How to Tow a Boat in the Water

Towing is not just a matter of attaching a line and taking off. There is a risk of damaging both boats and passengers, especially when the weather or water conditions are rough. Some boaters accept assistance from anyone who offers to help, and that’s where more trouble develops. The boater helping may have good intentions, but good intentions won’t prevent a tow line from getting tangled in a prop or from someone getting hurt.

There are some points to keep in mind that really point to using professional marine towing services:

  • Pulling a boat of a different size requires good knowledge of attachment points and rope types, i.e. don’t attach a tow line to a single boat cleat
  • The tower needs to know how to make a bridle setup to spread the load among the attachment points so cleats aren’t snapped off
  • The tower needs the right amount of line which is approximately 8-10 boat lengths
  • Nylon ropes can stretch and break
  • Towing requires staying off plane and pulling with a steady throttle that keeps the tow line taught
  • It’s important to know how and when to adjust the length of the towline to maneuver through different types of water (i.e. open water vs calm water)
  • Must know how to maneuver the tow boat to accommodate wind and current to stay on course
  • It’s important to be knowledgeable in how to bring the towed boat gently to the dock (crashing into the dock is not advised!)
  • Boats should be able to communicate with each other in the event things go badly

Towing comes with many risks, especially if your towing buddy doesn’t know how to attach the tow line, keep the line taut, and adjust for conditions. Towing a boat can also damage cleats, hardware and the engine and prop due to the strain. Your buddy or a good Samaritan on the water is not going to be pleased when he damages his boat trying to help you out.

You can probably also count on your buddy ending up unhappy after losing a fun day on the water. Often, the best option is to use a professional boat towing service near you, like BoatUS or Sea Tow to name just a couple of the larger companies.

Boat Towing: Common Causes

If you own a boat long enough, there will come a time when you break down, run into extremely rough and dangerous waters or encounter bad weather that your boat can’t handle. Following are some of the reasons boat owners have to call for assistance.

  • Mechanical breakdown, i.e. engine, transmission, fuel system, steering system, etc.
  • Engine died due to bad fuel
  • Ran out of gas
  • Ethanol in the gas causes engine problems
  • Fuel system was not maintained
  • Engine overheats, i.e. failed water pump impeller, clogged intakes, corroded manifolds, etc. (fingers crossed you don’t ruin the engine)
  • Ran aground and can’t go anywhere
  • Damaged the prop hitting a rock or bottom (and no spare)
  • Lost the prop
  • Battery died (Did you run the battery down with lights and a stereo system while anchored?)
  • Boats collided and are too damaged to operate
  • Taking on water and bilge pump quit working or can’t keep up
  • Water is so rough there is a threat of capsizing
  • Sudden storm the pilot is unprepared to handle, endangering lives
  • Computer failure
  • New boat with few running hours that came with free “kinks” that have to be worked out

The U.S. Coast Guard does towing, but only when a boat is in grave danger and requiring immediate assistance (definition of “in distress”). In severe storms and rough water situations, the Coast Guard may send a helicopter or airplane to remove passengers and sadly leave the boat to its own devices.

The Coast Guard will respond to distress calls, either with a Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary or some other rescue boat provided by a non-Coast Guard source. A distress call is made by calling “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY” on your radio. If you’re not in distress, just call “Coast Guard.” The Coast Guard monitors Channel 16 VHF/FM and 2182khz HF/SSB distress and calling frequencies 24/7.

The Coast Guard will try to coordinate assistance if you aren’t in distress. You can ask them to call a marina or fellow boater or a commercial firm. If the Coast Guard is unable to get hold of someone who can assist, a Marine Assistance Request Broadcast (MARB) is made on your behalf. It’s a general invitation for others to come to your aid.

The Coast Guard makes every effort to not interfere with commercial enterprises when you aren’t in distress. If the Coast Guard does assist you with a tow, your boat will be taken to the nearest location where you can arrange for repairs or another tow home. If the Coast Guard is trying to help you get assistance, and conditions change from not-in-distress to in-distress, let the Coast Guard know. For example, you begin taking on water or a storm seems to come out of nowhere or someone has a medical emergency.

Remember though, the Coast Guard is only available for tows of boats in distress. Most situations don’t qualify as real distress. You could conceivably float around for days in good weather with a dead engine for as long as the food holds out. Of course, no one wants to do that!

How to Decide on a Boat Towing Service

Getting stranded does not have to turn into a scary moment in which you envision your boat drifting out to sea or down the river, or getting damaged when it hits bottom as you frantically use your oars to keep the boat in deeper water. (True and somewhat embarrassing story because due to running out of gas and drifting towards a rocky shore!)

There is a lot of peace of mind that comes with knowing you have access to towing services. Sometime boat insurance policies include minimal towing or you purchase a towing rider. Towing on boat insurance policies usually comes with a list of exceptions. For example, it will limit the number of tows in a 12-month period and the distance a boat will be towed without additional charges. This may equate to getting towed to a location far from home. Like any insurance, the more you use it, typically the higher the premiums go.

Another consideration is the difference between towing and salvage. There are two sets of risks boat services fall under.

  • Low risk – mechanical breakdown, fuel deliveries, towing to a port, jump starting a battery, de-anchoring, soft ungroundings, disentanglements

  • High risk – sinkings, hard groundings, collisions, runaway boats (broke away from something like moorings or docks), fires, poor weather conditions, boats stranded in the surf lines, boats in close proximity to a fire source

Marine towing companies mostly specialize in low risk services, and charge by the hour unless you have become a member of a towing membership services company. A marine salvage company handles the high risk services and either awards a percentage of the boat’s value after saving it or charges a per foot or hourly charge to recover the boat, with additional charges for hazardous conditions. If a situation doesn’t fit the low risk category, it becomes a salvage operation.

Insurance policies often severely restrict the amount of coverage for low risk services and will typically provide salvage coverage only for the hull value of the boat. This is true IF the policy covers any towing at all. You normally have to buy a towing rider to get the limited services. You also have to pay for the towing yourself and claim reimbursement.

Boat Towing Membership Services

Except for those in boats that don’t have a motor, every boater at some point needs a tow. Once upon a time, the U.S. Coast Guard offered non-emergency towing (aka assistance towing), but that ended in 1982. Boaters are on their own unless there is a serious threat to life or your boat, and it’s difficult to remove passengers. Boat owners today are fortunate because there are national and local boat towing companies offering reasonably priced membership services for towing and a variety of other services.

For a small amount of money, it’s nice to know you can call some one for help anytime you need a tow and not rely on other boaters inexperienced in towing. Towing a boat is not easy and filled with dangers of its own, like the two boats colliding. The following discussion lists the many reasons boats need a tow, where the U.S. Coast Guard fits in today, the basics of boat towing and the services of the two national boat towing membership services.

There are towing membership services that offer low risk services at a reasonable cost. It’s not boat insurance. You choose a plan, pay an annual fee, and are guaranteed a tow and other services, like delivering fuel when you run out. So, your first decision is selecting a membership service that fits your needs. There are two national companies, BoatUS and Sea Tow, and a number of local services that cover a particular region or certain waters.