V. Peril in 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.
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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