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V. Peril in Groundings

Groundings in shallow water pose additional questions with regard to the existence of a "marine peril." As previously stated, the admiralty courts of the Untied States have universally held that a vessel which is aground is presumed to be in a condition of peril exposed as she is to wind, weather and waves. However, some parties have difficulty in understanding this concept inasmuch as they feel that if a vessel is aground, she is not in any danger of sinking. The uninitiated do not appreciate the dangers and perils inherent in a grounding situation.

First, the underwater body or hull of a vessel is designed by a naval architect to be supported by the hydrostatic forces of the water. When vessels are not supported by such hydrostatic forces, as when the vessel is placed in dry dock, great care must be taken to insure that the hull of the vessel is properly supported at places designated for support by the naval architect. If support in stresses are not placed at pre-designed locations, the hull can fracture or cause the vessel to break her keel. This is especially true of larger yachts and so-called "mega-yachts," while smaller, trailer-size vessels are much more capable of sustaining a "soft" grounding without any hull damage.

Hull stress peril is especially significant in the case of a large (45' or larger) vessel in a grounding situation. In a typical grounding, the bow of the vessel is hard aground. As the vessel attempts to back off the grounding, the propeller washes the bottom material away from underneath the hull between the propellers and the bow. When the vessel's efforts to free herself with her propellers are unsuccessful, the vessel then settles onto the propellers, struts, afterkeel and rudders. Frequently, the efforts to free the vessel result in a condition where the bow and the stern are aground, with a depression under the center of the hull as a result of the prop wash. Such a condition is extremely dangerous to a vessel and may result in the vessel sagging and breaking her back. Experienced salvors are aware of this possibility and move quickly to place air bags under the hull in order to provide support.

Similarly, in many grounding situations, although the vessel does not possess sufficient reserve buoyancy to float itself off the strand, there can be enough buoyancy that the vessel, when acted upon by wind and waves, will momentarily be lifted completely or partially off the strand and then come back into contact with the bottom as the influence of the swell or wind withdraws from the vessel. This condition is commonly referred to as "pounding" and it is a significant danger to any vessel in a grounding situation.

Under such conditions, the hull of the vessel may be brought into violent contact with portions of the reef, rocks or hardpan shoal. Pounding conditions are especially common towards the stern, including propellers and rudders, since this is usually the last portion of the vessel to ground and is usually in deeper water than the bow.

Pounding conditions in the vicinity of a vessel's stern are especially dangerous regardless of the size of the vessel. Propellers which pound across the bottom can be bent to the point where they cannot be repaired. Pounding stresses on propellers can bend fragile propeller shafts and damage expensive stern tubes. Pounding forces can also cause significant bending and damage to rudders and struts. In some cases, pounding can also drive propeller struts and rudders up through the bottom of the vessel, resulting in flooding of the interior hull and/or release of bilge water, fuel and other contaminants, resulting in marine pollution. In the case of gasoline vessel's, driving propeller struts or rudders into fuel tanks can result in fire and explosion. Pounding, therefore is a significant marine peril which is inherent in any grounding situation. It has been said that a vessel that is pounding is in great peril and successful deliverance from such a situation commends the salvors for a liberal salvage reward.

Even if the vessel does not pound under normal or moderate weather conditions, most vessels will pound when tropical thunderstorms, squalls and weather fronts move through the area. In the tropics, particularly, it is well known that benign, calm and sunny conditions can quickly deteriorate in a matter of hours into violent winds and seas as the result of a passing tropical thunderstorm. From the end of April until the beginning of November, severe tropical thunderstorms are an almost daily occurrence. As lines of thunderstorms or thunder cells pass through the area, winds will suddenly increase to 30 to 40 mph and quickly generate seas of four to six feet even in shallow bay areas. The threat of such storms has been found by the Fifth Circuit to be sufficient peril to justify a salvage award.

Vessels which are grounded in shallow water in such circumstances face not only the peril of pounding but, unless the vessels are properly secured and monitored, the fierce winds and wind-driven seas have been known to drive them off the strand and shore on other reefs in an uncontrolled manner, resulting in significant additional damage. Similarly, a vessel aground under such conditions is also exposed to a high degree of peril as a result of the lightning which often accompanies such storms. A grounded vessel under such circumstances which receives a lightning strike will, at a minimum, suffer severe damage to her electronics and electrical system and, in many cases, undergo a resultant fire.

It must be remembered that the marine peril to vessels under such circumstances increases with the passage of time. Passage of time not only increases the probability of additional damage through severe weather, wind, waves or lightning, but also increases the duration of the period during which other natural forces are at work on the vessel. In bays and inlets, there are many currents which are affected both by tide, water and wind. These currents set up hydraulic forces on the vessel which can result in damage or which can significantly impair recovery of the vessel. In some cases, hydraulic currents will deposit bottom material and siltation against the hull of the vessel creating a suction effect which makes it increasingly difficult to free the vessel from the bottom. Again, this threat is directly proportional to the size of the vessel and can be a very real problem in the case of larger yachts. Unless prompt action is taken to remove the vessel, future recovery operations may require that fuel, bilge water, water and other consumables be pumped off the vessel and that the vessel be stripped of electronics, furnishings and other equipment in order to lighten it. Such operations are not only time consuming and expensive, but also significantly increase the possibility of marine pollution and damage to the vessel and its contents. Hydraulic currents have also been known to scour bottom material from partial areas beneath the hull, thus setting up an increase probability of stress fractures to the hull or sagging. In areas of soft sand bottoms, there is a likelihood of the vessel working herself into the bottom and becoming embedded in the sand. In such a case, if the vessel is not removed promptly, the stranding becomes permanent and the vessel breaks up or sinks.

Aside from the danger inherent to the vessel in a grounding situation, there is also inherent danger to the people involved in attempting to remove the vessel from the strand. Undeniably, a certain amount of danger is inherent in any salvage operation. Since braided nylon lines are used to pull and tow grounded vessels, the strain placed upon these lines creates a significant risk of injury to salvage crews should the line part or a hull fitting on the salvaged vessel give way. The larger the vessel being pulled, the greater the strain. When a nylon line under strain parts, the resulting whiplash effect is capable of taking off limbs and has been known to kill salvage crew members. Should cleats or hull fittings on the salvaged vessel give way, they become missiles which have killed and maimed crew members on the towing vessel. Because of the extremely shallow water around the vessel, the salvage vessels involved are in constant danger of going aground and causing damage to their own hulls, propellers and rudders. Additionally, when operating in shallow water, the possibility of ingesting bottom material causing damage to engines and pumps is also a constant threat to salvage vessels.

From the foregoing, it should be obvious to even the most lubberly that the concept of a "simple grounding" of which the uninformed speak with such ease is far from "simple." Varying degrees of peril to both the vessel and the salvor are almost always present. There are, however, some circumstances when a vessel aground is not in peril and the services involved in removing her from the grounding are, in fact, towage rather than salvage.

Vessels can and do intentionally safely ground themselves on soft bottoms for a variety of reasons. This is particularly true of smaller recreational vessels whose hulls and running gear are not unduly stressed by the forces of such a situation. Similarly, when the vessel is undamaged, aground on a soft bottom and capable of freeing herself without assistance at the next tide, the service of towing her off before the tide, to safe strain on the vessel's engines or to avoid the necessity of the persons on board getting out and pushing may be more of a convenience than a necessity.

Each such case must be decided on its own facts. The issue is whether the services were necessitated by the peril or provided as a matter of convenience. Generally, the better practice, and one followed by many pleasure boat salvors in such situations, is the "one boat, one hour" concept which is treated as a convenience tow and billed on a fixed rate, hourly basis. In other words, if they can get the vessel off using one boat within an hour, it is a "convenience" to the owner and not treated as salvage.

It must be remembered, however, that when the vessel is hard aground, pounding on a reef, disabled, seriously damaged or otherwise in appreciable peril, the concept does not apply regardless of the number of vessels or the amount of time involved. In each case, the presence of peril and the degree of that peril must be determined based on the circumstances applicable to that case. There are few 'rules of thumb" or inviolate principles that can be applied to every case.

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