Saturday, March 15, 2008

Can We Salvage Our Vocabulary?

Many years ago, the powers that be carefully laid out the distinction between salvage and towage. The U.S. Supreme Court may have been the very first to coin the term simple towage. Isn't it ironic that simple towage came into use precisely as a way to explain that most towing of disabled vessels is, in the eyes of the court, an act of salvage? In this case, the words were used to make the distinction clear. In more recent history, words have been used to muddy the waters and blur the distinction.

The national membership networks have added to the confusion, in particular with business plans that include a relentless campaign to market towing of disabled boats as completely separate from salvage, when in fact, under Blackwall and SalCon89, it should be considered contract salvage. But, the profit is the same to the provider of the assistance, so... whatever, right?

Now, I don't know if Boat/US is responsible for inventing the phrase Soft Aground, but their membership program has certainly contributed to its broad acceptance. The phrase is now so prevalent that it is in common usage by the USCG.[click here to listen to a short audio clip of what I'm talking about] While Boat/US doesn't want to cover salvage, their membership will cover the contract fees for Soft Ungrounding. And again, this service is marketed as somehow outside the definition of salvage. Low degree of peril, one boat, one towline...."simple", right? As in simple towage.

Who, though, can really argue that the act of ungrounding a vessel isn't actually an act of salvage under the Blackwall factors? I can imagine Justice Clifford (perhaps the father of modern salvage laws) rolling over in his grave every time someone utters the phrase soft aground. But, the profit is about the same to the provider of the soft ungrounding, so... whatever, right?

The point of all this is not to uncover some sinister conspiracy on Boat/US's part to circumvent the salvage laws, because I don't believe such a conspiracy exists. But you have to admit that their marketing and membership literature goes out of its way to draw a clear distinction between towing and salvage. Salvage is always something to be wary of, to be avoided whenever possible. Towing, on the other hand, is portrayed as so simple and carefree that one might look forward to it as one might look forward to getting a birthday cake. Don't forget to renew!

In this world of vocabulary gymnastics, contract salvage has morphed into simple towing -salvage from running aground has become a soft ungrounding service covered under the towing membership. When does it all end? Will boat fires become "extraordinarily warm cabin surfaces requiring only one man and one extinguisher to unwarm"... ?

You're laughing and thinking that once again, Doug has slipped his hawser. Well, this week, I received my Boat/US "eLine" membership email newsletter, which contains the following quote and photo:

9. If your boat sinks, we pay the cost to "unsink" it in addition to covering your boat. In other words, the cost of the salvage is not deducted from your repair funds, which leaves more money toward fixing or replacing your boat.

UNSINK? First of all, the picture clearly depicts a wreck removal. That boat will be totalled, so there will be no post salvage value to base any salvage award on. This job will be done either per-foot or time and materials. Maybe wreck removal is the only kind of salvage work that Boat/US doesn't want their customers to fear? Oh sure, I see that they used the word salvage in the second sentence, but the photo sure doesn't fit with the legal definition of salvage. The result continues to blur the lines. More muddy water.

Now, to be totally fair, this was not presented as part of the towing membership program. The unsinking story is part of a hull insurance sales pitch, so maybe I'm guilty of some apples to oranges comparisons. But, its all under the same Boat/US brand name. They certainly don't make an effort to distinguish between their membership and insurance divisions, so why should I?

Back to the salvage vocabulary: what's up with this new word: unsink? Can covered unsinking service be far behind? You know, one man, one boat, one pump...its not a salvage, it was a covered unsinking! Call it simple dewatering.

If Boat/US marketing hasn't invented yet another way to confuse the concept of salvage, why did they put the quotes around the word unsink?

But, whatever...right?