Aboriginal council lays claim to yacht that ran aground on its land

An international dispute between local Aboriginal law and conventional salvage law has arisen after  drifting racing yacht “Huntress” washed ashore on a remote island off Tasmania, Australia.

During the annual Sydney to Hobart Race the yacht struck an unknown object on December 28th, possibly a sunfish, and lost steering at a position 80nm off the east coast of Tasmania. A portion of its rudder had been torn off. All crew members were evacuated safely by police first responders and the vessel was left to drift, awaiting a salvage tow. However, the vessel was never picked up; it drifted north and washed ashore a week later on Christmas Beach, Cape Barren Island.

The island is also known as truwana (sic) to the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania. It is the only section of the state to have a full-time Aboriginal population living on their own land.

After the grounding, the Land Council expressed serious concern that the Huntress might break up in the surf, spilling fuel and spreading debris on a the beach. It therefore encouraged the vessel owners and salvors to carry out a “swift, safe and successful” removal. The boat was salvaged successfully on and towed away, underway once more for a safe harbour in Tamar River, northern Tasmania.

It was at this point that Land Council chairman Michael Mansell told ABC Australia that the yacht had been removed without permission, and that the owner owed a payment of one-third of the vessel’s value.

“The Huntress has washed up on the shores of Aboriginal land on Cape Barren and that makes that vessel the property of Aboriginal people. That’s always the Aboriginal law.” He then cited seven cases dating back to 1840 in which the island’s original inhabitants had taken possession of wrecked vessels belonging to settlers or European interests.

However, the local Cape Barren Island Aboriginal Association had not been aware of this precedent at the time of the grounding, and did not apply it when salvors asked for permission to remove the vessel. Neither does conventional salvage law support the Land Council’s claim. Maritime lawyer John Kavanagh told ABC that the title to the vessel remained with the owner, though a salvor can claim payment for certain services rendered. He said that he would be surprised if the claim was backed by the courts, notwithstanding the actions of the island’s earlier inhabitants.