Had things gone differently in the 1980s, Joe Frohnhoefer of Sea Tow and Richard Schwartz of BoatUS might have become lifelong partners.
Instead, when both men died of separate causes earlier this year—Schwartz in February from complications following a car accident, and Frohnhoefer in March after battling cancer—they left a legacy of competition that spanned more than three decades. That their lives ended within weeks of each other seems almost fitting, given the way their stories are forever entwined. And this sad coincidence gives all boaters a chance to reflect not only on what these men created, but also on how it will affect life on the water for many years to come.
Neither Frohnhoefer nor Schwartz originally set out to become a leader in the world of non-emergency marine towing. Frohnhoefer was a high school teacher, and Schwartz was an antitrust lawyer. Schwartz got into the business of boating first, founding BoatUS during the late 1960s as a way to represent boaters’ interests in Washington, D.C.
"He was out on the water with friends on a boat, and the brand-new boat was boarded by the Coast Guard," says Schwartz's widow, Beth Newburger Schwartz. "The manufacturer produced boats with engine-room ventilation problems, and the Coast Guard would target those boats because they had no jurisdiction over the manufacturer. Then it became the buyer’s responsibility to fix the manufacturer’s defect. The Coast Guard ticketed his friend, and Richard said, 'That’s ridiculous. The law has to be changed. Who represents you?'"
And so BoatUS was born. Schwartz parlayed that day's outrage into a lifelong fight for things like the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, which helped to hold boatbuilders accountable for safety standards, and the Recreational Boating Safety and Facilities Improvements Act of 1979, which helped to ensure that boaters’ fees supported boaters’ programs. By the early 1980s, when President Reagan took office, Schwartz found himself not only battling for new laws on behalf of boaters, but also negotiating to maintain services that boaters had long enjoyed. That included non-emergency towing, which the U.S. Coast Guard and its Auxiliary members were providing at the time—and which Reagan saw as a good target for change.
“His administration was elected on the platform of cutting back the size of government,” recalls Mike Sciulla, who was BoatUS director of government and public affairs beginning in 1980. “Literally one of the first things they did was look out and see that the Coast Guard was providing towing to wealthy boat owners.”
In 1982, the U.S. Congress directed the Coast Guard commandant to review towing policies, to be sure they did not interfere with commercial enterprise. It was Washington-speak for making sure boat owners who needed a non-emergency tow would soon begin to pay for it out of pocket. Schwartz and his team at BoatUS fought the proposed change, taking to Capitol Hill and lobbying just as they had on other measures.
Frohnhoefer, on the other hand, thought there was a new opportunity for business. Like Schwartz, he had started out with other goals in life, working for years as a high school teacher on New York's Long Island, as well as doing seasonal work for the Southold Town Police Department. Frohnhoefer was talking one day with a friend at Port of Egypt Marine in Southold, and the friend said a customer had defaulted on the purchase of three Privateer boats that were destined for use as tow boats on the Great Lakes. Frohnhoefer looked into the reasons why the customer had backed out, and he learned about the machinations taking place within the Coast Guard.
He then bought one of the Privateer boats, wrote a business plan on a yellow legal pad, and brought the idea for a commercial marine towing service to BoatUS, where he pitched it to Sciulla as a partnership.
Sciulla, under Schwartz's direction, listened to Frohnhoefer’s idea, but ultimately, BoatUS didn’t go for it. “We were very skeptical to begin with,” Sciulla recalls. “We really did not think that they had a viable model. Except for a couple of concentrations of boaters around the country, there weren’t enough boaters anywhere needing assistance to justify a full-time towing operation that was non-emergency. We didn’t think the model was sound, and we were concerned that if the Coast Guard was told to get off the water, the boater would lose. We basically said thanks but no thanks.”
In fact, Newburger Schwartz said, her husband had believed the business model to be ludicrous for years. "When he started BoatUS, a New York Times interviewer asked him if he was like AAA on the water," she recalled. "He said, 'That's ridiculous. AAA tows cars, and there's a gas station on every corner that tows cars. That couldn't happen on the water.'"
BoatUS, with Schwartz at the helm, instead continued its own path of battling politicians and Coast Guard admirals, insisting that the old system remain, while Frohnhoefer went on to launch Sea Tow, believing change was inevitable and it was best to get in on it early.
Sea Tow was created in 1983, and it quickly grew. By 1987, Sciulla says, the Coast Guard policy had officially changed, and no further non-emergency assistance would be given to boaters.
BoatUS then reflected on Schwartz's long-held position and decided that it, too, should open a towing program for its members, who by then numbered more than 200,000, Sciulla says.
“Joe was off doing his own thing, and BoatUS looked at it and said, ‘Gee, it has promise. Let’s get into the business ourselves,’” Sciulla says. A bare-bones version of the business model was launched as a competitor to Sea Tow, and in 1992, Sciulla says, the BoatUS towing service known as TowBoatUS was created.
Ironically, at the beginning, BoatUS subcontracted its towing services out to Sea Tow operators, says Kristen Frohnhoefer, the founder’s daughter. “That lasted until 1995,” she says. “Sea Tow made a business decision to cut that tie with BoatUS, only giving service to Sea Tow members. Then our growth skyrocketed.”
BoatUS and Sea Tow became the Coke and Pepsi of non-emergency marine towing, establishing spheres of influence and touting competing services for years to come. Kristen Frohnhoefer says her father took great pride in setting an example for the emerging sector, creating “a system where local Sea Tow owners share in the membership revenue, thus making sure funds flow back to the local level,” versus being towers-for-hire with no vested interest in the company’s overall success.
Sciulla remembers the organizations each coming up with an innovation or two. “Over the course of the next 20 years, Sea Tow would do something and then BoatUS would copy it,” he says. “BoatUS would do something and then Sea Tow would copy it. There was a spirited rivalry.”
Newburger Schwartz remembers the two men jousting, but always in a reasonable way. "They were competitors, but they had a healthy respect for one another," she said. "I think people who are on the water, there’s a culture that has always been there, of helping and reaching out. There are no lines on the water. Nobody has a colored eye. Everybody is the same.”
Both men grew to become very much a part of the boating culture, though, again, in different ways. Frohnhoefer remained a friend to his local police department, offering resources and assistance in everything from marine law enforcement to security task forces. Schwartz, meanwhile, bought a fleet of nine small boats—everything from a canoe, a paddleboat and a Lightning sailboat to a 22-foot Chris-Craft runabout and a 42-foot, twin-hulled steel boat—that he and his family used in Upstate New York.
“He loved the boats. He loved the boats," Newburger Schwartz said. "The only argument we ever had was whether it should be power or sail. He was a powerboater, I was a sailboater, and it was a bit of a quilt. We had nine boats at our house in the country. If you can drive it, we own it. The only thing we don’t have is a sleep-aboard cruiser, which I would have loved, but that was not his thing. He was a day-boat guy.”
Being on boats of course led both men to meet other boaters of all stripes, and their businesses grew along with their affinity for being on the water. The more boaters they met, the more they believed even more deeply in the services they were providing.
Sciulla and Kristen Frohnhoefer remember only one other serious towing-service competitor in all the years that followed the early days of Sea Tow and TowBoatUS. It was Vessel Assist, which evolved on the U.S. West Coast until BoatUS bought that business and incorporated it. Today, Sea Tow has more than 100 franchises and more than 600 tow boats operating in the United States and Europe, and BoatUS advertises coverage of more than 300 ports by 600 TowBoatUS and Vessel Assist tow boats.
While Schwartz and Frohnhoefer are being remembered for their business success, those who knew them best think of them as men who, more than anything, always strived to give back.
“Joe wasn’t just a good friend, he was one of my teachers in high school," Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell told Riverhead Local after Frohnhoefer's death. "He continued to teach me well after I graduated. Work hard, give back to the community and always put your family first.”
Newburger Schwartz says her husband, too, gave in ways that most people never knew. She had always been aware that he made donations to groups including the National Children's Museum, Arena Stage and, of course, the BoatUS Foundation, but last year, his assistant approached Newburger Schwartz and revealed a tremendous history of additional charitable donations totaling well into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"He would get solicited, as we all do, and he would read every solicitation letter from every organization," she said. "I found out from his administrative assistant that when he got to his office, he would read the solicitations and have her write a check. She asked me if I wanted to keep this going, and I looked at the list, and I was stunned. Animal rights causes. Feeding the hungry. International support for families around the world—an unbelievable list.”
For both Schwartz and Frohnhoefer, boating always remained at the core, the thing that made everything else in their lives possible. And because of their work, many boaters coming onto the water today can’t fathom using VHF Channel 16 to ask the U.S. Coast Guard for a non-emergency tow.
The successors to Frohnhoefer and Schwartz will likely continue to spar for dominance in the marine-towing marketplace for years to come, but it's evident that the sense of responsibility they instilled, toward the boating community at large, remains.
As Sciulla says, “They were visionaries.”