Shipwrecks, Collisions and Salvage

At the end of 2016, there were around 58.000 vessels in the world trading fleet, which had doubled (by deadweight tonnage) since 2004.1 That is a large number of ships traversing the world’s oceans, added to which are the hundreds of ships in active service for the various navies around the world. Ship collisions are becoming a problem, and – ironically – it appears to be the reliance on technology that is a leading cause.2 But collisions don’t only happen at sea: in May 2017, for example, a bulk carrier overshot its berth in Durban harbour, causing an estimated R100 million in damage.3

One question is: what happens to the wreck? What if it happens at sea? Who is responsible for salvaging operations? And so on. These and other questions are addressed by the Wreck and Salvage Act 1996.

A. Duty to assist4

  1. If the master of a ship at sea receives a signal of distress, or information from any source that a ship is in distress, he must proceed with all speed to the assistance of the persons in distress. Unless his is unable to do so, or considers it unreasonable or unnecessary in the special circumstances of the case, he commits an offence if he fails to do so.5 6

  2. If a ship has answered a call for assistance, it can be ‘requisitioned’ by the master of the ship in distress. Basically, that means the ship becomes available for use at that master’s command. If the ship is requisitioned, its master must proceed with all speed to the assistance, unless released by the ship in distress. The assisting master commits a crime if he does not do so.7

  3. Unless he will put his ship or any person on board in serious danger, the master of a ship must assist any person found at sea who is in danger of being lost. If he does not do so, he commits a criminal offence, even if the person who needs assistance is an enemy, or his ship is registered in an enemy country.8

  4. If two ships collide, the master of each ship must:
    • render assistance to the other ship and every person thereon as may be necessary to save them from any danger caused by the collision; and
    • stay by the other ship until he is certain there is no need for further assistance.

    Unless doing so will endanger any person on his own ship, each master commits an offence if they fail to do this.9

  5. Each master must also give the other master the name of his ship; the port from which it has sailed; the port to which it is headed; and its port of registry. It is an offence not to do so.10

B. Wrecked ship or aircraft

  1. When a ship or aircraft is wrecked, stranded, or in distress it is a criminal offence to plunder, create disorder, or obstruct the preservation of the craft, the wreck, or persons from the wreck.11

  2. If you do not have the authorization of the person in charge, it is a crime to go on board any aircraft, or ship which has been wrecked, or stranded or is in distress.12

  3. It is a criminal offence to:
    • impede or hinder the saving of any ship which is stranded or in danger of being stranded or otherwise in distress;13
    • impede or hinder the saving of life from such a ship;14
    • impede or hinder the saving of any wreck.15
  4. You may not deface or obliterate any marks on a wreck, and if you do it is a crime.16

  5. If you conceal or hide any wreck it is an offence.17

  6. If you wrongfully carry it away, or remove a wreck, you commit an offence.18
  1. – ‘Shipping Fleet Statistics: 2016’. 

  2. – ‘Why it’s not surprising that ship collisions still happen.’ 


  4. The provisions of the Act relating to wrecks, to the salvage of life or property, and the duties to assist apply equally to aircraft as they apply to ships. See section 4. 

  5. He can be released from this obligation if other ships have responded and are proceeding to assist, or if the person in distress releases him – section 5(3) and 5(4). 

  6. Section 5(1) read with section 22. 

  7. Section 5(2) read with section 22. 

  8. Section 6(1) read with section 22. 

  9. Section 7(1)a read with section 22. 

  10. Section 7(1)b read with section 22. 

  11. Section 13 read with section 22. 

  12. Section 14(1) read with section 22. 

  13. Section 14(2)a read with section 22. 

  14. Ibid

  15. Ibid

  16. Section 14(2)b read with section 22. 

  17. Section 14(2)b read with section 22. 

  18. Section 14(2)c read with section 22.