John Condon needed a few minutes to double-check the numbers. At first glance, it seemed incredible that in just two years’ time, the number of calls to TowBoatU.S. from boaters needing on-water help could have increased by 43.9 percent. But it was true. Last year, when the coronavirus outbreak led Americans to buy boats faster than they had purchased them in more than a decade, TowBoatU.S. experienced a 20 percent increase in requests for on-water assistance compared to 2019. That surge amounted to more than 81,000 requests in total during 2020. It was the highest-ever year-over-year jump.

This year, requests for help are up again, another 21 percent compared to 2020 during May alone. That spike, along with figures from January through April, has TowBoatU.S. projecting 100,000 dispatches this year for the first time ever—with 80 percent of them happening this summer.

“The Covid pandemic created this environment,” says Condon, who is vice president of towing services for BoatU.S. “It has rejuvenated boating in general. Whether you’re a new boater or you’re a 30-plus-year boater, it’s hitting from both ends.”

The inundated dispatchers and captains at TowBoatU.S. are far from alone. Joseph Frohnhoefer, CEO of Sea Tow Services International, says his company saw a 34-percent increase in requests for assistance during 2020. The numbers are still climbing, with calls for help being up another 10 percent so far this year, and more boaters than ever expected to take to the water this summer. “I just got off the phone with one of our franchisees in Cape Cod,” Frohnhoefer said in late May. “There’s a sailboat race that they didn’t have last year, so this year, they’re going to have a double running of it. I think we’re going to see, this year, folks and organizations trying to make up for some lost time.”

At both TowBoatU.S. and Sea Tow, the majority of calls for assistance—54 percent and 58 percent, respectively—are for mechanical breakdowns. Problems such as groundings, dead batteries and fuel deliveries happen too, but are far less frequent, falling in the 8 percent to 12 percent range. The reasons for mechanical breakdowns can be hard to pinpoint, according to both services, but numerous factors seem to be at play.

At the start of the summer, incomplete spring commissioning can lead to problems if boaters cut corners, say by trying to run the boat on old fuel because prices are up at the pump.

Running out of fuel is not a crisis situation, so be ready to wait longer for a towboat, which handles serious calls first.

Running out of fuel is not a crisis situation, so be ready to wait longer for a towboat, which handles serious calls first.

“Some folks are in a rush because they really want to get on the water, and they may skip a couple things,” says Scott Croft, vice president of public affairs for BoatU.S. “Finish your spring commissioning the best you can.”

That’s good advice, Frohnhoefer says, but it may be easier said than done this year. The pandemic’s supply-chain backups are affecting all kinds of things, including replacement parts for boats. Delays can stretch out weeks or months, he says, leading boaters to try and get by with a failing part until a new one can be installed. And even once a part is received, he says, boaters may still have to wait some time on a technician to do the installation. Just as the retail and restaurant industries nationwide are reporting a shortage of workers returning after the pandemic, so are a number of towing franchises and marina service centers.

“It’s a struggle,” Frohnhoefer says. “The Southern, year-round businesses have year-round employees. But the farther north you get, the more seasonal employees you’ll find.”

Both towing services say that beyond ensuring proper maintenance, boaters can take a number of steps to help the swamped tow skippers as well as themselves. For starters, they say, boaters should have an on-water assistance membership in place, with their information and their local tower’s information on board. Existing members typically receive help first and being in the system can speed the process during a dispatch call.

Also, boaters need to know exactly where they are—latitude and longitude—when calling for help. Both services offer apps that provide the information, and in the case of BoatU.S., using the app can further reduce the amount of time it will take for help to arrive. The BoatU.S. app can connect boaters with a local tow captain, often bypassing the need to speak with a dispatcher at all.

“The easy ones, we can send directly to the tower,” Condon says. “We have all this extra staff for the call volume, but if you use the BoatU.S. app, that really helps us.”

Frohnhoefer says that newer boaters should consider whether they actually need help before calling. Some newer boats, for instance, put themselves into a safe mode at slower speeds if sensors indicate a problem. “We get a lot of calls for that, from people thinking they need a tow, but they don’t need a tow,” he says. “The boat is saying something is wrong, but it’s safe to operate under these conditions.”

Experienced boaters can anticipate problems, he adds, and think about what they might do if a towboat can’t get to them quickly. “Practice driving on one engine,” Frohnhoefer says. “How is your boat going to react? It’s OK that you don’t go as fast or that your engine hours are different. You can still get home, or you can at least get yourself closer.”

Overall, boaters should be prepared to wait an hour or longer for help—with “longer” taking on a different meaning from about 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. That’s when boaters who have spent the day running down their batteries and draining their fuel all tend to call for help at once, particularly on holidays and weekends. Frohnhoefer calls it “the witching hour.”

“You can have calls for five boats all day, and then suddenly you have 10 people calling for assistance all at once,” he says.

Boaters also should keep in mind that having a dead battery or needing a fuel top-off are not usually considered crisis situations. In those cases, be prepared to wait longer as towboats handle more serious calls first. “Just being broken down is not an emergency,” Frohnhoefer says. “You can sit there as if everything is fine on anchor, and you can wait. Bring some extra water and snacks. Realize that your on-water assistance provider is doing their best to service everybody. It’s a lot of people.” 

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.

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