Every boat owner can be certain of one thing: to be at one end of a tow line sooner or later. But towing is not as simple as just hooking up a line and taking off. There are things you should know to tow or be towed safely, and there are legal responsibilities that you must understand as the captain of your vessel.
Towing knowledge became considerably more important when the Coast Guard withdrew from the towing business. Most skippers had come to believe that they had the right to call for a tow in any situation and the Coast Guard was often swamped with calls for help from skippers who ran out of fuel or had minor mechanical problems that could have been solved onboard. Those days are long past and, while the Coast Guard will still assist you in a life-threatening crisis, don't expect a free ride if you've run out of gas.
If you break down, you may find yourself paying several hundred dollars for a commercial tow or you may have to rely on the courtesy of other skippers. Alternatively, you may be that Good Samaritan but, in either case, you'd better be prepared.
There are three basics to any tow regardless of the boat or the weather: a strong towline, a sturdy attachment point, and protection from chafe.
What to use as a towline
Most boats don't have the room (or the need) to carry a permanent towline, so you'll probably end up using your anchor rode. A nylon line is ideal for towing because it absorbs the shocks and eases the loads on the cleats, but that stretchiness can also be a deadly weapon. If a nylon towline breaks under load, it will whip back with lethal force, so keep your anchor line protected from the sun's ultraviolet rays and examine it often for wear.
The sad fact is that most modern yachts simply are not equipped for towing. The standard cleats on most boats are far too small and, even if they have a minimum of backing under the deck, they can still tear out. If you're taken in tow by a professional towing company, you may find yourself faced with a two-inch hawser that can never connect to your puny cleats. If you have any doubt about the strength of your bow or stern cleats, replace them with oversized cleats that bolt through the deck into a structural member.
The best attachment points and the best towline will quickly part company, however, unless you provide good chafe protection. Traditionally, pads of leather were sewn to the towline at any point of contact, but you'll probably need to jury-rig chafe protection; thick towels or canvas padding will serve for short-term tows. A nylon towline, subjected to loading and chafe, will quickly heat up and literally melt, so you should be prepared to lubricate the towline as well. The traditional grease was lard, but you can get by with anything slippery: butter, Vaseline, engine oil—even sunscreen.
Other essentials for safe towing include a heavy pair of gloves for handling lines, and a razor-sharp knife to sever the towline in an emergency.
Attaching the towline
For the towing vessel, the attachment point should be as close to amidships as possible, which allows the boat to steer easily without having the stern held by the load on the towline. A towline attached to your stern cleat may make your boat uncontrollable, so you should probably rig a bridle that attaches on each side of your boat forward of the stern. Some skippers prefer to secure the towline in the center of the bridle, but most professionals prefer the towline to slide freely on the bridle to allow the stern to swing. If you use a bridle, be sure to keep watch so it doesn't foul your propeller while maneuvering.
In smooth seas, you can simply come alongside the other disabled boat and heave the towline across but, in bad weather, you should float it downwind using a life cushion or other flotation device as a buoy.
Once the line is secured, take up the slack very slowly until the full load is absorbed, at which point you can then speed up to your intended towing speed. If you're in open water, adjust the towline length to match the wavelength so that both boats are at the same point on the swells. Otherwise, you'll increase the strains on the towline.
If you're being taken in tow by the Coast Guard or by a towing service, they will probably send a light messenger line across first that you'll use to pull in the heavier towing line. In rough weather, they may use a line-throwing gun or a weighted heaving line, so you should take cover until the messenger line lands. Since the towline may not be attached until after you retrieve the messenger, don't start to pull until told to do so.
You'll need to communicate with the towing vessel but, if you don't have a radio, the universal signal for a secured line is clasping your hands over your head. Stand clear as the slack is taken up, because most accidents happen when the strain first comes up on the line and its attachment point.
Boathandling under tow
If you're being towed, try to steer directly for the stern of the tow vessel to reduce the strain and to make steering easier for the tow boat. If you're uncomfortable about the speed, don't be hesitant about asking the tow boat to slow down since you're responsible for the safety of your vessel. How fast is too fast? Each boat varies, but good indicators of excess speed are a plowing of the bow from side to side, heavy jolts as the boat is pulled through waves, or any sense of instability.
Unless you must check the line, stay away from the towline during the tow. If you are doing the towing, have someone watch both the towline and the other boat at all times.
Small boats, such as outboards or stern drives, tend to wander at the end of the towline. You can sometimes cure the problem by raising the drives out of the water, or you can make a large loop of dock line and use it as a drogue astern to stabilize the towed boat. If you have an inboard engine, you should probably lock the prop shaft with a pair of Visegrip pliers or a wedge, since older transmissions can be ruined if they spin without the engine supplying lubrication.
Towing and the law
If you decide to tow another vessel, you become a "Good Samaritan" in the eyes of the law and are thus protected from liability as long as you "act as any prudent person would". A lot of well-meaning skippers have been sued over that nebulous phrase so, if you have any qualms about your own abilities, don't attempt to tow another boat. Good seamanship will always be a defense but you may find yourself up against an "old salt" in court who will swear you were inept in your actions. In addition, your insurance policy probably has a clause that frees them of liability if you don't exhibit what they consider to be good seamanship.
Don't hesitate to refuse to tow someone if the weather is bad, if you think your boat is too small, or if you're unsure of your abilities. You have a legal (and moral) obligation to save lives, but the saving of property is not your problem. Stand by the disabled vessel until an acceptable tow boat arrives on the scene, but don't jeopardize yourself or your boat by attempting a rescue beyond your abilities.
If you're at the other end of the tow line, bear in mind that the laws of salvage entitle a rescuer to "fair compensation" for his services. In the pleasure boat world, most towing is done out of courtesy, and a thank-you (perhaps in addition to a favorite beverage) is satisfactory payment.
If you find yourself needing a commercial tow, be sure to agree on a price before the towboat leaves the harbor. At the same time, find out how they expect you to pay the bill, since some companies will impound your boat until you pay in cash. Towing services have various ways of charging: some use a flat rate while others charge by the hour. If the charges are hourly, be sure to find out if the meter starts when they leave the dock, or when they actually take you under tow. Don't forget that admiralty law is on the side of the towing company and, if you try to evade the cost, most courts will penalize you heavily.
Towing is simply an exercise in good seamanship. Let's hope you never end up on the towed end of the line.
Learn how the two biggest commercial towing businesses in the U.S. got started by reading A Tale of Two Tow Boat Visionaries: Joe Frohnhoefer of Sea Tow and Richard Schwartz of BoatUS.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on boats.com in August 2000.