Boat Towing Guidelines and Tips
Towing a stranded boat isn’t as simple as towing a car, so before you decide to help out another boat, you need to know what you’re getting yourself into.
There are safety and legal considerations to take into account before you attempt to tow a boat. However, there are no laws forcing you to tow another boat, so if you have any doubts, it's better not to do it. If you do decide to go through with it, here are some guidelines and tips for towing a boat in the water.
When Not to Tow a Boat
The first thing to know about towing a boat is when not to do it. It’s only natural to want to help a fellow boater, but towing a disabled boat could put you, your passengers and your boat in danger.
Avoid towing a boat that’s too large and will put excess strain on your motor, as well as the cleats, towing pylons or any other part of the boat. If poor conditions such as high waves, strong winds or rapid currents make towing dangerous, leave it be. Also, avoid towing if your boat’s propeller is designed for high-speed WOT running and doesn’t have the low-RPM torque necessary to do the job.
NOTE: You’re under no obligation to tow another boat, so if you’re not comfortable doing it, call the Coast Guard (Channel 16 on a VHF marine radio) and stand by until help arrives.
Boat Towing and Salvage Laws
The next thing you need to understand about boat towing is maritime salvage laws. Under the laws, a person who recovers another person’s vessel is entitled to a reward.
Although it’s unlikely a fellow boater will claim a salvage reward for towing a stranded boat, it’s best to make absolutely sure before accepting a tow. If you’re offering to tow a disabled boat, let the other captain know if you expect a reward before attaching a tow line. And if the boat being towed is yours, ask the other captain whether they’re expecting a reward before agreeing to the tow.
Towlines and Bridles
The easiest and safest way to tow a disabled boat is to attach a towline to the stern of the tow boat and the bow of the stranded boat.
Make sure the connection between both boats is strong and secure. The towline should belong to the boat being towed, so the tow boat can simply cast off the line when the tow is completed. Use anchor line for the towline, because it’s strong, flexible and can absorb jolts and shocks.
Pylons or tow fixtures are ideal for attaching the towline because they’re secured to the boat and are generally close to the pivot point. If the tow boat doesn’t have a pylon or towing fixture, make a bridle from a strong line and attach it between the two stern cleats at either side of the boat. Attach the towline to the bridle to allow it to glide across the bridle without putting undue stress on the cleats.
NOTE: Don’t attach a towline to a single deck cleat because it puts too much stress on it and hinders the boat’s steering and maneuverability.
Communication Between Boats
Before you tow another boat, agree with the other captain about where you’re headed, how fast you’ll be travelling and how you’ll communicate.
Having a mutually agreed action plan helps prevent surprises, and solid communication makes the journey safer. The best method of communication is through VHF radios set to the same non-emergency channel. If VHF marine radios aren’t an option, communicate through cell phones, provided you have a good connection. Use hand signals if all else fails.
Boat Towing Speed
Set your throttle to the slowest possible speed that still enables you to make headway. Doing so minimizes the stresses on both boats and the towline.
If the towline appears over-stressed at this speed, slow down a couple of knots. Keep an eye on the towline, the pylon or the bridle and cleats, and the weather/water conditions. Stay alert and be prepared to react quickly if anything unexpected happens. Aim for a towing speed of about 5 knots and use your best judgment. If the towing process unexpectedly puts either boat in danger, be ready to stop and cast off the towline.
It may be necessary to adjust the length of the towline to suit the conditions and immediate surroundings.
A longer towline absorbs jolts and shocks better, but reduces maneuverability and control. On the other hand, a shorter towline is better for accurate control, but will suffer from jolts that can damage or rip out cleats. Use a longer towline in open waters to keep a safe distance between the boats, and in waters with swells or waves to help absorb the shocks.
A shorter towline is better for calm waters and precision maneuvering, and within confined areas such as harbors or marinas. In water with larger waves, adjust the towline so both boats ride the crests and troughs in sync. If the boats hit waves at different times, it’ll put huge stresses on the towing system and could easily damage either boat.
Run the towline so that no part of it chafes against either boat, as friction from chafing causes heat buildup and weakens the line. Frictional heat is particularly damaging to nylon lines. If there’s a chafing point on the towline, try to minimize it by shrouding the line with a towel or something similar.
Safety Tips for Towing a Boat
Towing a disabled boat presents hazards to both vessels, with tremendous stresses being put on the towline, cleats, structure of the hulls, etc.
Whenever you’re towing or being towed, make sure everyone on both boats is wearing a PFD. Check that all towlines and bridles can be quickly untied, and avoid using knots that cinch themselves too tight once a load is put on them. Make sure everyone onboard stays far from the towline and towline points (pylon, towing fixture, cleats) to reduce the chance of being struck if the line snaps off. Prevent the towline from going slack to reduce the chance of it drooping into the water and getting tangled in the propeller.
Towing another boat is never worth it if doing so endangers you, your passengers or your boat. If at any point you feel something is wrong or unsafe, stop towing immediately and cast off the towline.