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What happens when a ship ... becomes a wreck?

If something valuable from it happens to wash up on the beach, I can just keep it – right? … Well, no.

The Tall Ship Astrid at Dawn
The Tall Ship Astrid at Dawn

SEVENTEEN DAYS AFTER she sank off the coast of Kinsale, the tall ship Astrid is still “holding steady” on the rocks to the east of the town’s harbour. All on board were rescued when the Dutch training vessel’s engine failed and she ran aground on 24 July.

A plan on what to do with the 95-year-old ship is now being finalised. There are safety concerns to consider: an exclusion zone remains in place, with the Crosshaven Coast Guard monitoring the area regularly; and there’s also a worry that thieves may try and access the sunken hull. There were reports last month that the ship’s bell and wheel had been stolen – however, it emerged last night that the rumours were unfounded.

As soon as the Astrid went down, she ceased – legally at least – to be a ship, and became a ‘wreck’. That word – one of the many arcane-sounding words and phrases to be encountered in admiralty law – might conjure up images of treasure chests and piracy: but there are strictly-enforced rules governing who has responsibility for what happens to a ship, once it’s clear that she can’t easily be re-floated.

“The admiralty jurisdiction in the Irish courts is pretty ancient, and while this sort of thing doesn’t happen very often, there are very detailed laws”, barrister Darren Lehane, an expert in maritime law, told TheJournal.ie.

Asked what would happen if someone did take something from the wreck, Lehane says: “You just can’t do that. Anyone who dives down to take a memento from the Astrid would be causing an offence if they didn’t have permission to do so”.

All the rules around this are contained in the Salvage and Wrecks Act of 1993. There are detailed rules as to what constitutes a wreck, as to what constitutes ‘flotsam and jetsam’ – materials which are either thrown off a vessel in an attempt to give it a greater chance of survival, or stuff that comes to the surface after it sinks.

Lehane says the idea that goods lost at sea can be claimed by anyone upon reaching the shore is a complete myth, and gives the example of the cargo that drifted ashore from the MSC Napoli, after the ship got into difficulty in the English Channel in 2007:

People were taking motorbikes out of broken containers off the beach, and the roads were clogged with people trying to take things from the shore. You just can’t do that.
And these laws continue to apply, even long after a vessel has deteriorated: “The law of salvage would also cover older wrecks – for example the Spanish vessels sunk off the Irish coast, in which case one of the bodies you would have to inform if you find anything from them would be the National Museum.”

(Another view of the Astrid at dawn, by Jakub Walutek)

In terms of what happens next with the Astrid, the overall responsibility lies with the ‘Receiver of Wreck’ – and official appointed by the Transport Minister with the consent of the the Revenue Commissioners.

“Anytime there’s a wreck in Irish waters it has to be reported to the Receiver within 72 hours”, Lehane explains. “In terms of salvage, which means either raising it, or attempting to minimise the loss to the owner as much as possible, that’s down to the law of salvage, which means that a person can enter into a contract with the owner of the vessel to try and salvage the vessel.”

“If the salvors came to the view that it wasn’t economically viable to raise it, the Receiver of Wreck would have to take a decision in relation to whether it’s causing a hazard to shipping”. If it was found to be dangerous, “then the salvor would enter into an arrangement with the receiver and raise it, whereupon they could sell whatever was on it”.

And in terms of deals that can be made between a salvor and a vessel’s insurers or owners, a variety of arrangements can apply: “People might remember the story of the British vessel, sunk by a German sub in World War Two - millions worth of silver bars were recovered from it recently”.

“In that case the British government entered into an arrangement with the salvor, whereby the contract said the salvage contractor could keep 80 per cent of the profit, once they gave 20 per cent of the profit to the British Government”.

Divers who assessed the Astrid in the wake of its sinking last month told the owners of the Dutch vessel she was unlikely to sail again. However, it’s likely the wreck will be raised from the sea: that operation would be a complex and costly one, involving specialist lifting equipment, and slings placed under the vessel’s hull.

The final plan for the salvage of the Astrid is now nearing completion, a spokesperson for the Department of Transport told TheJournal.ie yesterday. The Coast Guard has been in regular contact with the ship’s insurers in recent weeks, and will sign-off on the plan once it’s ready.

Read: All aboard saved after Tall Ship Astrid runs aground off Kinsale >

Read: €27m in silver recovered from WW2 whipwreck off the coast of Galway >

Pictures: Stunning photos capture the wreck of the Tall Ship Astrid at dawn >

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