Following Seas - No Boat Is Safe

Can a maritime lien take yours?

I'm watching a cop lead Alan down the dock in handcuffs an hour after he made an emotional outburst that anyone would have let fly, considering the situation.

We've stopped on our way down to the Bahamas. Our boat is a late-1950s cruiser restored by the two of us for this trip and whatever comes next. We're in our late 20s, and it's the early 1970s. We're from the North, and this is the South-in a way you don't see anymore.

After tying up, we call home and find we have to go back for a week. Like most wooden boats, this one leaks and needs to be baby-sat. The port engine also needs a head gasket. So we tell the yard to watch the pumps and do the work.

When we come back, the carpet in the forward cabin is wet from saltwater and the engine has no compression. The yard insists it did its job and hands us the bill. Alan insists otherwise and makes his case-logically and loudly. We won't pay. An hour later he's in the slammer, and an hour after that we pay up and are underway on one engine. We're poorer but no wiser from our experience with what the judge told us was a maritime lien. As it turned out, either purposely or through ignorance, he was way off. Luckily for him, we were equally as clueless about this arcane branch of the law.

A maritime lien is a sneaky thing, one that can force the sale of your boat. The sneaky part is that it's an implied lien. As soon as a marina or mechanic completes something you ask them to do, the lien goes into effect. You don't get any notice. Lawyers don't like the phrase "secret lien," yet that's how it's often referred to. At this point it's a lien in name only, that is until the creditor files in a federal court sitting in its admiralty capacity. Then the fun begins.

With the more common mechanic's lien, you get a notice from a state court and the creditor comes after you. In a maritime lien the creditor ignores you and goes after the boat for payment. Once the lien is in court a U.S. marshal goes down to your boat and puts a notice on it saying it's now in federal custody and may not be moved. Small boats can be chained to the dock or even hauled.

You're then responsible for the marshal's fee, which can be as little as $600 and as much as many thousands of dollars. While things are being settled, you're also charged a custodian's fee (often by the same yard that has made the claim) to watch the boat. You'll get a bill for dockage and insurance. And there are administrative costs, too. The only good news is that the creditor must prove his claim in court and the considerable attorney fees (admiralty law is a high-paying specialty) are not recoverable-thereby discouraging frivolous liens. Besides all of the above legal niceties that were ignored, Judge Bubba missed another. A big one. At that time it would have been impossible for anyone-especially a small-time county judge-to slap a maritime lien on our boat. You see, it wasn't until 1982, nine years in the future, that the Supreme Court ruled admiralty jurisdiction applied to recreational boating.

Yes, having Alan hauled away was completely illegal. But that's how things worked at that time and place. This was more about making sure that the judge's buddy who owned the marina didn't get stiffed than it was about justice. If only I had been a lawyer. But then, I probably would have been thrown in the cell next to Alan's. It was classic sitcom material. Luckily those days are gone, or are they? We're all lawyers now, ready to take everyone to court for fun and profit.

So, to make sure I keep seeing you outside the inlet, choose your mechanics wisely, have a friend who's a good attorney, and pay your bills promptly.