What is a “Vessel”?

Ever wonder what’s happening at the United States Supreme Court?  High profile Supreme Court cases regularly make front page news.  But when the Court’s proceedings aren’t in the limelight, there’s still a lot going on.

One of the Supreme Court’s primary purposes is to serve as the last word on the meaning of the many laws passed by the United States Congress.  The Supreme Court regularly issues legal opinions that interpret just exactly what Congress meant when it passed any given law.

The laws passed by the United States Congress as generally known as “statutes” and most of them are organized in a “code” (a “code” is a set of laws which are organized in a logical manner).  The “United States Code” contains all of the laws passed by Congress over the last 200 years or so, and which have been put together in an organized set of books.  These “codified” statutes passed by Congress are organized into “Titles,” and each “Title” concerns a different area of federal law.

The very part of the very first “Title” in the United States Codes provides a lot of word definitions.  Some of these definitions seem obvious – others, not so much.  The third law in the entire United States Code defines “vessel.”  Ever wondered what a “vessel” is?  Probably not.  If you looked up the word “vessel” in Webster’s Dictionary, you’d find that there are several definitions.  According to Webster’s Dictionary, a “vessel” can be an “airship.”  Or it can be a “craft” that’s bigger than a rowboat that is “intended for navigation on water.” Or a “vessel” can be a anatomical “tube,” like a “blood vessel.”

So, according to federal law, what is a “vessel?”  The word “vessel” is defined at 1 U.S.C.A. section 3 as being any “watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”

That definition may seem to be straightforward.  But it’s not. If you reviewed the legal cases decided by several federal courts, as found at 1 U.S.C.A. section 3, you’d find the following:

– a rowboat less than 16 feet long, capable of carrying three persons, and propelled by a single oar at its stern, is not a “vessel”

– The ruins of a “vessel”, shown to be fit for nothing but scrap or junk, and towed into the United States for such is not a “vessel” (but is instead “imported merchandise”)

– Coal barges, which are mere open boxes, floated downstream, and usually sold for lumber at the end of the voyage, are not ships or vessels

– A seaplane flying through air is not a “vessel” (but a seaplane is a “vessel” for purposes of salvage)

– A semi-tractor trailer with wheels which drives over a frozen lake is not a “vessel” even if the load which it is towing breaks through the ice (this seems rather intuitive)

So if these items are not a “vessel,” then what is a “vessel?”

– A schooner tied to a wharf, and used for dining and dancing, but equipped for sailing and capable of being towed, is a “vessel”

– A stern wheel steamer licensed for the coasting trade, formerly a ferryboat, which is used for moving a floating house, in which an exhibition or circus show was conducted, is a vessel

– An old steam boat, from which the boilers, wheel, engines, and machinery had been removed, and which had been changed into a pleasure barge for the transportation of excursion parties, having no independent means of propulsion, but intended to be towed by a towboat, is a vessel

– A vessel which was engaged in the coastwise trade, struck a rock and sank, and after several unsuccessful attempts to raise her, was abandoned by her owners to the insurance underwriters, who sold her, and the purchaser succeeded in raising and refloating her about a year and a half after she had sunk B is a vessel

– A raft made of cross‑ties, used as a convenient mode of bringing them to market, manned by a pilot, crew, and cook, who lived and had shelter thereon during the voyage, which lasted many days, and propelled by the tides and by poles and large oars, is a vessel.

So the foregoing descriptions give some idea about what may constitute a vessel.

What about a floating home? Most homes are built on soil or rock.  But some homes (or “houseboats”) float on water.  Are those homes “vessels”?  It can make a difference whether or not they are.

Copyright 2017 ROBERT B. JACOBS