What is Maritime Law?

Under maritime law, the crew of a dedicated rescue vessel, such as a U.S. Coast Guard Defender class patrol boat, cannot claim property from rescued or derelict vessels.
The United Nations, which is headquartered in New York City, expanded the freedom of the seas concept with its UNCLOS convention.
The owner of a tugboat has agreed to a contract of towage when he agrees to move a barge filled with goods.
Among other things, maritime law safeguards the ownership of cargo as it is transferred from one physical handler to another, as when cargo is moved from a ship to a warehouse or between ships.
Maritime law may apply to the handling of individual intermodal containers.
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  • Written By: Dee S.
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 28 October 2015
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Maritime law, or admiralty law, is one of the most established and oldest types of law. It generally covers laws or rules that govern tort, contract, marine commerce, ships, shipping, and worker compensation claims that arise on the world’s navigable waters. Topics can include salvage, towage, maritime liens, maritime contracts, marinas, and maritime injuries.

Although the topics covered by maritime laws are numerous, there are several that are quite interesting. For example, there are laws that govern what happens when someone finds property that is lost. Under international laws, if property is lost on the water and found by someone else, the finder can claim a salvage award for the retrieved property. Consequently, if a ship is damaged and loses cargo during a bad ocean storm, the finder can ask the shipping company to pay them money for any of the cargo they retrieve. Usually the salvage award is less than half of the value of the property that was salvaged.


In many countries, towage is an important part of the transportation of products. A boat that pushes a barge full of goods is a towboat and one that pulls it is a tugboat. The contract that states the owner of the tugboat or towboat agrees to tow the goods is called a contract of towage. That contract is covered by maritime contract rules. A contract of towage does not need to be in writing in most countries, but it is usually a good idea. Most contracts of towage assume that reasonable care must be exercised in towing the goods.

Most broad maritime law topics are widely accepted by nearly all seafaring nations. Yet, there are issues where the international laws can conflict with the laws of an individual nation. Nearly every nation accepts the admiralty law that states the flag that is flown by a particular ship dictates which nation’s law will be followed. For example, if a ship flies an American flag in a Grecian sea, the ship will follow the American admiralty laws. In the alternative, if a ship flies a Venezuelan flag in the waters near the United States, the Venezuelan laws will apply.

In the United States, maritime law is dictated by Article Three of the United States Constitution, making its laws enforceable by the federal court system. Other countries, such as India and New Zealand, pass their maritime legal cases on to the high courts. At one time, England had special courts that only heard admiralty cases. Those admiralty courts have since been abolished and the cases are now heard in the high courts of England as well. Most common law countries follow the maritime laws of England.

The International Maritime Organization was created by the United Nations in 1958 to help establish international maritime laws. It also established many international conventions that covered maritime safety. For example, the Safety of Live at Sea Convention and the Collision Regulations were created by the International Maritime Organization. When a country adopts the rules of a specific convention, they are enforced by each nation through the nation’s courts.


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