Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Flotsam Definition:

Things found floating on the sea, issue from a ship that has been lost.

Related Terms: Jetsam, Ligan, Wreck

Halsbury's Laws of England, 4th Reissue (1997), volume 43(1), "Shipping and Navigation" defines wreck as:

"... property cast ashore within the ebb and flow of the tide after shipwreck and the property must be a ship, her cargo or a portion thereof.

"Jetsam, flotsam and lagan are not wreck at common law so long as they remain in or upon the sea, but, if they are cast up on the shore, they become wreck."

William Blackstone, at paragraph 292 of his Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I, wrote eloquently:

"... in order to constitute a legal wreck, the goods must come to land. If they continue at sea, the law distinguishes them by the barbarous and uncouth appellations of jetsam, flotsam and ligan.

"Jetsam is where goods are cast into the sea and there sink and remain under water.

"Flotsam is where they continue swimming on the surface of the waves.

"Ligan is where they are sunk in the sea, but tied to a cork or buoy in order to be found again."

Many jurisdictions have altered the common law by maritime law statutes which define wreck as any residue from a wreck ship, including the ship itself if abandoned, if it enters the tidal water marks of the coast.

In 1894, England passed a Merchant Shipping Act which, at s. 510, extended the reach of the maritime law rules related to flotsam to tidal waters:

"The expression wreck includes jetsam, flotsam, lagan and any derelict found in or on the shores of the sea or any tidal waters."

Flotsam has also been spelled as flotsan.


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