Nautical Terms: Meaning of Flotsam and Jetsam in Shipping

While dealing with niche fields such as sailing, shipping, and maritime legality, it is preferred to use the appropriate terms and nomenclature. It removes any confusion and avoids any accidental mishaps arising due to some misunderstanding.

A simple example would be the directionality of the 2 halves of the boat. If the deck watch were to inform the captain to turn right, it would depend on which way the captain was facing.

Turning in the wrong direction merely because the instructions weren’t specific could lead to problems. On the other hand, using the terms “port” and “starboard” is always preferred. These terms are relative to the boat’s position, and not the viewer’s orientation.

Port Starboard

Some nautical terms are often misinterpreted and misquoted.  In this regard, two of the most commonly used terms – flotsam and jetsam can be described as being the perfect misnomers.

According to most people’s perceptions, these objects are nothing but unwanted garbage that can be found floating in the oceanic waters. However, these two objects are important constituents of the maritime salvaging law.

In this article, we will look at the origins of these terms and the distinct role they play in Admiralty law. Rest assured you will never again use these terms incorrectly!

Nautical Terms’ Classification

The terms “flotsam” and “jetsam” are commonly used in Admiralty law to signify objects that are linked with shipwrecks or maritime salvage operations.

The common misconception is that they refer to junk and debris found on the ocean’s surface. However, their use is far more precise and can carry a great deal of meaning to the trained mariner.

For instance, a discarded trunk found at sea could just be garbage that was tossed overboard, or could also be an important property that was lost at sea.

Based on whether it came from a ship, and how and why it landed up adrift, it may be termed flotsam or jetsam. Using the generic phrase “flotsam and jetsam” to refer to all objects floating on the sea surface without any consideration for its meaning can often create confusion in legal proceedings.

Although both flotsam and jetsam are classified as words pertaining to a ‘shipwreck’, there is a huge difference in their actual interpretation.

According to the terms and stipulations set by maritime law, the difference comes into great importance when these objects are salvaged and resultantly sold for monetary purposes.



Flotsam is said to be a wreck that is found in the water because of accidental discarding. This terminology includes any and all objects floating on the water after ships are destroyed in storms or due to other accidents.

Only accidental discarding is considered to be flotsam, in which case the crew did not intentionally jettison any objects from onboard. As per maritime law stipulations, the original owner is said to have unequivocal ownership rights over these objects.

flotsam of titanic
Image for representation purpose only

However, recent maritime judgements have indicated that in case the owner does not wish for the goods to be returned, the individual has found it can lay claim to it. Similarly, if the owner has passed away and the items are of no value to his legal heirs, then the finder can also claim it.

For instance, if a container vessel were to run into a storm and either sink or lose a portion of its cargo, these would be termed “flotsam”. In such cases, the owner of the container’s contents could claim it, or it could be simply discarded if it has lost value because of the incident.

In certain extreme cases, the government may request or lay claim to flotsam objects. This is commonly the case when the item is of historic value and will be displayed at a museum or exhibition.

For warship flotsam or other confidential objects, the government retains its right over the debris, without a time stipulation. Even if the ruling party or monarch has changed, it belongs to the government of the nation and can be claimed at any time.

Warships and submarines are covered under the regulations of the IMO to be the sole property of the operating nation. Even if it sinks, it cannot be salvaged by another country (despite having good intentions).

In this case, flotsam must be collected and claimed by the host nation. If it does not respond quickly or is not able to locate where the wreck may lie, there is a good chance that other countries may salvage it in order to steal or gain information and intelligence.


Jetsam, on the contrary, refers to all those objects that are thrown purposefully by from a vessel due to emergencies of any kind. The term “jetsam” comes from a contraction of “jettison” which means to launch or throw an object.

Although flotsam is supposed to indicate “floating” objects, the same applies to jetsam as well. In order to be claimed legally, it must be floating at the time of recovery.

Now, coming to why anyone would willfully jettison objects off their vessel. The most common reason for this is to lighten the load off a sinking ship.

Due to leaks, hull ruptures, or other structural problems, water rapidly floods the holds. There is a very high chance that unless the flooding can be stopped and the load lessened, the vessel will rapidly sink.

Assuming the flooding has been temporarily stalled, the next course of action is to reduce the on-board weight. This balances the weight to buoyancy ratio, ensuring the vessel stays afloat.

Flooding studies and the required jettisoning weight is a very important course for naval and marine engineers. Unless a certain weight limit has not been reduced, the craft will continue to sink.

Extensive flooding and damaged stability calculations are carried out and recorded in the vessel’s “Trim and Stability Handbook”. The captain and chief engineer can then decide to remove cargo (containers, ballast, loose goods etc.) in order to retain vessel stability.

Another cause for jetsam being jettisoned off a vessel is during a potential piracy threat. When ship operators are aware that they are in immediate threat of being boarded by hostile entities, they jettison cargo for 2 reasons.

One, to create a physical barrier between approaching vessels and the ship. By having cargo surrounding the ship, it is near impossible for other boats to approach and board it. Another reason is to quickly remove any valuable objects on board and prevent the pirates from boarding the vessel.

As such, the terms of the maritime law state that all jetsam objects found can be claimed as their discoverer’s property and the discoverer can collect any and all proceeds received through the sale of such salvaged objects.

However, should the original owners have a legal claim that abides by all IMO and regional laws, then they may also claim and recover the objects. The exact terms of ownership can vary depending on the flag the ship was flying, the region where the jetsam was located, and the value of the goods.

Valuable goods may also be returned to the original owner for a reward or fee, and this is known as “ third-party marine salvage”.

Jetsam – Discharging cargo purposefully in order to save the ship from lisitng in storm

Significance in Shipwrecks and Marine Salvage

When out at sea, ships are at the mercy of the elements. Charterers, ocean liners, and merchants involved in the process often take-out insurance on goods and the vessel itself to account for any accidents or mishaps along the way.

However, to receive this insurance, 2 things must primarily be confirmed-

1. The reason for any flotsam or jetsam must not be for the sole purpose of collecting insurance claims, and
2. The ownership of the goods must be established beyond any doubt.

While extensive investigations are undertaken to ensure that collusion and intentional damage is identified (these offences are punishable), ownership is still a grey area in legal terms.

There is always the chance that the discoverer may stake a claim on the recovered goods while the owners may also wish to claim it. In such cases, the exact phraseology of “flotsam and jetsam” plays a major role in resolving conflict and ambiguity.

If found to have been lost at sea due to a storm or other unavoidable situation, then the owner retains all rights to stake the first claim.

On the other hand, if it was intentionally jettisoned (even if the safety of the crew required it), then the discoverer can stake the first claim.

However, based on the exact situation and the owner’s claim, they may also be able to legally request for ownership to the jetsam. In the next section, we will look at a legal method to stake your claim to goods even if they have been jettisoned of your vessel.

It is important to note that the exact laws may vary across countries.

Pros and Cons of Flotsam Jetsam


Not all jetsam has ill-effects. Useful materials can be utilized in constructional arenas. Researchers use flotsam to study and analyze oceanic currents and patterns. The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is one very good example.

Most flotsam is still valuable, either for its contents or because of the historical value. For instance, remnants (flotsam) from the Titanic that sunk over a century ago still hold a lot of value.

Heirlooms and other artefacts unearthed from the exploration or salvaged by independent explorers are regularly put up for auctions and fetch large sums.


Flotsam and jetsam have a harmful impact on the oceanic eco-system. Plastic, an example of flotsam, has been responsible for many oceanic disturbances.

To prevent this, there are certain regional maritime laws that require owners or charterers to ensure a reasonable degree of salvage and recovery. This is to prevent adverse ecological effects by making each party responsible for clearing any possible damage they inadvertently cause.

Floatsam Plastic

Considering the often-repeated statement of the precariousness of the marine ecology, it is very important that people across the world are made to acknowledge the difference between these two aspects and their relevance in the present marine conditions. Both flotsam and jetsam as nautical terms have been utilized since the 1600s.

Other Commonly Confused Terminology Related to Flotsam and Jetsam

Along with these two terminologies, there is yet another domain known as ‘Ligan’ or ‘Lagan’ that comes under marine salvaging law.

Lagan refers to a vessel’s property found in the ocean with a buoyant tag attached to it stating and exemplifying the ownership rights.

This is essentially a way to mark ownership in case of jettisoning cargo or other goods from the ship. As stated above, jetsam is legally entitled to the discoverer. To prevent this in case of valuable goods, ship operators create a string of connected cargo and then attach them to a floating marker.

These markers, such as buoys or other identifiable tags, must be floating to be considered Lagan, and should state adequate details about the circumstances of jettisoning, the date and time, and the owner’s address and name. If so, the discoverer is legally obliged to return the jetsam to the owner. While the marker must float, the goods can be in any state of submergence.

Both flotsam and jetsam as nautical terms have been utilised since the 1600s. Along with these two terminologies, there is yet another domain known as ‘Ligan’ or ‘Lagan’ that comes under marine salvaging law. Lagan refers to a vessel’s property found at the depths of the oceanic floor with a buoyant tag attached to it stating and exemplifying the ownership rights.

Alongside Ligan, there are also objects known as derelicts which are discarded. Derelicts are also found at the very depths of the ocean but with no prospect of salvaging whatsoever.

Considering the often repeated statement of the precariousness of the marine ecology, it is very important that people across the world are made to acknowledge the difference between these two aspects and their relevance in the present marine conditions.

They are willfully discarded for various reasons, and unlike the other terms discussed above, are near impossible to recover. This may either be due to the locations, or an advanced state of decay wrought about by age and the corroding effects of water.

These goods can be classified by 2 legal clauses:
1. Sine spe recuperandi, or unable to recover, and
2. Sine animo revertendi, or no obligation to return to the owner

Disclaimer: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendation on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

The article or images cannot be reproduced, copied, shared or used in any form without the permission of the author and Marine Insight. 

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