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After Matthew: Searches for docks and boats raise questions of salvage

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The dock on Pawleys Creek where Pawleys Island Police keep their Jet Ski was one of the victims of Hurricane Matthew last month. But Chief Michael Fanning was able to recover a portion of the dock when he investigated a report of a helicopter picking storm debris.

“People were concerned about this guy picking up stuff that might not belong to him,” Fanning said.

That led him to a house on the west side of Pawleys Creek where the McDonnell Douglas utility helicopter was parked. It was registered to Rotor Blade, a company in Georgetown that uses helicopters to maintain utility lines.

Fanning spoke to the owner, Ashley Haddock, who also owns the house on the creek. “He said he was out looking for his dock and decided to pick up other things,” Fanning said.

Among those things were floats from the dock on Springs Avenue whose owner provides space for the police department Jet Ski. Fanning retrieved them.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Haddock said he didn’t have time to talk about the episode.

Fanning said Haddock told him that he was testing the helicopter’s retrieval system. Fanning found portions of other docks and notified the owners to get in touch with Haddock. “At least one of them got their stuff back,” Fanning said. “We really didn’t have much jurisdiction in the case.” No charges were filed.

The south end of Pawleys Island was washed over by the hurricane and many items ended up on the Prince George property on the west side of the creek. Haddock’s house is a mile and a half to the north, between the North and South Causeways. The town limits extend to the center line of Pawleys Creek.

It was the second instance where Pawleys Police found people collecting storm debris from the area around Prince George. Within a week of the storm, a man whom Fanning would identify only as a mainland resident, was spotted with several kayaks stacked in a boat. He had told Fanning he was looking for a friend’s dock.

When questioned, Fanning said, the man told him he was salvaging the kayaks.

“They are salvage, but that doesn’t give you ownership,” said Tom Winslow, a partner in the law firm of Goldfinch and Winslow who specializes in maritime law. “They have to return it to you.”

Fanning put the owners of three of the kayaks in touch with the would-be salvager. Under maritime law, Winslow said, the salvager could claim payment for his expenses and a salvage fee, usually 5 percent of the boat’s value. If the owner doesn’t want to pay, the salvager can file a lien in magistrate’s court. If the owner is unknown the salvager should notify the police to try to find him.

As for docks, those aren’t vessels, but they have owners and those owners have the right to retrieve them, Winslow said. They may need permission if they float to someone else’s property. And as to helicopters, “even the airspace above your property is your space,” he added.

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