What is 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 accidental mishaps arising due to misunderstanding.

A simple example would be the directionality of the two 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 oceanic waters. However, these two objects are essential 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 misuse these terms!

Nautical Terms’ Classification

Flotsam” and “jetsam” are commonly used in Admiralty law to signify objects 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 be garbage tossed overboard or could also be an essential property 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 about a ‘shipwreck‘, there is a vast difference in their actual interpretation.

According to the terms and stipulations set by maritime law, the difference is essential when these objects are salvaged and sold for monetary purposes.

flotsam

Flotsam

The word Flotsam derives from the french word floter, which means to float. This terminology includes objects floating on the water after ships are destroyed in storms or due to other accidents.

Only accidental discarding is considered 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 purposes 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, the finder can also claim them.

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

In extreme cases, the government may request or lay claim to flotsam objects. This is commonly the case when the item is of historical 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 nation’s government and can be claimed at any time.

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

In this case, the host nation must collect and claim flotsam. If it does not respond quickly or cannot locate where the wreck may lie, there is a good chance that other countries may salvage it to steal or gain information and intelligence.

Jetsam

Jetsam, on the contrary, refers to all those objects thrown purposefully by a ship’s crew due to emergencies or distress of any kind or to lighten a ship’s load. 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. To be claimed legally, it must be floating during recovery.

Now, coming to why anyone would willfully jettison objects off their vessel. The most common reason 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 the vessel will rapidly sink unless the flooding can be stopped and the load lessened.

Assuming the flooding has been stalled, the next course is to reduce the onboard weight. This balances the weight-to-buoyancy ratio, ensuring the vessel stays afloat.

Flooding studies and the required jettisoning weight are introductory courses for naval and marine engineers. Unless a specific 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 remove cargo (containers, ballast, loose goods etc.) to retain vessel stability.

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

One is 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 come 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 proceeds from selling such salvaged things.

However, should the original owners have a legal claim abiding by all IMO and regional laws, 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, known as “third-party marine salvage”.

jetsam
Jetsam – Discharging cargo purposefully to save the ship from listing in a 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, two 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 are 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 them. In such cases, the exact phraseology of “flotsam and jetsam” plays a significant 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 crew’s safety required), 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 ownership of 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 from your vessel.

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

Pros and Cons of Flotsam Jetsam

Pros

Not all jetsam has ill effects. Valuable materials can be utilised in construction arenas. Researchers use flotsam to study and analyse oceanic currents and patterns. The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is one perfect example.

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

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

Cons

Flotsam and jetsam hurt the oceanic ecosystem. Plastic, an example of flotsam, has been responsible for many oceanic disturbances.

To prevent this, specific regional maritime laws require owners or charterers to ensure a reasonable degree of salvage and recovery. This prevents 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 marine ecology, people across the world must be 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 utilised 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 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 the 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 ocean 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 ocean’s depths but with no prospect of salvaging whatsoever.

Considering the often repeated statement of the precariousness of marine ecology, people across the world must be 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.

Two legal clauses can classify these goods:

1. Sine spe recuperandi, or unable to recover, and
2. Sine animo revertendi, or no obligation to return to the owner

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a flotsam?

Flotsam is the debris floating in water that was not deliberately thrown from a vessel, rather it was the result of an accident or a shipwreck.

2. What is a jetsam?

On the other hand, Jetsam is that debris which was consciously thrown overboard by crew of a vessel in distress or emergency to lighten the load on the ship.

3. What are the advantages of flotsam and jetsam?

Researchers use flotsam to study and analyse oceanic currents and patterns. The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch is one perfect example. Most flotsam is still valuable, either for its contents or because of its historical value. For instance, remnants (flotsam) from the Titanic that sunk over a century ago still hold much value.

4. What are the disadvantages of flotsam and jetsam?

Flotsam and jetsam are not good for the marine ecosystem. Plastic, an example of flotsam, has been responsible for many oceanic disturbances. To prevent this, maritime laws require owners to ensure a reasonable degree of salvage and recovery.

5. What is Lagan or Ligan?

Lagan refers to a vessel’s property found in the ocean with a buoyant tag 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.

You might also like to read-

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. 

Do you have info to share with us ? Suggest a correction

Subscribe To Our Newsletters

By subscribing, you agree to our Privacy Policy and may receive occasional deal communications; you can unsubscribe anytime.

Web Stories

About Author

Zahra is an alumna of Miranda House, University of Delhi. She is an avid writer, possessing immaculate research and editing skills. Author of several academic papers, she has also worked as a freelance writer, producing many technical, creative and marketing pieces. A true aesthete at heart, she loves books a little more than anything else.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *