Thursday, April 05, 2012

There's a ghost ship heading toward us, I hear, set adrift after last year's earthquake in Japan. It's been ambling across the ocean all this time, carrying mystery cargo and probably rotting. The first thing we intend to do when it shows up, it seems, is sink it.

Some of the news stories are calling the boat derelict, which is interesting. As usual, maritime law seems to be a matter of interpretation. Broadly, they call ships and their parts on top of the water flotsam, while derelict is what is on the bottom of the ocean without hope of reclaim. But then it seems that that's only derelict cargo, which is likely to sink anyway--you could abandon a ship on the high seas and still call it derelict. Theophilus Parsons gave the answer an even finer point in 1859 when he wrote his treatise on maritime law, explaining that a ship that is left with the intention of returning isn't a derelict ship. (If the whole ship is kidnapped, the ship is factually derelict, but not legally so. Assuming, I guess, that eventually the crew can escape the pirates and take their ship back? It seems that it has always been difficult to pen the sea in between the hard lines of our laws.) So from what I can gather the matter of dereliction works in the same way as that of salvage--what you call whatever is on or under the water begins with intent and only then leads to fact.

Which leads me back to our ghost ship. Japan didn't intend to cast this boat off, the Earth itself did that for them. The boat probably didn't intend to wander off into the ocean, although I suppose we can't really be sure about the feelings of boats. And yet at the same time the Japanese also don't appear intent on getting the boat back, while we are pretty sure we want to send it to the bottom of the ocean. So. By intending to punch it full of holes we are making sure that this boat is derelict, whatever it was when the ocean first shook it loose, but then what was it all these months while it was just wandering slowly across the waves? Just a ghost, I guess, drifting above all the fish and under all the clouds. It's only when we noticed it was there that it became something else.

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