Creative photos and essays from the San Juan Islands


Flotsam and jetsam

Flotsam and jetsam

The seaweed seen here where the water meets the beach is neither flotsam or jetsam. Those terms describe forms of maritime bits and pieces and how they got where they are, so if they have some value or consequence, such as the flotsam that is washing up on our shores from the Japanese tsunami, the law knows how to deal with them.

Flotsam is the floating ‘wreckage’ of a ship or its cargo. Jetsam ‘s clue comes from the word ‘jettison’ which is to purposefully cast cargo overboard from a ship in distress to lighten the load. Flotsam or jetsam can wash ashore, float at sea, or sink.

Here’s another word: Let’s say the jetsam is cargo, valuable cargo that sinks, which the sailors marked with a bouy (assuming the water depth allows that), that cargo can be reclaimed. This reclaimable cargo on the bottom is now called ‘lagan’, while ‘derelict’ describes cargo on the bottom with no hope of reclaiming. I always thought a derelict was an abandoned ship at sea, but apparently it’s legally more specific than that, it’s got to be on the bottom.

Last evening I watched the movie “The Wreck of the Mary Deare” starring Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston, with the fate of that wreck (read ‘salvage’) being determined if it sank or not, so these terms reflect what happens next, since it’s often difficult to find a wreck as vessels travel pretty much where they want compared to trucks and cars on defined roads.

Speaking of no hope of reclaiming, the SS Central America, a steamer that sunk off the Carolinas in 1857 with a reported 30,000 pounds of gold aboard, was recently found and a significant amount of gold was salvaged. I read Gary Kinder’s book “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea” about the wreck and recovery struggles and I highly recommend it as an example of perseverance, both of the men trying to save the wreck in the hurricane, and of the recoverers and their investors. 39 insurance companies filed claim on the gold, but because of the ‘derelict’ legal description and the 130 years that no one had tried to salvage the gold, it was declared abandoned and 92% of the value of the items salvaged went to the discoverers, about $150 million worth!


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