We are often racing during salvage operations, racing the tide, racing weather, and we’re always racing time. We have been active with salvage jobs during Covid and during a recent round of sea stories during a salvage in the Central California coast, I remembered a very interesting salvage boat “race”. As marine surveyors we usually represent insurance companies and insured’s interests during salvage operations. The historical basic concept of salvage is to reward a salvor for risking their health, life, and equipment in order to save someone else’s property, usually a vessel or cargo. In return for the risk, and usually based on the value saved and level of risk, the salvor is granted a reward.
Two decades ago a Catalina 42 left Southern California for Hawaii. Aboard were the owner, a friend of his, both in their sixties and two of their children, both about twenty. Right away the vessel began experiencing problems including water intrusion and somewhere approximately 100 miles off-shore there was a steering failure. Only one of the 20 year old’s was able to steer with the emergency tiller handle. A decision was made to abandon the vessel and all four passengers were retrieved by a Coast Guard helicopter. The EPIRB (acronym for emergency position indicating radio beacon) was activated. As a representative of the insurance carrier for the vessel we hired a salvage / tow boat to retrieve the vessel and initially had good location information from the EPIRB.
Just after we initiated the recovery of the vessel, we were alerted to a second salvage vessel underway in hopes of retrieving the Catalina and collecting the reward.
Initially I was dismayed and contacted the owner of the company who had dispatched the competitor salvage vessel. He responded that this was “only business” and “may the best boat win”. His boat was faster. I asked an authority, providing the EPIRB information if the location could be selectively provided, i.e. withheld from the competitor boat. I was denied. We, the good guys in my opinion, were not the favorites to win the race but with both tow boats racing toward the abandoned and adrift vessel, the EPIRB signal began to wane.
As the two tow boats approached the area in which the vessel was believed to be, its EPIRB became completely useless. We hired a spotter plane to assist our team and developed a communication protocol so they helped only our team. Without premeditation on the part of the land based team, the pilot of the plane, on his own, provided information to the competitor vessel. We later learned the information was inaccurate.
The hero salvage vessel won the race, found the Catalina 42 and returned it to its home port and its owner. Had the competitor vessel found it, they would have been granted a salvage reward for their effort but in this case instead, they got their just reward, a fuel bill.