The Safe and Legal Tow

By: Zuzana Prochazka

QuestionWhat are the best ways to tow or be towed, and are there any legal issues on either side of that equation? 

AnswerTowing is most definitely defined by the moment, including the vessels involved, the location and distance of the tow, and the weather and water on scene, so there is no best way. However, there are elements to consider for a safe and effective way to get a disabled boat to port.

The logical place to attach a line on the towed boat is at the cleats, if they’re fit to take the pressure. A bridle is ideal to spread the load and help control the boat under tow. A trailerable boat will have a bow eye, which usually has a backing plate, so that makes it a good option. Use a bowline to tie on and provide chafing gear when possible. Never have anyone just hold a line no matter how small the boat being towed.

The preferred towing line is double-braided nylon, which is elastic to absorb shock loads, stronger than three-strand line and will not kink. Typical anchor line is ideal, but it will not float, so be careful that it doesn’t end up in the towing boat’s prop. The towed boat should steer at the transom of the towing boat, and the distance between the two boats will depend on conditions. On the open ocean, the towline length should put both boats at either the crest or trough of the waves at the same time, to keep them in step. For a long-distance tow in calm water such as on a lake, three to eight boat lengths should be sufficient. Remember that the towed boat has no ability to stop and little ability to steer. Once near a dock or in a tight harbor, the towed vessel should be taken alongside or “on the hip,” so the boats are tied together with two spring lines and two warps. Speed will decrease but control will increase, which is key when putting the disabled vessel up to a dock.

A steady pull is key to keeping the two boats under control and from jerking. Tow slowly, usually just above idle, and definitely no faster than the structural capabilities of the towed vessel. Never try to tow on plane.

Keep communications open between the two boats. A VHF or cellphone will work. Make sure you can quickly disconnect the two boats if necessary, so tie hitches you can quickly undo under load or have a knife ready. Never have anyone standing next to the towline, because if it breaks or a cleat gives, it can become a dangerous situation.

Finally, consider when to offer or accept a tow and when to pass. If you’re the one offering a tow and anything goes wrong, you will most likely be considered a Good Samaritan, and unless there was negligence on your part, you will be legally protected. If conditions are such that you question your boat’s ability to manage the tow or have reservations about the seaworthiness of the other vessel, you can call a commercial towing firm or another vessel. Standing by while you wait is still rendering assistance.

If you’re the one who needs a tow, it’s a good idea to pass your line to the other vessel if for no other reason than you know what shape that line is in. Some people will tell you that you must pass your line to a towing vessel to avoid becoming a salvage situation where the other party gains rights to your boat. These days, that is not so cut-and-dried legally, so it’s best to have a conversation about what you are asking for (tow only) and the expectations of the other party.


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