In Battle with Maritime Salvage Industry, Florida Boaters Just Want Price Transparency

by | Jan 24, 2018

A naval battle is playing out, not off of Florida’s coast, but in Tallahassee, where recreational boaters are in facing off against the maritime salvage industry giants like Sea Tow and TowBoat U.S., the two biggest national players in an industry that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues every year through club memberships, services and salvage fees.

And it’s those salvage fees that are the focus on lawmakers in Tallahassee. Recreational boaters, fed up with being gouged by salvage operators when their options are limited, are making a simple ask of the legislature: price transparency from salvage companies.

The problem, boaters say, is that when they find themselves in need of assistance, they call a company like Sea Tow to come to their aid, thinking that their club membership, similar to AAA plans for cars, will likely cover the jump start they need, or whatever assistance is necessary to get their speedboat underway again.

But unlike an automobile, which can be pulled over onto the side of the road to wait for assistance, boats are at the mercy of waves, wind, tide and currents, all of which work in concert to make a boating breakdown much more complex. When help arrives in the form of a tow-boat, recreational captains are often stunned to learn that certain situations might actually qualify as a “salvage operation” that results in a substantial fee charged by the tow-boat operator.

Salvage operations allow maritime salvage operators to charge a fee based on the value of the vessel being salvaged. But often, that fact isn’t known until it’s too late, when a recreational boat captain has called for help. When the tow-boat arrives, he’s got little choice but to pay the fee being asked, or be left adrift or stuck on a sandbar.

The current situation in Florida is not unlike the famous scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation, where Walt W. Griswold learns the hard way that unscrupulous tow truck operators have him at their mercy:

But to small boaters, the situation isn’t funny. And they’re not asking for much, either. The solution that recreational boaters will support – SB 664 – is up next in State Senator George Gainer‘s Transportation Committee on Thursday is relatively straightforward – they want a written estimate, an upfront disclosure of potential costs, or some other appreciable and tangible form of price transparency so that boaters know up front what they are facing before they commit to a specific company.

The salvage industry and its team of lobbyists oppose such measures, arguing that it’s impossible for their operators to know what a salvage operation may cost before their experts arrive on scene. But even a simple up-front disclosure, for example, that the rescue might not be covered free of charge by membership dues, would be a welcome improvement for recreational boaters. As one captain put it:

I want to underscore that my boat was not in any immediate danger. It sustained no leaks and more than five weeks had passed between the day when the hurricane hit and when this opportunistic salvor showed up to provide assistance. I signed no forms, and was shocked to see a bill for $13,750 for just a couple of hours of work and an eventual tow to a different marina. The final bill was eventually negotiated down to $11,000, but that is still an unbelievable fee for relatively minor assistance when neither my boat nor I were in any danger – and I already had a membership in their company.

Florida’s economy depends on boaters filling the state’s waterways, and Gainer and his fellow committee members will assuredly take a sober look at this proposal when it’s up. He and his colleagues should brace themselves for an onslaught of eye-popping tales of abuse, all of which could have been averted with an up-front disclosure from the salvage operators.

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