BoatUS handled more than 50,000 dispatches in 2013, the vast majority of which were garden-variety tows — dead batteries, empty fuel tanks, soft groundings, and the like. If you ever have to call for a tow, it’s much more likely to turn out to be a long, boring afternoon than a dramatic salvage or life-threatening situation. According to Capt. Dale Plummer, who operates TowBoatUS Baltimore/Middle River, most tows consist of 10 steps. Knowing what to expect if you ever have to be towed will help make the experience as simple and trouble-free as possible.
1. Calling For Assistance
Whether you request a tow by phone or radio, know where you are. “It’s frustrating when someone says they’re off the smokestacks south of Baltimore,” Plummer says. Not only are there more than one set of smokestacks, most people can’t judge distance well. Even if your boat is not equipped with GPS, your smartphone can give your position (see sidebar), and that will get a towboat to you faster. The BoatUS Towing App is even better, automatically providing your position to the dispatcher when you call for a tow.
2. Agreeing To Fees
The first question a dispatcher or towboat captain will ask is if you have a prepaid towing service. If you have to pay some of the costs yourself, TowBoatUS captains will provide you with an estimate, on a per-hour basis, that includes the time from the operator’s dock to your location. “Out-of-pocket costs for a tow start at about $200 an hour here,” Plummer said, “with an average tow costing about $700 per incident.” Hourly charges increase after dark or during small-craft warnings. Why so much? Many towboat operators own and maintain several boats, and pay multiple captains to make sure one will be available 24/7. “The worst part of my job is when I have to hand someone a bill who doesn’t have a towing package,” Plummer said.
3. Establishing Communications
Once contact is established, and fees have been agreed upon, the towboat captain will tell you how long it will take to reach you and set up a way to communicate. The captain may ask for more details to identify your boat. If you’re under sail and want to make headway toward your destination, establish a rendezvous point and ETA. Don’t be afraid to check in with the tow company. “More communication is better than less, especially if the situation changes,” Plummer said. “And after calling for a tow, please answer phone calls from unrecognized callers. It’s probably the towboat captain trying to make contact.”
4. Preparing For The Tow
In case the wait is long, in an effort to move things along once the towboat arrives, setting up lines and fenders may seem like a good idea. But the towboat captain will use specialty lines and, if needed, fenders, and will determine the appropriate attachment points, which may not be those you’d expect. “You can get your lines and fenders out and have them ready to deploy when you’re approaching the dock,” Plummer said, “but keep all cleats free of lines and the boat’s sides clear of fenders until the captain tells you otherwise.”
On the other hand, if you’re on a sailboat, the towboat captain will ask that sails be lowered and flaked before passing you a towline. Having them down when the towboat arrives will make your boat easier to pick out and save time; however, only do so if there’s no chance you’ll need the sails to maneuver before the towboat is on scene.
5. Attaching A Towline
The towboat captain will explain how he wants to get a line onto your boat. For trailerable boats, Plummer uses a long gaff to attach a quick-release shackle to the bow eye down near the waterline. He passes a line with a spliced-in loop to larger powerboats. This needs to be taken through a fairlead and to a cleat, and the loop dropped over the cleat. “Don’t use a cleat hitch or tie the towline,” he says. “You need to be able to release it quickly if there is a problem.” Plummer uses a bridle with spliced-in loops for sailboats to ensure they track in a straight line while under tow. The loops need to be led to the bow cleats in such a way that they won’t chafe. “Anchors often interfere with the bridle on sailboats,” Plummer says, “so it may be necessary to remove them for the tow.”
6. If It Becomes Salvage
Once in awhile, a garden-variety tow can turn into salvage. That could happen if, for example, a violent thunderstorm suddenly puts the boat in peril of being swept ashore, or if a falling tide turns a soft grounding into a hard grounding. In that case, TowBoatUS operators are required to let the boat owner know, if there is any way to do so, that the situation has changed. Salvage will be far more expensive than towing. Towing service agreements don’t provide for salvage; insurance policies do (check in advance as not all policies provide full coverage for salvage). So let your insurance company negotiate the salvage with the towing company.
7. Towing Astern
For most of the tow, your boat will be pulled well astern of the towboat, in the smooth part of the wake. You’ll stay aboard the boat to make sure nothing goes wrong. The towboat captain will tell you what to do with the helm. In most cases, the helm should be centered. Stay seated. Don’t try to steer. Before getting underway, you and the tow captain will agree on how to communicate, most often on a designated VHF channel. If the tow takes a long time, be sure to check in occasionally. “Towing at night, especially in rough conditions,” Plummer said, “I worry someone may go overboard, so I appreciate them staying in touch.”
8. Towing “On The Hip”
To maneuver in the close quarters of a marina, your boat will need to be brought alongside the towboat, or put “on the hip,” so the two boats operate as one. While you’re still well outside the marina and its traffic, the towboat captain will slow, then stop before pulling your boat up close. Exactly how the two boats will be secured will depend on the relative size of the boats, wind/current speed and direction, which side the dock will be on, and how much room there is to maneuver. The towboat captain will provide both lines and fenders for this operation, so once again, keep your boat’s cleats and sides clear.
9. Readying To Tie Up
Once your boat is positioned “on the hip,” and the towboat captain is heading into the marina, go ahead and put lines and fenders on the side opposite the towboat. You can set up lines and fenders for the side the towboat is on, but you’ll have to wait until your boat is free to put them in place.
10. Entering The Slip
A good towboat captain will be able to ease you right into your slip, but the operation is a delicate one that can be disrupted by snubbing off a line or pulling the boat hard into the dock. Stay aboard the boat and wait for the towboat captain to tell you to tie off before doing so. The towboat captain will remove the towline, you’ll agree on how the charges will be settled, and your boating adventure will be over — at least for today.