Even a landlubber who only goes down to the sea in books knows that the first seamen to board a ship adrift and take her in tow can claim salvage. Last fortnight, in a Gulf of Mexico fog, the Esso oil tanker Greensboro collided with the Esso tanker Suez and caught fire, killing 38 of the Greensboro's 42-man crew. The captain and crew of a rival tanker Virginia, which was nearby, saw a chance to invoke the sea's ancient law.

Under the nose of two other Esso tankers, which had spent the day hunting survivors, the Virginia, owned by National...

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