American Oceans

What’s The Difference Between Flotsam And Jetsam?

Flotsam and jetsam are terms used under maritime law to describe floating debris, and the circumstances in which it was abandoned.

floating ship debris difference between flotsam and jetsam

“Flotsam” refers to debris that’s left behind unintentionally due to wreckage, and “jetsam” refers to items that are purposefully thrown overboard, to lighten the load.

The terms flotsam and jetsam can be confusing, as they both seem to describe essentially the same thing: debris floating in the water. However, what differentiates them is the way in which the debris came to be in the water.

“Flotsam” is debris that is left in the sea unintentionally. This is often caused by a shipwreck, or some other form of accident.

flotsam in the sea caused by shipwreck accident

Flotsam can be cargo, or even part of the ship itself. The term comes from the French word floter, meaning to float.

“Jetsam”, on the other hand, is debris left intentionally. This may happen when a ship is encountering problems, and the crew needs to lighten the ship’s load. “Jetsam” comes from the term jettison, and is a deliberate act of removal.

As you can see, the primary difference is intent. “Jetsam” is debris abandoned with intent, while “flotsam” is debris with an absence of intent.

jetsam intently abandoned debris on the sea

While the distinction may seem small, its purpose is to determine who, under maritime law, can claim ownership of any objects that may be found.

Flotsam and jetsam refers primarily to floating debris. Items which have sunk tend to come under the heading of “lagan” or “derelict”. 

Can you keep flotsam and jetsam?

You may be able to legally keep flotsam and jetsam, but it depends on which category your findings fall under. Flotsam is generally considered to be the property of the original owner, but jetsam often belongs to the finder.

However, this varies depending on whether the owner makes a claim. Flotsam is considered to be the property of those who originally lost it, rather than those who found it.

This is because flotsam was abandoned unintentionally, and often as the result of an accident. Because of this, the original owners can lay claim to any flotsam that may be found.

However, if they don’t make a claim, or the owner can’t be found, the finder is within their legal right to keep the flotsam.

So, if you happened to come across floating treasure from a shipwreck, this would likely be traced back to the original owner, who can then claim it for themselves.

Jetsam, having been abandoned purposefully, is the property of whoever finds it. This is true even in cases where it’s easy to identify the original owner (for example, marked containers).

As the debris was purposefully abandoned, the original owner has relinquished their claims. However, the original owner may still be able to make a claim, and potentially a profit.

If the original owner – those who jettisoned and abandoned the jetsam – proves ownership, they may receive a portion of the profit made by selling the goods.

These laws do vary between countries, and the ownership often isn’t simplistic. If you find flotsam and jetsam you intend to keep, be sure of your legal rights.

What does flotsam and jetsam mean today?

Flotsam and jetsam are maritime terms, used to describe floating debris from a ship. “Flotsam” is debris left without intent, often due to an accident or shipwreck.

“Jetsam” is debris that’s abandoned on purpose, often as a way to lighten the ship’s load. These terms are still relevant today, and retain their original meanings. 

As part of maritime law, the terms flotsam and jetsam have been around for a long time. In fact, the first use of “flotsam” was recorded in the year 1607.

Since then, the terms have expanded, and the distinctions between the two have become clearer. However, they still retain essentially the same original meaning.

The global shipping trade has grown extensively since 1607, allowing both terms to maintain relevance – even if their usage has had to adapt.

Flotsam and jetsam are also used in conjunction with two other terms: lagan and derelict. Lagan, like jetsam, are items that have been abandoned purposefully but have sunk to the ocean floor.

These items are often marked with a buoy, or other flotation devices, as the owner intends to return and claim them.

Derelict refers to items that have been abandoned and sunk, with no hope of retrieval. A newer consideration of flotsam and jetsam is the impact that they have on the environment.

Debris in the ocean can often harm sea life, and even negatively affect the quality of the water. Because of this, the terms flotsam and jetsam are often used by conservationists, trying to clean up the ocean.

Being able to identify who takes ownership of debris allows conservationists the opportunity to assign responsibility. 

What would you call the wreckage of a yacht floating in the sea?

The wreckage of a yacht floating in the sea would be considered flotsam, as it was unintentionally abandoned.

This term refers to both the yacht itself, and any cargo that might be floating. The wreckage would be considered the property of whoever initially owned the yacht.

However, if they don’t make a claim, then the finder retains ownership. If the yacht had encountered troubles and the crew had jettisoned items to lighten the load, then this would be considered jetsam.

This is debris that has been purposefully abandoned, and that the crew didn’t intend to come back for. Wreckage floating in the ocean is most often flotsam, as the owner didn’t abandon it with intent.

Although the terms may seem incredibly similar, they play an important role in maritime law. The difference between flotsam and jetsam helps in determining ownership.

If you intend to take a yacht out to sea, it’s important to understand what rights you may have in the event of an accident.

Understanding maritime law can help you to make claims should you encounter any issues with your own boat, as well as knowing what to do should you come across debris.


  • Whilst I appreciate that your website primarily relates to “American Oceans”, and I also noted that wording relating to the topics of jetsam and flotsam does mention how laws might be different in other Countries, I would just like to expand on the latter with respect to what (jetsam- and flotsam- wise) eventually lands on the shores of beaches or rocks around the United Kingdom, for different rules/laws apply.

    As the coastline between high and low water mark, as well as the land under the sea until the continental shelf is reached, is treated differently, as is also the land beyond the high water mark, it would always be best to check with Maritime Maps, The Crown Estate, your Local Council, and the National Trust, as well as online, as besides ascertaining who owns what (and therefore what ends up on it), much of both foreshore and land under the sea is leased out and/or licenced by The Crown Estate for “port and harbours infrastructure, moorings and marinas, and cables, pipelines and outfalls. [The C.Es] also lease land for aquaculture and other coastal development projects.”

    The difficulty with determining the originator of both jetsam and flotsam once it floats onto the abovementioned areas – in theory should be left to the respective owner(s) – but identifying either miscreants or unfortunates, is as fraught with problems, as is identifying those who, having discovered spars of wood on foreshore, either take it away, or make a spectacular bonfire “in situ”, leaving no trace, bar black charcoal!