I was doing some research for an article on marine heads and waste systems the other day when I came across this on Wikipedia, regarding the origin of the three mile limit for dumping your waste overboard.

              “A workable formula was found by Cornelius Bynkershoek in his De dominio maris (1702), restricting maritime dominion to the actual distance within which cannon range could effectively protect it. Most maritime nations adopted this principle, which developed into a limit of three nautical miles.”

                Now this stopped me dead in my tracks. I mean here I am trying to find out why the powers that be decided 3 miles was as close to shore as we were allowed to dump our waste matter. I sat staring at the screen my head tilted like a confused puppy, just not sure what to think of what I was reading. Is it possible our government in its infinite wisdom feels this is the distance it can defend its self from a boaters waste?

                I sort of figured the three mile limit must have something to do with ecological studies that would measure the fecal bacteria count down to particles per billion. In my naive way I assumed that that millions of dollars had been spent to determine the drift patterns of a boaters waste across ocean currents. I just figured that after years of research the scientists had determined that once 3 miles offshore Mr. Hankey was no longer able to make it back to land. And here in black and white, (On the internet no less and we know that is never wrong!) I was reading that it is all based on how far a cannon could shoot in 1700!

                I mean sure, nobody wants a Mr. Goodbar showing up onshore while they are swimming with the other land dwellers, I can understand this. But somehow I never saw this connected to the distance a country could lob an iron ball at an offender. Are we to be in fear of cannon shot should we take a dump or open the thru hull say 2-3/4” miles from shore?

                I was looking for a reasonable explanation of why, exactly, 3 miles was the legal limit of how close to shore we could relieve ourselves over the side.  But you see that was my mistake after all, looking for a reasonable explanation for why the government would do anything. A fruitless exercise I know and I should be ashamed of myself for even trying. I suppose some official somewhere in a bureaucratic fortress, decided that so as long as those of us in our boats were out of cannon range we could crap in the water and there was little they could do about it!  After all how could they stop us, we could just drop our oilies and moon them over the rail while their cannon shot fell splashing into the water just short of us. What were they to do? This of course means we cannot fire our waste back at the defenders which I suppose is the really point after all.


                It suddenly made sense, all those cannon you see in those shore side fortress museums pointing out to sea. I now understand why the officials put so much effort into maintaining them. And what about all those yacht club cannons they claim they only use to start races! They tell us these weapons are not really operational but I now know better! They are laying wait for the day some hapless boater is caught airing their goods over the rail in an act of unspeakable aggression.

                 I have even heard stories of some governmental officials taking this three mile limit thing a bit too seriously. Armed officials have been reported boarding boats, guns drawn, demanding complete cooperation under the threat of arrest. Tossing dye tablets like grenades into our thrones to verify we are not secretly attacking them with our foul chemicals. (And I have known some boaters whose waste I would think would qualify as chemical warfare. Come to think of it, after a night of rum and burritos I am pretty sure mine could qualify as well.) All this aggression seems so un-necessary when a well placed cannon shot across the bow would suffice. And yes, I will admit a cannon shot across my bow could have the opposite effect by causing me to………well you know “soil my knickers.” But none the less I am sure the effect would be less fear among the shore dwellers of our foul attacks!

                Of course cannon have gotten a bit more powerful since Cornelius came up with his De dominio maris. The territorial line was eventfully moved out to twelve miles, although we all know this is sort of useless with today’s cruise missiles and all.  (Hmmm cruise missile does that mean they were designed to take out a cruiser with his drawers down!)Despite modern advances in shore side defense we boaters remain restricted to the three mile distance the old breach loader cannons could fire. Somehow I find that rather comforting, knowing that if I am going to be taken out for fouling the waters I would prefer to go down like Errol Flynn, in a blaze of black powder smoke, splintering wood, spars cashing down on deck around me, sword in hand ready to defend my right to……hmmm well I admit maybe not the noblest of causes.

                 Now to  avoid the occasional 5 pounder being sent off in our direction we all use holding tanks while inshore to hold our…..well you know what. With the increasing number of boats now roaming the inshore waters I think it is best we keep our poo to ourselves after all and I have no real problem with waiting until I am out of cannon range to open the seacock and let loose my…..hmmm how should I put this delicately “our sweet water.” 

              Ok I know it would appear I am not taking this subject seriously and I am quite sure ol Cornelius had more important things in mind when he came up with his De dominio maris and the 3 mile limit. I am reasonably sure the last thing he was thinking about was some yachties waste matter drifting back to shore. The contents of my holding tank surely never entered his mind. He was of course more concerned with being able to fend off invading hordes. Although given some of our crowded harbors on a summer weekend one could think an invasion was indeed taking place. Even though I do like to picture myself as Errol Flynn (Just a balder rounder version) I will not resort to slinging my feces back at the bureaucrats like an angry monkey (as tempting as that can be sometimes.) I will behave and hold my business till I am at least out of cannon range!

As Published in Latitudes & Attitudes
By Capt. Wayne Canning




About the author: Capt. Wayne


Boat builder, Sailor, Surveyor, and freelance writer.