A stranded Sydney to Hobart yacht that washed up on a remote beach on a Tasmanian island has been salvaged despite a fight with the local Aboriginal Land Council, which claims the boat now “belongs to Aborigines”.

The yacht, Huntress, washed ashore on Christmas Beach on truwana/Cape Barren Island after its rudder broke off during last month’s race.

The crew was rescued and the yacht was cut loose and left to drift for a week before it washed ashore.

Overnight it was refloated and today was being towed back to safe harbour in the Tamar River, in northern Tasmania.

But Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania chairman Michael Mansell said the yacht should not have been salvaged by the insurance company because “any vessels wrecked or washed up on the shores of Aboriginal land belongs to Aborigines”.

“We do not give permission for the insurers to move the vessel Huntress,” he said.

“The yacht cannot be removed from the island until one-third of its value is paid or the owners agree that Aborigines own the vessel.”

Michael Mansell looks at a big map on a table.
Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania chairman Michael Mansell says other vessels have been claimed under Indigenous law.(ABC News: Lachlan Bennett)

‘White man’s salvage laws do not apply’

Mr Mansell said he was citing an old Aboriginal sea law practice that evolved from the time of the white settlement and has been practised on truwuna/Cape Barren since around 1820.

“The Huntress has washed up on the shores of Aboriginal land on Cape Barren and that makes that vessel the property of Aboriginal people … that’s always the Aboriginal law,” he said.

“From the time that the white people chased us off our land in Tasmania and put us on the islands, the old people always applied Aboriginal traditional law to anything that washed up on the shores of Aboriginal land.

“Many boats have fallen under this law. The white man’s salvage laws do not apply because this is sovereign Aboriginal territory and our laws override those of the white man.

“Some vessels that fell under this law were the Apparition in 1840; Antares in 1853; CC Funk in 1898 and Cambridgeshire in 1875 with general cargo valued at 52,000 pounds; GVH in 1895 and HJH at Badger Island in 1917; Idle Hour in 1930 and so on.”

Yacht Huntress is washed up on beach
Huntress ashore on Christmas Beach, on Cape Barren Island.(Twitter: Aboriginal Land Council of Australia)

‘We’ve missed the boat’

Cape Barren Island Aboriginal Association general manager Denise Gardner agreed the boat should not have been salvaged.

Ms Gardner said they had been unaware of the history of salvage laws and rights practised on the island, finding out after the yacht was retrieved.

“Unfortunately, we’ve missed the boat,” she said. 

Ms Gardner said the salvage company had sought permission to come to the island and would have been under the impression it was allowed to remove the boat.

She said the association was now considering its next steps. 

“If we think we might have a case, then we’ll take further action as we feel is required under the circumstances,” she said 

Huntress being prepared for a tow by another boat.
Huntress being prepared for a tow after it was removed from Christmas Beach, Cape Barren Island, Tasmania, January 2023.(Supplied: Total Dive Solutions)

Ms Gardner said they would consider redress in the form of a third of the boat’s value being paid or the owners recognising a transfer to Aboriginal ownership.

“We need to take further action to establish our rights for the island, and that is the crux of this, I believe,” she said.

‘The salvor does not become the owner’, lawyer says

John Kavanagh from Pacific Maritime Lawyers said he would be “surprised if there was any legal substance” to Mr Mansell’s claims.

He said it was a common misconception that under the maritime law of salvage the finder could take ownership of a vessel or cargo.

“The common law of salvage does not change the underlying title in the vessel,” he told the ABC.

“The vessel’s ownership remains with the owners, even whilst it is wrecked, being salvaged or successfully salvaged.

“The salvor does not become the owner.”

As Huntress was being pulled out the shorebreak
A demasted Huntress was towed out to deeper water by the salvage company.(Supplied: Total Dive Solutions)

He said the salvor would be entitled to an “award” from the owners, but only if certain conditions were met: “danger to the vessel, acting as volunteers and successful salvage services.”

“The salvor may have possession of the salved vessel and may have rights to retain possession pending payment of an award, but they don’t own the vessel or any other salved property,” Mr Kavanagh said.

“So even if the native title holders rendered salvage services, the law of salvage would not grant them ownership of the vessel or the wreck.”


Land Council chairman yet to speak to insurance company

Mr Mansell said he had not yet been in contact with the Huntress’s crew or boat insurance company, Pantaenius Australia.

A spokesperson from the insurance company said Aboriginal elders from the Island helped oversee the salvage efforts and there was no damage done to the beach or natural environment.

Total Dive Solutions, the company that completed the salvage of Huntress, thanked two Indigenous representatives from the island “for their permission and local site knowledge”.

A yacht drifts on the sea, shrouded in fog.
Huntress was photographed at sea by a cruise ship passenger after the ship came to investigate the abandoned yacht.(Supplied: Sylvia Hamnett )
Path of a yacht as seen on a map.
The race tracker showing the location (green line) of Huntress drifting before it beached on Cape Barren Island.(Supplied: Rolex Sydney to Hobart)

“Over the weekend our expert team worked around the clock to free the vessel from the challenging surf break,” the company said in a statement.

“Rigging and equipment was swum to shore where we de-rigged the broken mast, the mainsail and boom and affixed to the vessel.

“Late Sunday night our support vessels pulled Huntress off the shore to deeper water.

“Total Dive Solutions recognises this could not have been possible without the support and assistance of the local Indigenous community, Pantaenius Insurance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Marine and Safety Tasmania (MAST).”

Pantaenius said its priority was returning the yacht to the vessel’s owner in the condition it was prior to the event, with an independent surveyor assessing whether it can be repaired.

Acting Tasmanian Premier Michael Ferguson said the government “would not be intervening” over the salvage matter.

“Quite clearly there should be some fair play and common sense … it’s a good thing that no lives were lost during what could have been a very perilous situation with a yacht that needed to be abandoned at sea.

“I hope that sensible people will act sensibly.”