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An ancient law determines how sea rescuers get rewarded


The open ocean can be a lonely and dangerous place. If you need a rescue, you may have to rely on whatever ship happens to be passing by. Well, Jeff Guo from NPR's Planet Money podcast explains the ancient law that governs how sea rescuers get rewarded - and tells a pretty good sea story, too.

JEFF GUO, BYLINE: On a dark and stormy night almost 30 years ago, captain Skip Strong was sailing up the Florida coast when he hears a distress call coming over the radio. There is a tugboat nearby, and it is in trouble.

SKIP STRONG: And the Coast Guard is saying, yeah, we'd like you to offer any assistance you can to help these guys out. And I'm like, what do these guys expect us to do? We're a loaded oil tanker out here.

GUO: Yeah. Skip is in charge of a 700-foot oil tanker. It's hard to imagine a ship less suited for a rescue operation. But they are in the middle of a tropical storm. There aren't any other ships around to help. And when the tugboat captain comes on the radio, it sounds like he's in real danger.

STRONG: Once he has to shut that engine down because of the fireballs in the engine room, he's getting dragged 2 1/2 to 3 knots towards the coast of Florida. And it's like, this guy's having a bad night.

GUO: So Skip and his crew decide they are going to try to rescue this tugboat. Skip orders his oil tanker full-speed ahead.

By the time they reach the tug, it's around 4 a.m. It's pitch black. The wind is blowing more than 50 miles an hour. His giant tanker is tilting back and forth in 20-foot waves.

STRONG: I've got, you know, 6, 7, 8 feet of water rolling across the deck. That will hurt people, if not kill them.

GUO: Skip has to send his crew out onto that pitching and rolling deck, where waves keep crashing over them, to try and essentially lasso this tugboat. On their first try, the rope misses the boat entirely.

STRONG: No idea where that line went.

GUO: The second time, they managed to attach the rope to the tug, but then the rope snaps.

STRONG: Almost. We were so close to having this done.

GUO: But on their third and final attempt, they get this tugboat secured. And by the way, it's not just this tugboat. This whole time, the tugboat has been towing a barge. And as the sun comes up, Skip finally catches a glimpse of this thing.

STRONG: I'd never seen a barge that looked like this. It looked like an old military barracks type of thing or an old aircraft hangar.

GUO: Skip radios the captain of the tugboat.

STRONG: And I said, what do you have in that thing back there? And he said, it's the liquid fuel cell for the Space Shuttle. And I said, do you mean the big - you know, the big orange tank, you know, that the Shuttle hangs on? He said, yeah, that one. And I was like, well, that's an unusual cargo.

GUO: That barge was headed for Cape Canaveral. Skip and his crew have rescued a key component of the Space Shuttle - that iconic orange fuel tank. A few hours later, Skip's on a conference call with his bosses. And they point out that, according to a maritime law that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, Skip and his crew are entitled to a reward. They tell him...

STRONG: Congratulations, Captain Strong. You now have salvage rights to everything behind you.

GUO: Salvage rights - Skip had forgotten about the ancient law of salvage, which says that, if you rescue a ship from danger at sea, you get a reward based on the value of the stuff you saved. In this case, Skip and his crew had rescued a multimillion-dollar piece of the Space Shuttle.

STRONG: My reaction at that point in time was, holy [expletive]. Yeah, oh, salvage.

GUO: The idea behind salvage rewards is that ancient societies wanted to encourage sailors to help out other sailors in trouble. To this day, most of the world still follows this principle. Now, in this case, it took a few years to get the salvage reward sorted out. A federal judge had to assess the value of the Space Shuttle tank, weigh that against the heroism and the riskiness of the rescue. But at the end of it all, Skip and his crew and their employer shared an award of nearly $5 million. According to the court, this was the largest salvage award in U.S. history, though Skip says, on that dark and stormy night, he was just trying to help out those guys on that tugboat.

STRONG: I didn't do this for money to begin with. The fact that I'm getting something is truly a bonus on top.

GUO: A bonus that, for Skip, was worth $300,000. Not bad.

Jeff Guo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIKELI47 SONG, "MONEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jeff Guo
Jeff Guo (he/him) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the complicated forces that move our economy. He joined the team in 2022.