Good Samaritan Towing

Here’s what to do when you wind up on one end or the other of a towline
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Towing can be a dangerous business, especially if you only do it once in a while.

Towing can be a dangerous business, especially if you only do it once in a while.

If you spend enough time on the water, then sooner or later you will wind up at one end or the other of a towline. Mechanical failure, running out of fuel, and wind dying are common enough that eventually we either need a Good Samaritan or we become one.

The mechanics of towing are simple: Form a connection between two boats, and then pull. But simplicity goes out the window with Good Samaritan towing. This type of towing entails improvisation, which by definition means whatever arrangement you come up with may be less than ideal. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, but it does mean that you have to be careful.

Many vessels have a cleat or reinforced strong point on the bow. This is the natural place to attach a towline to the boat in distress. Ideally, the towline leads straight ahead, but, depending on the hardware arrangement, it may have to pass through a fairlead to port or starboard. Make sure the towline can’t pop out of the fairlead when towing commences; a lashing may suffice for this. If the towline passes between the struts of a pulpit, then secure it on the centerline with lashings so the pulpit isn’t strained when the towing angle changes.

Chafe gear is absolutely essential. Just how elaborate it should be depends on the duration of the tow and the conditions, but the story of too much chafe gear has yet to be told. Apply chafe gear wherever the towline can conceivably make contact with anything. Then consider doubling it, tripling or even quadrupling the chafe gear.

A tow may start under benign conditions, but things change fast on the water. On one occasion, I came across an abandoned yacht a couple hundred miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. It was Father’s Day. The name of the boat? Dad’s Dream. The Coast Guard had evacuated the crew a day or two earlier because of weather and a medical situation, but the yacht was fine. It was a bright day with a gentle swell rolling by. We rigged up a towline, and soon, Dad’s Dream was riding sweetly in our wake. Twenty-four hours later, we were thrashing against 35 knots of wind and 8-foot seas. Our improvised towing arrangement held up, but it sure took a beating that no one foresaw—a reminder of how important it is to set up the towline correctly from the outset.

Securing the towline to the towing boat also may involve improvisation. Cleats may look good, but check to see how securely they are fastened. Good Samaritan or not, you don’t want to tear up your own boat towing on a cleat that was intended only for marina slip dock lines. And whatever the towing arrangement, keep people well clear of a line under tension. Towlines have killed and maimed people.

Yawing—the side-to-side meandering of a towed vessel—is a major concern when towing. Secure the rudder amidships so the vessel tracks straight. A towed boat that is trimmed by the bow will surely be troublesome, whereas shifting weight aft will help it track straight. If the boat has an outboard engine, then raise it before towing. A feathering prop should be feathered, and, on a longer tow, the prop shaft should be secured so that it does not spin.

Bring the speed up gradually as towing commences. Keep the towline out of your propeller. Once the tow is up to speed, ease out the line so that it develops some catenary, which is a sag in the towline between the two vessels. Catenary acts as a shock absorber, which eases the strain on the points of attachment. If the towline is snapping clear of the water, then you are probably towing too fast or lack sufficient catenary.

In open water, the two boats should be in step, meaning they are both on a wave crest or both in a trough at the same time. Being in step also reduces the strain on the points of attachment and makes for a more efficient towing speed.

Real tugboats have special lights and shapes to tell other mariners that they are towing. You won’t have those. But the prospect of a vessel passing between the tow-er and tow-ee is so terrifying that you have to do all you can minimize that risk. By day, lash something bright, like a life jacket, to the towline. By night, put a light on the tow. Place something with reflective tape (a lifejacket) on the towline and on the tow. When another vessel approaches, light up the reflective tape with a spotlight or a flashlight, and make a sécurité call on the VHF radio to alert other boaters to the situation.

Entering a harbor presents challenges that, in a twinkling, can undo all your attention to detail. If you slow down too quickly, then the tow may overtake you and collide. Or, it may smash into another vessel, or into a buoy. Or, it may glide out of the channel and go hard aground. Meanwhile, the towline could be cut or wound up in the prop. Plenty to think about here.

You control events by thinking ahead. Slow down early and gradually while bringing in the towline. Once you are in flat water, having catenary and being in step are no longer priorities. Notify other boaters of your intentions. Have fenders handy so no one has to put their hands outside the boat. If no one is aboard the towed boat, then consider putting someone aboard now. Depending on the size of the tow, you may need assistance getting it docked, anchored or onto a mooring.

Even people who tow for a living make mistakes. Those of us who do it only once in a while have to be extra careful. If there is any question of injury, take care of the people and let the boat go. But, what goes around comes around, and the boater you help out today may help you, or someone else, down the road. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.