Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) was an English lawyer, judge, and Tory politician who spent a good amount of time researching and studying jurisprudence and was most famous for writing Commentaries on the Laws of England, which was published in four volumes between 1765 and 1769. He penned these eloquent words about his country’s maritime laws, “...in order to constitute a legal wreck, the goods must come to land. If they continue at sea, the law distinguishes them by the barbarous and uncouth appellations of jetsam, flotsam, and ligan.”
You may immediately think of Disney’s The Little Mermaid—and not Sir William Blackstone—when you hear the terms flotsam and jetsam, but these words have meanings other than as the snake-y minions of the sea witch, Ursula. Sometimes people use these words collectively, to define or describe various beach found items, even those that are worthless or useless. In fact, flotsam and jetsam each have their own separate and distinct meanings under maritime law. Specifically, flotsam and jetsam describe two types of marine debris associated with boats and ships, and both terms refer to items or goods found at sea, and not along the beaches or shore line.
Flotsam is accidental debris in the water, usually the result of a shipwreck or marine mishap, while jetsam refers explicitly to deliberate debris, meaning it was cast aside or thrown overboard—jettisoned, if you will.
Why is the difference important? Because under maritime law, salvaged items may or may not be claimed by the finder depending on whether they are flotsam or jetsam. And determining if debris is flotsam or jetsam rests solely on why it ended up in the water.
Flotsam, because it was unintentionally cast to the sea, may be claimed by its original owner, and not one who recovers it. Goods or items that float to the surface and eventually to the shore from a sunken vessel may be classified as flotsam. Generally, salvagers may keep the items they find if no one comes forward to lay claim to the found objects but they will have little legal claim to them if the original owners stake a claim. Storied sunken treasure ships, when eventually found, usually make the news as court cases certainly follow. Once ownership is established (typically by the country that owned the ships hundreds of years ago), proving the wreckage was unintentional all but guarantees the flotsam will be returned to its original owner, and rarely to the person who found it.
Jetsam, because it was intentionally tossed into the water—usually thrown overboard to lighten the load when a ship was in distress—may sometimes be claimed by a lucky rescuer who discovers the discarded items. However, there have been instances where legal claims were successfully made by the jettisoning owner to retrieve their property.
There are two additional maritime terms that are used for marine debris: lagan and derelict. Lagan, sometimes spelled “ligan,” is defined as items that have been intentionally discarded from a marine vessel, usually one in distress. Lagan are goods that are heavy enough to sink to the ocean floor, but that have been suspended or maintained at the surface, perhaps tied to a buoy or other floating debris, as the owner has intention of retrieving the items at a later time. Maritime law says that securing jetsam to a buoy is a sufficient to re-classify it as lagan so the original owner can lawfully recover the property.
Derelict is a maritime term defined as goods or items that have sunk to the ocean floor, but which no one has any hope of reclaiming. Derelict goods are not explicitly designated as intentionally or unintentionally lost to the sea.
Flotsam and jetsam—terms that have been around since as early as the 1600s—have lost their separate and initial meanings and are more often regularly used today as a complete phrase to describe any lost or discarded items.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2019 issue.