In A Nutshell
Most people have heard of flotsam and jetsam when it comes to debris that’s floating in the ocean, but there’s also derelict and lagan. Jetsam is material that’s thrown off a ship intentionally, usually with the hope of making the vessel lighter. Flotsam refers to materials that are still floating in the ocean that came off a ship that sank. Derelict property is that which has been abandoned by its owners, while lagan has also been abandoned but precautions—such as buoying—have been taken in the hopes that the owners will be able to come back and reclaim their goods.
The Whole Bushel
When we think of the floating remnants of man’s presence in the ocean, we usually think of flotsam and jetsam. They’re two types of what’s called shipwreck material, even though they don’t necessarily have to come from a shipwreck.
Jetsam is cargo or materials that are thrown overboard on purpose and because of some emergency. Usually, the vessel is in danger of sinking because it’s become too heavy in the water, and the crew jettisons some of the cargo in the hopes of making the load lighter.
Flotsam is what’s left floating in the water after a ship sinks or has been otherwise destroyed. It doesn’t refer to all the materials from the ship, though, and flotsam is only the goods and materials that are still floating on the surface and can be recovered. According to maritime law, the original owner has first claim to all flotsam recovered from the ocean.
There are also two rather lesser-known types of shipwreck materials, and they’re subject to different international laws when it comes to salvage rights. Derelict property refers to materials, cargo, or even entire vessels that have been abandoned by the owner (or those individuals that the owner put in charge of it), and there is no hope of recovering it. Lagan, on the other hand, is property that has been similarly abandoned at sea but the property owners are maintaining right—and hope—of recovering it. This is usually done by attaching a buoy to the cargo or craft in order to mark the spot for a return journey, and unlike flotsam and jetsam, this can include property that has sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
If a boat breaks free of a dock or other mooring, it’s not considered abandoned or shipwreck material. Different types of buoys are never classified as wrecks, either, but when buoys are attached to a specific type of vessel—a fishing vessel—they can be considered shipwreck if they go adrift.
There are also other minutiae when it comes to determining the state of shipwreck material and who has rights to it. For example, in order to truly be considered shipwreck materials, all the above-mentioned types of wreckage need to be found in tidal waters. If they’re in non-tidal waters, salvage is no longer subject to maritime laws, and falls into other categories depending on what it consists of, such as archaeological artifacts or treasure.
Clearly, all types of ocean debris have the potential to cause a lot of problem, especially for delicate marine life. But scientists are also turning to flotsam and jetsam to help study ocean currents.
Proving that science does have a bit of a sense of humor, one of the most informative bits of flotsam ever tracked by scientists were 29,000 containers of plastic bathtub toys. Going overboard in 1992, researchers spent the next decades tracking the containers; when they washed up on shore, they gave a pretty fascinating picture of where the currents had taken them. Lost in the North Pacific, toys were soon washing ashore as far away as Maine and Scotland, and some even turned up after being frozen in the Arctic ice pack.