The maritime lawyer is often asked by citizens and non-maritime lawyers alike to explain what “maritime law” really is. First, a very brief history – Maritime law as we know it today is a continuation of rules which arose in the international trade between ancient nations in the Mediterranean Sea. The Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Myceneans, Phoenecians, and Akkadians are some of the earliest traders involved in developing maritime rules. The Code of Hammurabi dates from 1800 B.C. and contains provisions dealing with marine collisions and ship leasing. The Romans built upon Greek maritime principles and some of their rules and customs were published in the Digest of Justinian (533 A.D.).

Later (circa 1266), a collection of judgments known as the Rolls of Oleron was written which dealt with a wide range of substantive maritime matters and which has contributed greatly to the development of modern admiralty and maritime law. The Rolls were the primary authority for early English admiralty courts. The English admiralty tradition was then adopted by the United States. Article III, section 2 of the United States Constitution extends the judicial powers of the United States “to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction”.


Now that you know a little bit about how our maritime rules came to be, it is time to learn the meaning of some important maritime terms. Here are some of our favorite:

Knot: 1.A knot is a method of fastening or securing rope by tying, ie – “If you can’t tie a knot….tie a lot.”;  2. a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour, approximately 1.151 mph.

Nautical Mile: a unit of length that is about one minute of arc of latitude measured along any meridian, or about one minute of arc of longitude at the equator (both at sea level). By international agreement it has been set at 1,852 meters exactly (about 6,076 feet).

Marine League:  No…this is not a sports term. A marine league is a measure of distance equal to 1/20th of a degree of latitude, or three geographical miles.

Barratry: A fraudulent act by master or crew designed to prejudice the ship’s owner or insurers.

Charterparty: A charterparty is a contract under which a ship is leased for a period of time or for a number of voyages.

Allision: An incident in which a moving vessel strikes a fixed object.

Jettison: To throw cargo or equipment overboard in order to lighten the ship in a time of distress. The jettisoned cargo or equipment then becomes “Jetsam”.

Flotsam: If the jettisoned cargo or equipment floats, it becomes “flotsam”, which is any part of a vessel or its cargo or equipment floating on the ocean’s surface, usually after a casualty.

Lagan: If the jettisoned cargo or equipment sinks and can be reclaimed, it is referred to as “Lagan”.

Bunkers: Fuel taken aboard a ship for its own consumption, as opposed to fuel loaded as cargo.

Demurrage: A fixed sum paid for delay or holdover in maritime contracts such as charter parties or other shipping contracts.

Ullage: The amount needed to make a tank full.

Now you know a little more about what maritime law is and what some of the interesting maritime terms mean. If you need to discuss any matter of importance with a maritime attorney,  the Charleston maritime lawyers at John Hughes Cooper, P.C. can help.


The attorneys at John Hughes Cooper, P.C. cover the waterfront in the area of admiralty and maritime law. If you are in need of a maritime lawyer in Charleston or in any other part of South Carolina, the law firm of John Hughes Cooper, P.C. has over 30 years of experience assisting those in South Carolina and other locations in the Southeast with admiralty and maritime law related issues. Please call or email us at any time for a free, confidential consultation.