The classic categories of wreck items, and thus subject to the maritime law remedy of salvage, are derelicts, jetsam, ligan and flotsam.
The status of property at or under the sea as a wreck or wreckage can have substantial consequences as the rules and sometimes lucrative international compensation under salvage rules may apply, as well as when treasure hunters seek out precious objects from sunken vessels.
When the wreck is a ship or a part of a ship, it is sometimes called shipwreck. Other remains of a ship, including flotsam and jetsam are captured by the term wreck.
In Maritime Law, the authors wrote of "wreck" that the term:
"... refers to the remains of a ship that has suffered a major maritime disaster. However, it can also describe a sunken vessel, a vessel's cargo, or other artifacts of maritime historical and archeological significance.
"Flotsam, jetsam and lagan and other derelict maritime property found on or near shore will also be classified as wreck.... such derelict maritime property has been defined as abandoned at sea by master and crew without hope of recovery."
As William Blackstone said at paragraph 290 of his Laws of England, Book I, in the common law, cargo from sea which washed up on land, was held by the King and the true owner had but a year and a day to identify and claim it, failing which it belonged to the king.
In his American Law Dictionary, jurist John Bouvier adds:
"But in America, the king's right in the sea-shore was transferred to the clonies, and therefore wreck cast on the sea shore belongs to the owner of the shore as against a mre stranger, if not reclaimed."
In order to provide predictability and fairness in the difficult area of property rights in the aftermath of disaster at sea, maritime law has been complimented by, in most jurisdictions, statutes which define wrecks and wreckage as including flotsam, jetsam, ligan and derelicts, both vessels or items of property therefrom, and arriving not at shore but within tidal waters.
As early as 1894, England passed the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, at s.510:
"The expression wreck includes jetsam, flotsam, lagan and any derelict found in or on the shores of the sea or any tidal waters."
- Duhaime, Lloyd, Maritime Law Dictionary
- duhaime.org Maritime and Admiralty Law section at www.duhaime.org/LegalResources/MaritimeLaw.aspx
- Duhaime.org wishes to thank Mr. Darren Williams, maritime law lawyer of Victoria, British Columbia, for his assistance in suggesting this definition.
- Gold, E. and others, Maritime Law (Toronto: Irwin Law Books, 2003), page 620.
- Merchant Shipping Act 1894, 57&58 Victoria Chapter 60 (1894)