting the lines, it works just fine in calm weather. (This is on my list of things to write about soon.)

    ZTC would be a much better tow boat than any of our little monohulls, as you should be able to attach the towing line forward of the rudders, so steering would work more-or-less normally. With a bridle behind an O/B, helm control has some quirks (it starts out reversed, for one) if the tow is bigger than the tug.

    Towing exercises (in safe waters) using the dinghy and the mothership are actually not a bad idea, IMHO.

    • Another thing to practice. 🙂

    • I’ve towed a few people on the Chesapeake. If lighter than you, generally nothing to it. If heavier than you it can get pretty strange and even dangerous, depending on the conditions. Additionally, much depends on the other boat not doing anything stupid. I once found myself towed backwards on to a bar in January because the person I was towing cast of the tow rope right into his prop. I had to go for a swim (32F water, 35 knots winds, and no wet suit). It sucked a lot, though no damage was done, other than a spun prop. I was single-handed, which had forced me to rely on the other boat to do a few things; bad idea.

      After that last expereince, I can easily understand leaving a boat to its own devises if it is not drifting down on anything and if people are not in danger, so that some one properly equipped for towing with big motors can take on the task. I would need a reason other than friendliness to bear the risk. What if the boat is eventually lost and the owners alleged that I towed it into an area of greater danger, somehow?

      I would need to consider the factors in each case.

  4. I towed a big wooden fishing skiff with motor and Rasta included to weather with my 30′ engine-less mono hull once (I was radio-less too). Slow going, but I still ended up the hero! Saved his Rasta ass, for sure.

  5. There are other reasons for the boat to be unmanned. For example, I read last week of a UK Skipper who fell overboard in the North Pacific Ocean (heading East). His girlfriend had been on board for about 10 days but felt incompetent to continue on her own. The weather conditions were normal, with moderate seas. No sign of the skipper. The woman called a mayday and the US Coast Guard “extracted her”. She had to jump off the boat and be airlifted in a helicopter cage. The boat continued sailing on its own……..East……

    If you come across such a boat in International waters, I think you have the right to claim it under salvage. In national waters, this is a different story. I don’t think you’d want to tow any boat any significant distance with ZTC, unless the conditions were very good and you could sail. If the conditions were that good, I’d suggest you split up your crew and put somebody on the claimed boat rather than tow it.

  6. Merely “adrift”, even if it appears abandoned, does not necessarily constitute “peril” necessary to establish salvage. Adrift and heading for a lee shore, though, would be a different story.

    If a salvor found the vessel to be “derelict” he or she could presumably take it under tow to protect the vessel and make a salvage claim. However, in such a case, the salvor might be risking quite a bit on a very, very shaky possibility of future payment.

    Most marine salvors will not take a vessel under tow simply because it might be a hazard to navigation, as there would be no promise of payment for such assistance.

    If I came upon such a vessel adrift, and there was no owner aboard (or reachable) to agree to towing or other assistance, I think I would merely make a report of it to the proper maritime authorities, and, after ascertaining no lives were in peril, move along. FWIW.

    This site has a good summary of some of the marine salvage rights and obligations:


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