Tow or Salvage?

Know your situation before you accept a tow.

Tow or Salvage

Clearly a salvage situation.

You just hit a bar and it’s not where they serve martinis. It’s the shallow one and, thankfully, made of sand. And the tide is going out, of course. You reach for the VHF. Who do you call? What do you say? Welcome to the tow vs. salvage nightmare.

If you belong to one of the organized towing services (Sea Tow, TowBoatU.S., etc.), you should be covered for most towing situations — be sure to read your operator’s rules and coverage outline. Otherwise, a Channel 16 call will get the U.S. Coast Guard, who won’t come to help unless it determines that you’re in dire circumstances. It will, however, assist in locating a local, nearby commercial towing/salvage service for you to contact to come out and give aid. Now, here is where it gets a bit tricky.

A tow is typically “one boat, one line” with no danger to the vessel, the crew or the environment, as when you’re stuck on a sandbar, simply out of gas or stranded with a conked out motor. Be sure to make it clear to the assisting vessel (even if it’s your own contracted service) that you are in a towing situation. Also, understand that most companies begin charging when their vessel leaves their facility and doesn’t stop until it gets back.


Salvage, on the other hand, is a more serious situation. You may be taking on water, stuck high and dry on a reef or rocks, posing a danger to the environment or leaking fuel, or you may have been in an accident that threatens the integrity of the boat. The assisting service (the “salvor”) may employ multiple vessels to assist, including ones with specialized equipment like high-capacity pumps or spill-retaining booms. As a result, it can make a claim against the value of your boat based on an “open-form salvage agreement” that you may or may not have signed at the time of the operation. Its claim can be substantiated if it shows that it successfully performed a “voluntary” service to rescue or save your vessel and its crew or to protect a threatened environment. Most salvage agreements have a “no cure, no pay” clause. This option is based on a successful salvage operation and is the recommended choice for the vessel owner/captain. Settlement of claims, in the event of a dispute, can go to arbitration using applicable rules of the Society of Maritime Arbitrators.

For your protection, be sure to include salvage coverage as a part of your vessel’s insurance policy.

Policy Matters
No matter who, what, why or when, having no boat insurance opens you up to all sorts of nasty (possibly bankrupting) claims in the event of an episode. So get insurance, even if your “yacht” is a 16-foot Whaler with a four-stroke 25 strapped to the transom. Don’t get just an endorsement on your homeowner’s policy, but a marine boat or yacht policy, because an “add-on” endorsement will be missing much of the needed coverage that a boat or yacht policy includes as a matter of course. Also, be sure to choose an agent who has a thorough knowledge of marine insurance and its unique requirements.


With regard specifically to towing and salvaging, you should have a clear understanding of what your water-assistance membership and insurance policies cover, what they don’t, what the financial and liability limits are, and who is responsible. The insurance policy should include a salvage section that covers the total cost of the vessel with no deductible. There should also be a provision for “wreck removal” in the liability section, again with no deductible. If the salvor’s claim ends up in arbitration, you don’t want to go it alone, so be sure the insurance company acknowledges and defines its responsibility and limits in case the claim goes to binding arbitration or litigation in the federal maritime courts.