Towing Another Boat: Basic Safety and How-To’s
Pleasure boaters are known as a social bunch, so it may come as no surprise that many boaters will not hesitate to help others out, especially if they need a tow back to the docks. Before you throw a stranded fellow boater your ski rope, let’s look at some of the factors involved.
Good Samaritan Considerations
Know the laws. There are Good Samaritan laws written in most states. These are provided to mitigate your liability when rendering assistance to others in need. As long as no one can prove that you were acting in a negligent manner, you are usually covered. Good Samaritan laws do vary widely by state. Start here. Check with your state’s laws to learn more.
Federal Code 46-2304
The Federal Code that covers vessels assisting others is FCR 46-2304. It reads: “A master or individual in charge of a vessel shall render assistance to any individual found at sea in danger of being lost, so far as the master or individual in charge can do so without serious danger to the master or individual’s vessel or individuals on board.
(b) A master or individual violating this section shall be fined not more than $1,000, imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.”
Federal laws state that skippers have a duty to act unless the act itself puts you in danger.
Just because you may want to give someone a hand and tow them in, doesn’t mean you should. Know your limitations. Do you have the skills to complete the maneuver? What about back at the docks? Is the weather in your favor? Have you consumed alcohol that may impair your judgement?
Your Boats Limitations
Vessels that are dedicated for towing are equipped with floating low stretch lines and heavy-duty hardware. On your boat, the closest thing may be your anchor line attached to a bridle. Avoid using nylon as it stretches and if it breaks, it’s going to snap back like a whip. Dock lines can be fashioned into a decent bridle if you do not have one on board.
Pulling up to the other boat
Unless it’s an emergency, take your time. Size up the situation and make a plan. Then make an abort procedure. Finally, communicate the plan and abort procedure to everyone on both boats. Have everyone don life jackets. If possible, approach bow into the wind or the current, whichever is prevailing. If you deem it not safe, don’t do it. If the other boater is intoxicated or overbearing, call it off.
If everything looks okay, have them disconnect their anchor and pass the end of their anchor line to you. Secure their anchor line to your stern cleats via a bridle. Stand-off at a safe distance. For small, trailer-able boats, the towed vessel can now secure their side of the anchor line by passing it through the bow’s trailer eye and tying off with a bowline knot. If the towed vessel is a larger boat, add a bridle to the towed boat’s forward cleats.
Once secured, slowly take up the extra towline slack. Just slip the transmission into and out of gear. Do not ‘back down’ over the line. In other words, ensure the towline remains clear of your stern by not putting the engine in reverse.
Most anchor lines are 150’ long and that would be about the right length in ideal conditions. If you come into a close quarter situation, cut that distance in half. Remember that the vessel being towed will turn inside of your turn radius so keep your turns wide around markers and docks, and no sharper than 20 degrees off your stern to prevent additional stress on your gear. When it comes time to stop, do so slowly, remembering that the boat behind you is going to continue to move forward a few lengths.
Other Considerations While Underway
- Rough seas and/or high winds will only add more stress on your gear.
- Following seas are very hard on lines and hardware. If you must go into a different anchorage, do so.
- Depending on your location, boat traffic may be a significant factor.
- Large boats make large swells. Have enough line out to prevent shock loading.
- Keep the towing vessel’s anchor ready. Your engine will be under a lot more stress than normal and could possibly overheat.
- Realize you will be heading back in at about 5 or 6 knots. If it took an hour to get to your location at normal cruising speed, it will now take half a day.
Returning to the Docks
It’s not over yet. Many mishaps occur near the docks, so try to select a wide-open dock to pull into. If possible, make your approach with your bow into the wind or current. Once at the dock, secure your boat first, then then bring the towed vessel in by hand.
If You Are Unable to Tow the Other Boat Back In
If towing is not safe or practical, do not put yourself or your crew in harm’s way. Instead consider these other options:
- Tow them to the nearest safe location.
- Anchor their boat and take everyone aboard your boat. Have everyone wear a life jacket.
- If they are simply out of gas, run in and return with enough gas to get them in.
- If they have a dead battery, return with a jump start box or a charged or new battery.
- If on a lake, call the local law enforcement or rangers.
- If on coastal or near coastal, consider calling one of the boat towing services such as Sea Tow or Vessel Assist (also known as TowBoatUS).