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The ship was on its way from Crete to Rome when a ferocious storm struck. At the mercy of gale winds and violent waves, the ship was perilously close to sinking. The crew were forced to do the only thing they could to try and save it: lighten the ship enough to give it a better chance of staying afloat. They began by throwing overboard whatever cargo could most easily be spared. As the storm kept raging and the ship continued to founder, they threw over everything they could until the decks and holds were empty. After fourteen days of terror, the ship finally washed up on the island of Malta. This story is from Acts 27, the biblical account of the apostle Paul’s terrifying voyage aboard a ship that encountered raging storms at sea.

Flotsam and jetsam

Search for <flotsam and jetsam> and you’ll likely be sent to a site that features The Little Mermaid, where Flotsam and Jetsam were the names of the sinister moray eels that were minions and spies for Ursula the Sea Witch.

You might be directed to the site of the American thrash metal band Flotsam and Jetsam, whose latest album is Blood in the Water. If you want to know where the film and the band got the inspiration for their names, you’ll have to take a closer look. 

The words flotsam and jetsam are so bound together that we rarely hear them used separately

Simple dictionary definitions say such things as “discarded odds and ends” and “miscellaneous rubbish.” Idiomatically, flotsam and jetsam are terms from maritime law that describe floating debris and the circumstances of how it came to be in the water. To the lawyers and the courts, flotsam and jetsam are two very different things. The reason is insurance liability and the difference is one of intent.

Flotsam means the floating wreckage of a ship’s cargo

It is easy to see when you think of how much “flot” looks and sounds like “float.” The word flotsam is derived from the French word floter, meaning to float. Flotsam is debris that has unintentionally gone into the sea, due to carelessness, accident, severe storms and shipwrecks. Flotsam can also be broken parts of the ship itself.

Jetsam is also floating goods

The difference is that jetsam describes items that are deliberately thrown overboard by the crew of a ship perilously close to sinking. The idea is to lighten the load, make the ship more buoyant and keep it afloat by sacrificing the cargo. Jettison means to intentionally dump freight overboard to lighten a ship’s load in time of extreme distress. In time, jettison became a term that means to discard any burden.

Maritime law says flotsam can be claimed by the original owner, but jetsam belongs to whoever finds it

You might want to take this up with pirates or salvagers who claim any seagoing wreckage is the property of whoever takes possession of it.

A thousand years ago

In the early days of shipping goods via sailing ships, shrewd businessmen would approach the ship’s captain with a simple proposition. They would offer to pay the captain in advance to protect their cargo in event of a disaster that called for goods to be thrown overboard to try and save the ship from sinking.

If their cargo needed to be jettisoned, so be it, but the advance payment was made to ensure that the crew throws the other shippers’ goods over first and saves the protected goods until the very last.

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Flotsam and jetsam apply only to floating debris. When the debris sinks to the bottom, it becomes lagan and derelict. Heavier cargo that sinks is sometimes intentionally thrown into the sea with a buoy and line attached so it can be recovered later. This location-marked debris lying on the ocean floor is called lagan and everything else at the bottom is derelict. Lagan is the French version of the Latin “laga maris,” or law of the sea.

Derelict is from the Latin derelictus, meaning abandoned by the owner or occupant.

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