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Raising a glass to Sea Tow’s Joe Frohnhoefer

His passion for the water and good Samaritan’s spirit led him to help countless boaters out of trouble, and they remained a source of pride until his final days. “If you asked him what the best moments in his life were, besides getting married and having kids, he’d say it was a day he saved someone’s life,” Joseph Frohnhoefer III says of his father.

Capt. Joseph Frohnhoefer Jr. founded Sea Tow Services International in 1983.

Joseph Frohnhoefer Jr., better known as “Capt. Joe,” founder and CEO of Sea Tow Services International, died March 24 at his home in Southold, New York, after a brief battle with cancer. He was 71.

“He was a character, the type of guy who would give the shirt off his back, but he would also let you make your own mistakes so you learn from them,” says his daughter, Kristen, chief administrative officer at Sea Tow. “He didn’t like the words ‘no’ and ‘can’t.’ He’d say, ‘Find a way.’ He liked to encourage people to think outside the box.”

In 1981, the incoming Reagan administration was intent on trimming the size and scope of government through privatization. Congress directed the Coast Guard to stop providing non-emergency on-water assistance. In September 1983, Frohnhoefer sought to fill that void with a business of his own.

The volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliary was temporarily handling non-emergency calls, and critics balked at privatization. The public’s safety was being turned over to for-profit companies, they argued.

Frohnhoefer persisted. “In the early days, I remember going to congressional hearings when he would speak,” Kristen recalls. “He didn’t want a bunch of cowboys out there, either. Capt. Joe was integral to the development of high professional standards — not just for Sea Tow but for the entire marine assistance industry.”

Apparently he made his point, and with a $30,000 loan to buy the first boat, Frohnhoefer’s fledgling business was launched. In the process, he established a new industry: professional non-emergency marine assistance, which has led to more than 100 franchises in the United States and overseas, with 500 Sea Tow boats standing by to assist; the employment of thousands of industry professionals; and major improvements in boating safety. Sea Tow, known for its distinctive yellow hulls, was named to the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in 2007 and again in 2011.

“Pretty much everyone here is family, all dressed in yellow,” Kristen says of the more than 60 staff at the Southold headquarters. Kristen’s brother Joe III serves as chief operating officer and Georgia, Capt. Joe’s wife of more than 46 years, is executive vice president and “mother of all Sea Tows.”

The family patriarch was born on New York’s Long Island in 1943 and grew up spending summers on the North Fork on the east end of the island, where he developed a lifelong love of the water. His entrepreneurial streak emerged as a college student. He founded Water Thrills in Southold, which offered waterskiing and parasailing, and swimming instruction, as well as Hydro Cycle (an early PWC), sailboat and powerboat rentals.

From the late 1960s through the early ’80s, Frohnhoefer taught high school industrial arts while working as a part-time boat salesman at Port of Egypt Marine in Southold. He also was a part-time bay constable in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and he practiced what he preached as a good Samaritan, working for more than 40 years as a volunteer EMT with the Southold Fire Department. In 1981, Capt. Joe, also a licensed electrician, inherited his parents’ business, Frohnhoefer Electric Co., and continued to run it with Georgia until he sold it in 1988.

He served two terms on the U.S. Towing Safety Advisory Committee, which was formed to advise the U.S. secretary of transportation on matters relating to shallow-draft inland and coastal waterway navigation and towing safety. He co-founded the Conference of Professional Operators for Response Towing, or C-PORT, the national association for the marine assistance industry, in 1986, and served on C-PORT’s board until his death.

In 1996, Frohnhoefer and fellow Long Island Sea Tow captains responded to the crash of TWA Flight 800, working in coordination with the Coast Guard. In 2001, Sea Tow captains in the New York metropolitan area aided in the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including transporting first responders and medical personnel to and from the World Trade Center. In 2004, Sea Tow aided in the response to Hurricane Ivan in the Gulf of Mexico and in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi and other affected states, keeping disaster response teams in those areas for more than three months. 

“Some people say he was larger than life, and he was, but he also had very high expectations of everyone here at Sea Tow International,” Kristen says of her father. “At the same time, he liked to find time to sit and chat with his crew. The running joke is that the more he joked with and picked on you, the more he liked you.”

Kristen and Joe say their father has been preparing them for years to run Sea Tow. “We grew up working here. He always taught us to work hard, be honest, fair and ethical in everything you do in life,” she says.

“We’re still a family business, but we’re all family here, and everyone feels just as obligated to carry out his request to keep Sea Tow running, keep moving the company forward and growing the company, and keeping his mission alive,” Joe III says. “And the focus of the core business will remain helping people on the water.”

Joe III started working with his father when he was 8 years old, and by 12 he was going on Sea Tow calls with his dad. He remembers how his father felt uncomfortable charging non-Sea Tow members.

“He was always more concerned with helping people than making money. That’s why he preferred taking care of Sea Tow members so he could say, ‘no charge.’ The joke used to be to call him “Non-Profit Joe” because he felt uncomfortable helping people and then charging them,” Joe III says. “I used to have to remind him that you have to be able to put fuel in the boat so you can keep helping people.”

His father never changed, he says. “Last summer he was on a boat, servicing people, as he often did. As he was towing someone in, the customer said something like, ‘I bet the guy who started this is probably out cruising in the Bahamas on a yacht,’ ” Joe III says. “Dad just smiled and didn’t say anything because he was doing what he loved to do.”

Frohnhoefer made it clear to his family that he wanted a joyful celebration of his life, rather than a funeral. On March 29, five days after his passing, nearly 700 people gathered at the Wharf House at Founder’s Landing, which is a few blocks from Sea Tow headquarters and overlooks Peconic Bay, one of Capt. Joe’s favorite spots. “We had a Hook and Lager beer truck, local caterers, a DJ, and people just came and did what he wanted — raise a glass and share stories about him. It was not a solemn occasion. It was a lot of fun,” Kristen says.

In a private ceremony, family and friends will scatter Capt. Joe’s ashes at sea. “He loved the water and always wanted to make a living working on the water, which he did,” Kristen says. “He came from the water, he loved the water, and that’s where he wants to be.”

June 2015 issue