The Last Word on the Lake: Flotsam or Jetsam?

The other day, I was standing on our dock marveling at how there seemed to be more room than normal. It took me a few minutes to figure out that all that space existed because the big floating mat we usually have rolled up and bungee-corded to the dock was missing. I thought back for a moment and remembered that we had left it rolled out in the lake a day or two prior when the kids had been out for a sunset swim in their underwear. 

Usually, I pull it in and wrestle it into a roll soaking my clothes in the process, but I’d left it out for a night assuming I’d handle it in the morning. I’m not sure what weather or waves blew through in the night, but that thing was gone. 

I told my neighbor John about the missing mat and he shared a few top-level legal perspectives on flotsam vs jetsam and ownership of things that wash up on your shore. For example, if I wake up in the morning and a 30-foot sailboat has washed up on my shore after a big storm, do I now own it? It’s a bit of a legal gray area.

He explained it to me in clear and simple terms, and I immediately forgot everything. I looked it up on the internet just now and discovered that “Flotsam and Jetsam” is the name of an American thrash metal band from Arizona, and that doesn’t help me at all. 

We had a flotsam (or maybe jetsam) issue the first time I came to Lake Norman. It was during the pandemic. We’d left New York with our two young kids in search of a spot near my wife’s family in Charlotte. The bottom had dropped out of the rental market, so we were able to find an affordable place on the lake that March. We thought we’d stay for two weeks. We ended up staying for seven months, buying land and then building a house. 

While we were staying at that very first house, a huge storm blew in and the docks were bobbing up and down all along our lakeshore. In the morning, there was a big black dock float sitting on our shore. I had no idea what it was, but I noticed that our neighbors in the rental had an old dock float propped up in their yard that they were using for target practice with their bow and arrows. So, I thought it was another target of theirs that blew away in the storm. 

I caught them down by the lake while they were out and told them that their target had floated over to our yard, and I asked them if they wanted my help to drag it back into their yard. He said something like, “No, that doesn’t belong to us.” And, I was like, “No man, it’s identical to the one you’re blasting with arrows, it has to be yours.” So, he told me the one they were shooting had washed up on their shore during the last big storm, so we should feel free to keep this one that had washed up so we could shoot it, or do whatever we wanted to with it. We weren’t sure what to do, so we left it sitting on the shore for a night. Another storm happened to blow in that night, and in the morning, it was someone else’s flotsam (or jetsam) problem. 


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