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Updated: May 17, 2023



Legislators have tried for centuries to describe the words “ship” and “vessel”, and those meanings have been plagued with interpretational issues.[1] What is a “ship” and “vessel”, in maritime law? The invention of revolutionary ‘contrivances' such submersible aircraft, and unmanned vessels[2] and floating storage regasification units, has overwhelmed maritime law. This inherent pitfall has prevailed for a long time in the common law, where various statutes often include descriptions that are, to differing degrees, distinctly worded. This paper will attempt to answer whether the definition set out in the MSA 1995 is the all-encompassing sole definitive definition.

The new meaning of “ship” contained in s.313 Merchant Shipping Act of 1995 is controversial, and stems from the previous, now largely obsolete Merchant Shipping statutes. The new law specifies a “ship” without defining vessel,[3] and notes that a “ship includes every description of vessel used in navigation.”[4] The preceding related term was contained in s.742 of the MSA 1894, which presents a circular[5] definition of a “ship” and “vessel”. It says any ship, boat, or other type of vessel used for navigation is referred to as a “vessel” and a “ship” refers to any type of vessel not powered by oars that is used for navigation.[6] An oared ‘boat' may be included under the word “vessel”, but would be omitted as a “ship” according to one decision.[7] A description of a “boat” is not included in the 1894 Act. The existing definitional emphasis on "used in navigation" has been plagued by problems that the English courts, in particular, has failed to resolve. Courts have occasionally looked at whether the craft in question was specifically used in navigation during the activity that sparked the dispute. This method can be accomplished not only by evaluating the craft's operation, but also by evaluating the susceptibility of the individual waters to be navigated.

The use of the concept of "vessel" under s.742 MSA 1894 was required in Curtis v. Wild.[8] The boat was a 'lark dinghy' that was being used on Belmont reservoir that was less than half a nautical mile across. The judge expressed his emphasis on his belief that a lark dinghy may be a boat "used in navigation," but not on Belmont Reservoir. In Southport Corporation v. Morriss,[9] a similar ruling was made in regards to an electric launch on an inland bay.

A river was viewed differently from a reservoir by Judge Bray in Weeks v. Ross,[10] because a “vessel only used a portion of them.”[11] Lord Coleridge was of the view that and if this particular boats never ventured out to sea, it is already shown that these waters could be navigated.[12] Even, similarly, in Curtis v. Wild the well-known case of Steedman v. Scofield,[13] was used to the effect that travel on water does not constitute ship navigation. In the case of Steedman, the jet-ski was being used for recreational purposes rather than strictly for navigation. The second explanation was that, unlike conventional watercraft, the jet-ski was not hollow-structured.[14] In R. v. Goodwin,[15] the Criminal Court of Appeal took the same position in applying the description of “vessel” under s.313 MSA 1995 to s.58 of the same Act. The Criminal Court of Appeal's decision in this case, seems to go much farther[16] in removing jet skis from the meaning of “vessel,” regardless of their actual use.[17]

And if a judicial concept of “vessel” uses the broad expression “contrivance capable of being used in navigation,” a court is not going to take the “anything that floats” approach. The case in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida,[18] concerned whether or not a floating home that was not self-propelled could be found to come under the scope of vessel under 1 U.S.C. §3.[19] [20]The solution of “all that floats” was not adopted in the recent case of The Environment Agency v. Gibbs.[21] Here houseboats were the contraptions alleged to be "vessels". These contraptions were fixed in place by a series of embedded poles, ropes, and anchors after being towed to their designated spot in the marina. The water, sanitation, and electricity networks were then attached to the houseboats. The court ruled that these houseboats did not qualify as “vessels.” A houseboat was held not to be part of the property in Chelsea Yacht v. Pope, for the purposes of the Housing Act 1988.[22] A cruise, even though it is used as a residence, is not the same as real estate.[23]

Similarly, a landing stage that was a massive floating structure designed to be a permanent structure and stationary, but for the comfort of passengers, was not held not to be a vessel[24] in The Craighall.[25] For the purposes of the MSA 1995 and its predecessors, self-propulsion or self-direction are not needed for a craft to be considered a vessel. A dredger which had no propulsion was held to be a vessel in The Mudlark.[26] Decisions of the same kind were made in The Harlow[27] and The Lighter (No. 3).[28]

The least controversial concept of “vessel” is likely to be found in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, (“COLREGS”) 1972, Rule 3(a) which states: “the word ‘vessel’ includes every description of water craft, including non-displacement craft and seaplanes, used or capable of being used a means of transportation on water.” Here the use of the words “includes”, “watercraft” and “capable of being used” ensures that the courts will not be stifled if they want to extend a purposive interpretation of the law.

Gauci argues case law relating to the MSA 1995’s differently worded meanings has tried, and most likely failed, to develop future-proof accurate interpretations that can persuade a layperson of the precise meaning of the words “vessel” and “ship.”[29] Undoubtedly, new ‘contrivances’ will be expanded and are referred to as boats or ships,[30] and certain legal concepts will be changed or created; lawmakers, both national and foreign, typically lag behind an industry focused on innovation, having to look at case law to find an all-encompassing sole definitive definition of “ship” or “vessel”.


[1] Harvey, Matthew, and Victorian Bar, “Arresting a “Ship”: Boats, Bunkers and Barometers”, (2012) Australian Law Journal [2] Veal, Robert, Michael Tsimplis, and Andrew Serdy, "The legal status and operation of unmanned maritime vehicles" (2019) 50(1) Ocean Development & International Law 23-48 [3] This provision uses the same language as section s.742 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, which defines the term "vessel." [4] This is the same definition that is used in the Civil Procedure Rules Part 61 (Admiralty Claims) [5] Mandaraka-Sheppard, A., Modern Maritime Law, 14 (2d Ed., Routledge, London, 2007) [6] Similar to Merchant Shipping Act 1854 [7] Ex parte Ferguson (1871) LR 6 QB 280 [8] [1991] 4 All ER 172 [9] [1893] 1 QB 359 [10] [1913] 2 KB 229 [11] [1913] 2 KB 229 at 234 [12] [1913] 2 KB 229 at 235 [13] [1992] 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 163 [14] Daniels, Simon, “The'ship'at the mercy of English law", (2008) 12(2) Mountbatten Journal of Legal Studies, 72-95 [15] [2005] EWCA Crim 3184 [16] At paragraph 33 [17] Douglas, Trevor, “Merchant Shipping Act 1995, S. 58: Statutory Interpretation: R v Goodwin [2005] EWCA Crim 3184,[2005] All ER (D) 111”, (2006) 70(5) The Journal of Criminal Law 385-390. [18] Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida, 568 U.S. (2013) [19] 2016 US Code Title 1 - General Provisions, Chapter 1 - Rules of Construction, Sec. 3 - "Vessel" as including all means of water transportation [20] Schauer, Frederick, “Analogy in the Supreme Court: Lozman v City of Riviera Beach, Florida” (2014) 2013(1) The Supreme Court Review, 405-432 [21] [2016] 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 69 [22] [2000] 1 W.L.R. 1941 (Court of Appeal) [23] [2000] 1 W.L.R. 1941, p. 1946 [24] Order XIX, r. 28, Rule 28 [25] [1910] P. 207 (Court of Appeal) [26] [1911] P. 116 [27] [1922] P. 175 [28] [1902] 18 T.L.R. 322 [29] Gotthard Mark Gauci, “Is It a Vessel, a Ship or a Boat, Is It Just a Craft, Or Is It Merely a Contrivance?” (2016) 47(4) Journal of Maritime Law & Commerce, 479 [30] Allen, Craig H., “The Seabots are Coming Here: Should they be Treated as ‘Vessels’?” (2012) 65(4), The Journal of Navigation 749-752


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