Federal law requires that boat operators should always be ready to assist a vessel in distress. If you are an avid recreational boater the chances are that you either have or will come upon a vessel that is in need of a tow. Regardless of the circumstances leading up to the event, the first step is to make certain that you do not put your boat and its passengers in danger. If you think you might need to render assistance make sure everyone on board each ship is wearing a PFD, then contact the skipper of the disabled boat to learn more about their situation. Ask if they have contacted a commercial tow service, the Coast Guard, or local maritime authorities. Next, if appropriate, you can run a slow circle around the vessel to check for any damage to the hull, or lines in the water, etc. In addition, if the vessel is adrift recommend that they lower the anchor if the depth allows. If not, check if they have a sea anchor they can deploy. If the boat is anchored you may want to stand by until their commercial tow boat arrives, or offer to tow them to the nearest port.
Taking a Boat into Tow … Towing a boat is complex, which means safety should always be your primary concern. As a first step make sure your boat is up to the task in terms of power and equipment. Towing a large boat with a far smaller boat may result in a situation where the smaller boat cannot control the tow. If you have any doubts, do not make the attempt, but stand by until the proper help arrives. If you decide to tow be aware that a towing situation will continuously change. It starts when you prepare to tow, continues as you tow, and stops when you moor or dock the towed vessel. May the Force be with You ... Newton's First Law of Motion states that “An object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion unless a force acts on it.” Whenever a skipper decides to undertake a tow, he or she should be aware that they are the person who is in control of Newton’s “force that acts on it”. Static Forces … These are the forces that causes an object at rest to stay at rest. The size and displacement of a boat needing to be towed determines the amount of force (power) that a towing vessel must apply to the towed vessel in order to safely get underway. Inertia … Inertia is the force that must be overcome in order for the vessel doing the towing to bring the disabled vessel into a tow. A somewhat conflicting fact is that Inertia is also the force that causes an object in motion to stay in motion. Given this conflicting interaction with Inertia do not attempt to tow forward and change your heading at the same time. Doing so will place increased stress on the towline and the cleats on both the towed and towing vessels. Slow and easy wins the race in the circumstances that surround the onset of a tow. Once underway be certain to maintain a rigorous tow watch.
Piloting while Towing a Vessel … Getting Underway … Gradually apply power to overcome the towed vessel’s inertia. Start slowly and gradually increase speed to the optimum recommended tow speed for the boat in tow. Calculating the Correct Speed for a Tow … As the skipper , you need to be mindful that different types and sizes of boats each have a recommended towing speed. However, few recreational boaters will know these details. A quick rule of thumb is that a boat should be towed at a speed that is equal to the square root of its length. So, a 25 foot boat should be towed at 5 knots, a 36 food boat should be towed at 6 knots, etc. Most importantly, don’t bring both boats into a plane. Changing Direction … make any course change slowly and gradually after the towed vessel is moving. Keep in Step with the Waves … When towing, you want your boat and the towed boat to ascend and descend each swell or wave at the same time. You accomplish this by adjusting the length of the tow line. Having the towed boat climbing while the towing boat is descending creates tension on the lines and cleats. The opposite creates slack in the lines that could cause the towed boat to be swayed by the wind or current. Slowing while Towing … Remember that the boat you are towing has gained momentum and it doesn’t have breaks. Allow lots of time to slow down. The weight of a large recreational boat can keep it moving for a long time because of the momentum it has. A Drogue can help stabilize the motion of a boat being towed by adding some drag, but few boats have a Drogue onboard. To slow gradually take power down and allow friction with the sea and wind to gradually slow both boats to a stop. What’s Next …You have arrived at the entrance to the safe harbor. You now need to determine what to do with the towed boat. One option is to have the towed boat drop anchor and call a local commercial towboat. The towboat will be able to either transport the towed vessel to an available mooring, or if this port is the disabled vessel’s home port they might put the boat on an open mooring or in its slip. If this is not the home port, any port will have a marina or dock available for emergencies.
The Line on Lines … Most recreational boaters don’t keep towing gear on board. But, you can use an anchor line or spare to tow. The missing link here is bridles to attach the towline to the towing and towed boats. You also need a means to pass the gear between boats. Consult your marine supply store about including bridles and a heaving line in the rope locker.
Be Prepared … A competent skipper always has an eye out for the unexpected event. Smart boating is safe boating.