To Tow And Not To Tow

To Tow And Not To Tow Dec 13, 2021

Learn to tow a broken boat the right way. 

By Dusty Miller

Let’s begin from the point of view of the boat that has broken down. Your first step, of course, is to take whatever steps you can to avoid any danger. You do this even before trying to repair whatever is wrong with the engine. If the wind is blowing you ashore, or out into open water, set an anchor.

Make sure the anchor line is attached to your boat. You’d be amazed how often people discover this oversight just as the end slips into the water. Where water is too deep for an anchor, you can ease the danger of heavy waves on your beam by setting a sea anchor off your bow.

Your next step is to attract attention. The most obvious way is with a VHF radio on Channel 16. Use the word “Mayday” only if your boat or an on-board passenger is in immediate danger. “Pan Pan” indicates urgency and will get you attention. If you don’t have a radio or cell phone, continuous sounding of an air horn or other signals such as a flare or a distress cloth are effective.

If you’re within sight of someone on shore or another boat, raising your arms at your sides and lowering them slowly is also a distress signal. These methods are all found in the Safe Boating Guide. But be aware, it can be difficult to attract attention. A radio is the best bet.

Once you have a boat that can take you in tow, you’ve got to get a line from that boat to yours. In heavy seas that can be tricky because you want to get close enough to throw a line, but stay far enough away to avoid collision. I’ll explain that more from the towboat’s point of view.

When you have secured the line to your bow, don’t forget to raise your anchor or bring your sea anchor aboard. The last thing you want to do is get that tangled with the line or the other boat’s prop(s). Then there could be two of you adrift.

Under tow, make sure your rudders are in the centre position and leave them there. Without power they don’t provide a lot of steering ability, but they can throw you to either side of the tow-boat.

If you have to head downwind and your boat keeps catching up to the tow-boat, you can simply trail a small sea anchor, a single line or even a bucket astern to slow you down and help keep you from broaching in a following sea.

As you approach the dock, make sure the other boat slows down and set your fenders where you need them. Position all the fenders you can to protect your hull.

OK. Now the tower. When you determine that you are going to tow another boat be sure to approach from an upwind position so you have control. You don’t want the other vessel blowing toward you as the captain doesn’t have any way of changing his boat’s speed or direction. Throw your line and secure it on the bow and tow from there.

Predicated on the velocity of the wind, you’ll require sufficient length of line to ease the jerking action of the boats in the waves. If the line is too short and the slack picks up too quickly, the weight of the two boats could snap the line or pull the cleats right out of the deck. The best line to use is a flexible nylon-type or an anchor line.

Many years ago I was just off Toronto Island where a vessel broke down and had washed partially ashore. The captain of the boat I was with maneuvered in as close as he could and secured a line to the stranded vessel, not realizing the other vessel was grounded.

He secured a line to one corner post of his boat and proceeded to accelerate, quickly. The slack rope suddenly tightened and the corner post dislodged and almost pulled right out of his boat. The lesson here is two-fold. Make sure the line is long enough to provide some spring and second, apply tension slowly.

You’ll likely be pulling from the stern of your boat. In this case, it’s a good idea to split the force between two aft cleats. You can rig the towing bridle to any number of cleats on the boat to distribute the load. The most straightforward system is to run one short line, approximately the length of twice your beam, from the port aft cleat to the starboard aft cleat. Secure a single towing line from that bridle to the other vessel. Use a bowline to secure the cleated line.

As you approach the harbour, or landing, start to slow down gradually and shorten the tow-line. By the time you get to the dock, you should be barely underway.

Remember the boat you’re towing has little or no steering control and certainly no brakes, so it should be going just fast enough to make it to the dock. There’s nothing quite as sickening as the sound of a one-point landing as the bow cracks into the dock.

Odds are you will never have to tow or be towed. But when you know what to do should the situation arise; it’ll make the rest of your boating that much more insightful.

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