Do I Tow or Salvage After Marine Peril?

Article By Mario Madrid of Houston, TX

Many boat owners discover the difference between salvaging and towing the hard way when they experience it first-hand in a time of need. After being rescued from marine peril, sailors are sometimes surprised at the size of the salvage bill.

To understand the difference between towing and salvaging, boat owners must first understand the concept of “marine peril.” Marine peril is a situation that could pose a danger to the boat, the marine environment or other vessels if the boat in question is left behind.

The situations of marine peril can include:

  • Fire
  • Collisions
  • Sinking
  • Hard aground
  • Distress brought on by mechanical failures


To qualify as a towing service, only one towing boat and one towing line are needed. In addition, the vessel that is in need of towing must not be in marine peril. This may include running out of fuel, a dead battery, soft grounding or a mechanical failure that does not pose an immediate danger.

Towing companies generally charge by the hour. The average rates can range from $100 to $250 per hour, and there may be extra charges for after-hours towing. Insurance policies or a boat owner’s association may cover towing charges.


A salvage occurs when a vessel is rescued from marine peril. A contract salvage is when the boat’s owner and the salvage company agree on the terms of the salvage before the vessel is towed. Pure salvage occurs when there is a prior agreement without a fixed amount, or if the rescue is voluntary without prior agreement between the salvager and the vessel owner.

To qualify as pure salvage and be eligible for reward, the salvager must meet three requirements:

  • There must be marine peril
  • The salvage services must be voluntary
  • The salvage company must be successful in saving the boaters and the property

In addition, the operation is considered a salvage if special equipment or multiple towing vessels are used.

Throughout history, salvagers have provided valuable services to sailors. The laws of marine salvage were developed to reward sailors who voluntarily assist vessels in distress. A salvage reward was originally based on a portion of the ship’s cargo. Nowadays, most salvage rewards are based on a percentage of the value of the rescued vessel.

Salvage laws apply to all marine vessels on open waters such as small recreational boats and commercial ocean liners. Insurance policies may cover the salvage operation. Boat owners should check their insurance policy to be sure that the coverage is for the full amount of the vessel and not just a percentage.

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