Flotsam, Jetsam & Lagan: stuff for the Receiver of Wreck

John M. MacFarlane & Lynn Wright Salmon 2002

The term "wreck" collectively encompasses anything without an apparent owner found afloat on, sunk in, or cast ashore by the sea. It is one of those collective nouns which are useful in precisely labelling quantities of specific objects. Correctly used it has a peculiar ring when applied in grammar - as simply "wreck."

Historically in European countries, the right to wreck belonged to the sovereign of the land and represented a source of income for the crown. In those early days, if no living thing escaped from a wreck the owner was deprived of the interest in the remains of the wreck. Later on, representatives were appointed to control wreck and in England's coastal counties this was done by people appointed as vice-admirals of the coast. These vice-admirals were allowed to keep half the wreck as long as they turned the other half over to the crown.

In 1846 the British law was changed preventing the vice-admirals from participating in ownership of wreck which was then to be turned over to receivers in the admiralty. They kept the wreck for twelve months awaiting claims of ownership after which time, if unclaimed, would sell the wreck and credit the income to the consolidated revenue fund of the government.

The distinction between flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict is worth noting if you are a maritime lawyer or trivia buff. Flotsam are those parts of the wreckage of a ship or its cargo found floating on the sea as a result of shipwreck. Jetsam are goods thrown overboard from a vessel and are then left to drift. Lagan are goods and wreckage lying on the bed of the sea which are thrown overboard to lighten ship with the intent to recover them at a later time. Technically these goods should be marked with a buoy or other marker. Derelict refers to a vessel abandoned at sea by its guardian or owner.

Many people think that anything washed up on the beach is there for the taking - we have all picked up something or other of interest while beachcombing but who really owns those things? Is it really finders keepers, losers weepers? The simple answer is no, but it also depends on many other circumstances. All wreck initially comes under the jurisdiction of the Receiver of Wreck, who takes responsibility for its care and disposal. In some instances wreck will be removed to a storage area by the Receiver while an attempt is made to locate the rightful owner. If, after one year, the owner does not come forward larger wreck is auctioned off to the highest bidder. The income is divided between the salvor (or finder) and the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federal Government. In practice this does not usually generate much income for the government coffers but has been the standard practice for at least a century.

Most wreck tend to be of low commercial value consisting mostly of lost boats, canoes and kayaks. For an unknown reason British Columbia leads all other Canadian Wreck Districts in these lost and found incidents. The wreck most frequently salvaged is derelict craft followed by old commercial ships, pleasure boats, valuable wreck cargo and, interestingly - aircraft. The Receiver spends time each week attempting to resolve these cases and to reunite owners with missing craft, usually liaising with local police. In a given week this may represent several dozen craft lost and found on the coast. Although the Wreck District crosses the prairies, not surprisingly, few cases of wreck are reported in Alberta or Saskatchewan.

Dreaming of finding valuable wreck? The correct procedure after finding a vessel or boat without an apparent owner is to notify the Receiver of Wreck. In many cases the finder may be invited to take temporary custody of the boat for the Receiver of Wreck on their own premises. After a year has passed without a valid claim, the boat is often turned over to the finder in lieu of salvage or storage fees. Large vessels are usually stored on Government property and sold at public auction with a salvage fee paid to the finder from the proceeds of the sale. The temptation to conceal wreck from legal authorities which has been found by a salvor must be tempered with the knowledge that to do so is to commit acts punishable by fines and in some cases significant jail terms. This can bring the ire of the police, the Coast Guard and Customs. When material removed from a site is not delivered to the Receiver the finder is actually plundering wreck rather than beachcombing or salving. This wreck material in turn may be seized by the Receiver using the powers available for this purpose.

To lawfully remove wreck the salvor must first obtain the right of salvage from the lawful owner of the wreck. This may be the insurance company if a claim has been paid to the original owners. Insurance companies sometimes retain interests in wreck for many years but now that anti-pollution laws are taking note of toxic substances escaping from wreck there is also an incentive for owners to quit their claims. When recovering a derelict vessel the salvor needs to be sure that it really is derelict and that the rightful owner is not temporarily absent. Larger vessels which have to be licenced or registered may be ineligible for re-registration if the salvor has not ascertained that they are indeed the owners of the vessel or that there is not a lien or prior claim. It is useful to first receive affirmation of the intent to abandon the wreck by a former owner. The Receiver will sometimes sell wreck on condition of "bare power of sail" in case there is an unknown lien on the vessel.


To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. & Lynn Wright Salmon. (2002) Flotsam, Jetsam & Lagan: stuff for the Receiver of Wreck. Nauticapedia.ca 2002. http://www.nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Articles_Receiver.php

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