Flotsam and Jetsam: What are they, and what do they have to do with the weather?

July 1, 2017

DSC_1003My grandchildren and I spent an afternoon at the park recently and lost our soccerball. It was a windy day, but we decided to play on the beach in spite of the weather. My grandson, who can kick like Pele, sent the ball into a spin. Then the wind caught the ball and sent it into the lake.

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As we slowly watched the ball drift into the middle of the lake, my grandchildren commented on how closely the floating ball resembled the situation in “Castaway” with the volleyball named “Wilson.” The children begin to shout. “Wilson!” they say. “Oh, not Wilson!”


My granddaughter, Layla, suddenly discovered Wilson was missing.

Then the children were quiet. It was no longer funny. In the film, Wilson is Tom Hank’s only friend as he fights to survive then discovers he’s been cast aside and the people in his world have moved on without him.

My granddaughter started to remove her shoes. “What are you doing?” I asked her.

“I’m going to swim out to the middle of the lake and save Wilson,” she replied. “I’ve taken lessons. I can do it.”

“I’m sure you can,” I told her as I suffered a near heart-attack on the beach. “but not tonight. Poor Wilson has now become part of the flotsam and jetsam on Lake Windsor.”

Strange at it sounds, it is a rather depressing sight to watch something that was important to you moments before floating away in the water, but it also made me wonder–what exactly is flotsam and jetsam? Aren’t they the same thing? And if they are the same, why use two words? I’ve seen the phrase in books and classic films, so I assumed it was a cliche, or colloquialism.

Then a friend used the phrase in association with a flood and that was when I remembered seeing it used in situations describing natural disasters, such as storms, hurricanes, cyclones. I decided to do some research so I could explain to the children exactly what happened to Wilson, and where we might possibly find him a few days later. What I discovered is that flotsam and jetsam are both related to storms and the damage from storms that occur on lakes and oceans, but they are related to storms in slightly different ways.

Flotsam and Jetsam–the Maritime Definition¬†DSC_1523 (2)

Believe it or not, Flotsam and Jetsam, used together, is a maritime term, a phrase, and according to the National Ocean Service, under maritime law the distinction between Flotsam and Jetsam is very important. In fact, it could mean the difference between life and death during storms that take place over large bodies of water.

According to the National Ocean Service, the terms flotsam and jetsam are most often used together because they describe types of debris associated with marine vessels–ships, boats, and other water craft. However, flotsam and jetsam are, in fact, completely different types of debris.

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Flotsam is debris, pieces of ships and boats, items from these crafts that are found floating in the water, possibly damaged, and clearly not intentionally placed in the water. In other words, by their appearance, their condition, it can be assumed that the debris is in the water as the result of a catastrophe of some sort, such as a shipwreck during a severe storm.

Jetsam, on the other hand, is often in better condition. It is debris that is often thrown overboard to lighten the load of a ship in a storm so the ship might survive and sail more smoothly. It will most likely be lost at sea, but due to its condition it could signal rescuers to the fact that the sailors on board are still alive and struggling to keep their craft afloat.

According to maritime law, Flotsam discovered on beaches or in the water may be claimed by the owner. Jetsam, on the other hand, belongs to whoever finds it. It is considered salvage, cargo from loss at sea.

In spite of the distinction, there are a surprising number of lawsuits regarding the recovery of flotsam and jetsam.HMS_Resolute_cropped Flotsam and jetsam both describe items that were once on a ship and are now…elsewhere. If the owners of the ship were killed in the storm, and items were discarded in an attempt to save the ship, who owns these items? These cases can become quite interesting, such as the case of the HMS RESOLUTE, an abandoned ship that was recovered and claimed by both Americans and the British. Eventually, the ship was returned to England and made into two desks–one in the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth, England and the other…can you guess? The second desk is the desk used by the President of the United States in the Oval Office of the White House. (The photo to the right is the HMS RESOLUTE.)

Flotsam and Jetsam are also important to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for other reasons. There are items that one might not consider flotsam and jetsam, but the NOAA classifies them as such and sees them as important to the survival of our lakes and oceans. Trash, garbage from picnics, items from our sewers that are swept out to see during storms are also comsidered flotsam and jetsam and the NOAA’s Marine Debris Program must determine if these items made their way into our lakes intentionally or unintentionally and then determine who owns the items. They determine who must clean up the mess, or who will salvage the items then sell them for a profit or keep them for their intended use. For example, items used for both commercial and recreational fishing can cause great harm to the marine environment and wildlife.

Origins of the Phrase

According to the website Today I Found Out: Feed Your Brain, the term flotsam comes from an Old French word, flotaison, meaning “a floating.” It’s origin was traced to the 1600s.

Jetsam, on the other hand, appeared a bit earlier in language use, around the 1500s. As discussed earlier in this article, jetsam was used to describe items that appeared to have been deliberately tossed from a ship. (It should be noted that these items did not always indicate a ship in distress. They could also be illegal items thrown overboard so the ship’s owner and sailors could avoid arrest). Jetsam also comes from Old French. Again, there is a similarity. Flotsam’s original meaning is “a floating,” and jetsam’s original meaning is “a throwing.”

The two words used together in a phrase may have first appeared in an edition of the publication All Y. Round published on June 1, 1861, according to Today I Found Out.

Derelict, and Other Interesting Terms and Phrases

When examining terms used to describe items found washing about in the water, we find that storms that occur over lakes and oceans can create all kinds of problems. For instance, the word “derelict,” which appeared in maritime language around the 1640s, refers to items that sank to the bottom of the lake or ocean during the storm. It was once believed that these items were lost forever, but new technology has increased our ability to salvage these items, and in turn created more lawsuits to determine who owns the salvage rights.

Estimates verified on the NOAA website state that there are over one million shipwrecks remaining underwater in spite of the work of salvage experts–attempts to salvage derelict ships can be surprisingly expensive, but if the salvage expert is awarded the salvage rights, the rewards can be astounding, often showing profits of millions of dollars. One might think that such recoveries only take place in the ocean, but think of the size of the Great Lakes and the cargo ships that cross them!

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  • “Flotsam and Jetsam.” Today I Found Out: Feed Your Brain. Accessed June 30, 2017.
  • “What are flotsam and jetsam?” National Ocean Service. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. U.S. Department of Commerce. Accessed June 30, 2017.

Photos taken by Darla Sue Dollman are under copyright.


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