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What can a tow cost?

It can happen to anyone: getting stuck with the boat and needing to be pulled free. The circumstances under which this happens determine the price the salvage company charges. And so here too: watch your step.

What do you do when you “break down on the road?” That help on the water can be an expensive joke, experienced Mr. Gunnarson offshore on the Wadden Sea. The Dane thought to sail his newly purchased Dufour, a used 30-footer, to Denmark himself. On the Wadden Sea, he ran aground in sight of one of the Wadden harbors late in the afternoon. Gunnarson liked to be in port before dark. He inquired on the VHF radio whether there was anyone nearby who could give him a tow. Promptly a brightly colored motorboat raced in his direction, manned by gentlemen “who looked official” and he was refloated. There was no mention of costs. Arriving in the harbor, Mr. Gunnarson had to sign a “general tug and salvage agreement”, but costs were not mentioned. He was therefore “not amused” when he received an invoice for six thousand euros. The salvage company argued that there had been “danger” and that the company was therefore entitled to so-called “assistance fees.” To understand the financial risks of accepting help from professional salvors without question, here is an explanation of both terms.

When there is a risk of damage to the vessel or the safety of the persons on board, a party providing assistance is entitled to assistance fees. If there is no agreement on the amount, it must be determined what a reasonable amount is. The law and jurisprudence have developed ten criteria for this: 1) the value of the vessel; 2) the professional skill and effort of the salvor with respect to the environment (this also concerns professional shipping); 3) the result of the assistance; 4) the nature and seriousness of the danger; 5) the professional skill of the rescuer with respect to the vessel, the crew and the transported goods; 6) the time used by the rescuer, costs incurred and any losses incurred; 7) the risk of liability incurred by the rescuer; 8) the speed of the service; 9) the availability and use of the equipment intended for the rescue; 10) the state of readiness, efficiency and value of the equipment.

Out of proportion.
The salvage company maintains that there was danger to the vessel and that the Danish owner had sent out a distress call, which it disputes. However, Gunnarson is not unreasonable and had paid the salvage company a sum of €1,500.00 in advance. It seemed to him sufficient compensation for a quarter of an hour of towing, where actually pulling the ship loose would have sufficed. Moreover, he found the six thousand euros completely disproportionate compared to the value of his ship, namely € 33,000.00. He also repeated that there had been no danger: “it was a rising tide, the weather was fine and he was within sight of the harbour”. The salvage company argued that it had turned out with two ships and that the equipment it had deployed justified such a claim. Gunnarson replied that the salvage operator knew exactly what the situation was, since he had the vessel in sight, and that turning out with “full equipment” really ought to remain at his expense and risk.

The Subdistrict Court had to intervene and ruled that, since there had been no danger, the €1,500.00 paid by Gunnarson was a reasonable amount.

Tip: Salvage companies do not work for free. It is their job. Often the subject of costs is quickly dismissed by saying that if one is insured, the costs will be reimbursed,. However, that depends on the insurer and/or the policy conditions include coverage for salvage costs. Check that? If it is not a matter of a raging storm but more or less a “roadside assistance service”, make clear agreements about the costs in advance so that you will not be faced with unpleasant surprises.


Frits Hommersom met groene bril

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