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The Good Samaritan

(When to tow and when to say no)

The Good Samaritan

(When to tow and when to say no)

Never accept a tow line from another boat; always toss your line to them. These were among the first words of wisdom I learned when I started boating. Supposedly this protected me from a salvage claim by the boat offering a tow. Admiralty law and the laws of salvage are a bit more complicated than determining who tossed a line to whom. I’m not an admiralty attorney (nor do I play one on TV), but my understanding of the law is that it takes several factors into account, including how much danger and how immediate the danger was to the vessel in distress, how much danger there was to the vessel claiming the salvage, and how difficult the circumstances were in performing the operation.

Customs on land and sea differ. As a rule you aren’t liable for minding your own business on land. The custom of the sea, however, calls for you to render assistance if you can, though your first responsibility is to your vessel and those on board. We have a moral obligation to render assistance to mariners in harm’s way unless doing so will complicate or worsen the situation. How many stories are there of good Samaritans dying while attempting a rescue, or would-be rescuers requiring rescue? Andthere’s the rub: How do we determine when to be heroic and when to stand by?

The answer is self-knowledge above emotion or ego. Do you have the skills and equipment to perform the rescue under the prevailing circumstances? What could go wrong in the attempt, and could you be sued? Our best instincts are to aid someone in distress, but you must be able to do so without worsening the risk to the victims and their property or to your boat and crew.

If you are going to tow someone here are some things to consider.

1. It’s easier to get the tow moving by first swinging the bow or stern than hauling against the full weight of the boat by pulling straight ahead. All boats have a point around which the hull will pivot. Once it’s moving, it can be put on course. If the tow has a rudder, use it.

2. Pay out plenty of tow line. The tow should ride the seas in synch with your boat — in other words, both should be on the crests or in the troughs at the same time.

3. Place a kellet with a drag line about midway on the tow line to act as a shock absorber.

4. In a following sea, rig a drogue to the tow to keep it from riding up onto your stern if the boats get out of synch. This also will reduce the tendency of the tow to yaw.

5. Always protect against chafe.

6. When towing astern, don’t belay the tow line to the stern. Secure it with a yoke to the quarters so the stern can swing under the tow line while you steer, without being inhibited by the load of the tow.

7. When assisting a boat that is aground, first ascertain the integrity of the hull. Will it sink when moved into deeper water?

8. Engines can be inefficient when recovering a grounded boat. It’s sometimes better to take its anchor to deeper water and allow the skipper to haul the boat off. Again, it’s better if you can get the bow or stern to swing before acting against the full weight of the boat. Secure a tow line, then deploy your anchor and haul on it while the stranded vessel hauls on its anchor. Allow for plenty of scope before hauling.

9. Revving engines in shallow water risks clogging the raw water intake with debris from the bottom.

10. Go ye now and do your duty to the customs and practices of the sea, in safety.