Monday, January 22, 2007


Beach-combers have been told to stay away, but scavengers are out on Branscombe beach in Devon, where booty is washing up from the stranded ship MSC Napoli. So can they keep what they find?

Brand new BMW motorbikes have been wheeled out of the shingle by keen treasure-hunters. Wine casks, perfume and car parts littering the shore have been rolled clear or tucked under the arm.

People are picking through the contents of spilt containers from the cargo ship MSC Napoli beached off the Devon coast and at night, the area is lit by flickering torches as they scour the area for goodies.

Warnings that chemicals such as battery acid, pesticide and oily liquids have also washed up, are proving little deterrent against the lure of "free stuff" littering the beach. But can people keep it?

Police have just closed off the beach to stop them coming.

And there is, says Stephen Askins, a partner with maritime lawyers Ince and Co, a right to salve property. Someone could argue they are recovering goods from the beach to protect them, as they would be in a poorer state come four or five tides' time.

But, before they clear the car boot and head to the coast, they should be aware of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. It states clearly that if they try to conceal or keep the booty they are breaking the law.

If they ignore the advice to leave it alone and report it to the coastguard, they must fill in relevant paperwork. But that still doesn't allow them to keep it.

The goods still belong to their owners, whether they are stuck in containers on the stricken vessel, or washed up on the shore. Contractors have already been brought in to clean up the beach and return anything to its rightful home.

But when Joe Public decides to "help", as seems to be the case all over Branscombe beach, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's Receiver of Wrecks steps in. The job title goes back to the previous 1854 Merchant Shipping Act, which also set out rules on picking up flotsam and jetsam.

Salvage, and indeed deliberate wrecking of ships, around our island nation has a long history. The principles governing ownership and recovery go back at least to the 1300s says Alison Kentuck, the MCA's deputy receiver.

If people take the cargo, they fill in a "report of wreck and salvage" form, with their contact details, what they found, where and when. "It's available from pretty much anybody in uniform down on the beach", she says.

Her role is then to reunite owner and property. A reward to the finder could be offered, depending on the value of the goods, the condition they are in after rescue, and the effort involved in recovering them from the beach. Wheeling something home, she stresses, is "not classed as a huge amount of effort".

Hiding the goods and not giving them back is a criminal offence, with a possible fine of up to £2,500 per offence.

Plus, the hot-fingered beach-comber, would waive their right to a salvage award, and have to pay the owner twice the good's value: "In the case of a BMW motorbike, it could be quite expensive".

As for paddling out to see what the remaining 2,000 containers may hold, it is of course highly dangerous. And, would-be pirates note, there are official salvors charged with recovering the cargo stuck at sea, and the damaged ship itself.

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