Ask the Experts: Towing and
Vessel Response, Part II
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
-Fred Rogers [aka Mr. Rogers] quoting his mother’s advice for handling disasters
This month we continue the theme of boat towing in the second of a two-part Ask the Experts article with three TowBoatUS Puget Sound captains. They have plenty of tips and stories to share! You can read part one of this article here.
NWY: Care to continue your tales of towing from last month?
JUSTICE: Two months or so ago, I got a call after midnight. A guy had fallen off his sailboat while it was cruising around under power. Basically, a sailboat was motoring on its own as the owner somehow swam to shore and was chasing it in a kayak. I had to go out there and find it in the middle of the night.
I found it a couple of miles from where he lost it, aground on its side on a beach. We ungrounded it, got it back to his house, and thankfully, he was alright. It could’ve been bad if he fell off in open water.
CONTI: Last year you saved someone as they were being towed into Chinook Landing. The passenger fell overboard and was going under, so CJ [Chris Justice] jumped right in the water and saved him.
JUSTICE: I even had my phone in my pocket. That was great. Always make sure you have your lifejacket on, especially if you can’t swim.
NWY: You guys clearly do a lot more than just tow: prop wraps, salvage, search and rescue. Is that part of the fun of the job?
JUSTICE: Yep, the variety of work is exciting. We do boat fire response. Boats taking on water is always interesting.
GINN: The different people you meet is fun, too. There are definitely quite a few characters. But generally, everyone is super grateful when you get them in safe. It feels good to help someone, especially families with kids or older people aboard. That’s a good feeling.
We offer services of clearing props when people back up on their dinghy line or a crap pot. We’ll just get in the water, no problem, and unfoul the prop to get them going again.
NWY: Any comments on boat operators with an altered mental status due to alcohol or marijuana? What are some human element factors in a vessel response?
CONTI: Oh yeah! Usually we try to make sure everyone has lifejackets on, especially if they are intoxicated. We’ll handle it ourselves without getting them too involved, you get a sense of who is going to be helpful or not.
I had a situation once where an intoxicated person fell overboard during a tow because they were out on deck where they shouldn’t have been. They grabbed an antenna that they must’ve thought was a handrail and went right in. Fortunately, we were in a marina and getting them out was easy. Keeping an eye on the customers on board is always a factor.
When it comes to tows, we’ll contract with paperwork just to make sure we’re all on the same page about cost estimates and details. With salvage, we establish a verbal contract at the time. Often at the time, we don’t have a lot of time for that stuff, especially in a salvage situation where a boat is taking on water and you only have minutes to save it before it’s under. You have to get the pump rigged and primed to get the water out of there. It all depends.
JUSTICE: I try to help customers who are paying out-of-pocket and don’t want to break the bank. For example, if they are trying to get to their homeport but there is a perfectly fine public boat ramp nearby that can work for them and their trailer, I’ll suggest it to save them the cost of the longer tow to the homeport.
NWY: So, the services you guys offer is always the same, but the cost and level of coverage is between the customer and their provider, or lack thereof?
GINN: Yes, we always show up and give our all for the job at hand. The cost of our services to the customer are between them and their insurance provider or membership status.
JUSTICE: It’s all about that gold membership! I’m a firm believer.
CONTI: Both BoatUS and Geico have different levels of insurance coverage. BoatUS has an unlimited card and an unlimited gold card. The gold is the best because it covers dock-to-dock tows under 25 miles. It covers breakdowns at sea, one hundred percent up to 50 miles or $3,000 cost. Gold covers fuel deliveries—other than cost of fuels, jump starts, groundings, prop disentanglements, and more.
What’s cool to me is that the gold level covers any boat you own, borrow, or charter. If a gold card member who boats up here in the Pacific Northwest goes to Florida, charters a boat, then goes out and it breaks down, he’s covered by TowBoatUS.
It makes things easy; help is just a phone call to us away. I’ve had a few breakdown experiences and fortunately, I could rebuild the starter, but it was enough for me.
GINN: As a boater, I’m a big believer in that gold card. Before I even knew these guys and first got my boat, I heard so may stories of people needing a tow from Seattle to Tacoma and spending thousands of dollars.
I heard it often enough that I thought if I had to use it once, it basically pays for itself for ten years of coverage. It’s also not just about me, because it covers somebody else’s boat that you’re borrowing that breaks down. Before I even moved my first boat, I made sure I had it.
JUSTICE: TowBoatUS also has a really nice app now for your phone. I got a call from dispatch the other day from someone who used the app. It sounded like they had been waiting a while, but when I got to them, they said they used it 15 minutes ago. I was impressed with how quick it was, and it pinpoints coordinates. This world is getting high tech!
NWY: What about the gear you all take aboard? Is there an official checklist boaters should try to follow?
ONTI: We have checklists that I go through on a semi-annual basis. There’s equipment lists I fill out every year for TowBoatUS to make sure the equipment is up to snuff. What’s needed and required varies somewhat between inland waters and the ocean, but we’re well set up with extras on our boats as well.
JUSTICE: If I have a pump on board, I’m good to go! Extra fuel, jumper cables, basic tools, plugs, dive gear, patch materials…
GINN: I use a dry suit and take the tank and the whole bit when I jump in. Some guys will go with a long hookah line, which is lot less gear. I’m more comfortable in the water with my complete setup.
NWY: Any final tips for those summer boaters out there? How do we stay out of trouble or be helpful when we’re working with you guys?
CONTI: Don’t go boating without a membership!
JUSTICE: Once in a while, you get someone who thinks they need to throw a line off. There’s been a few times where I’m going past the breakwater and getting ready to side tie, and then the boat operator throws the tow line off. That’s definitely not what we want at that point, so please wait for us to indicate for when to untie.
GINN: I had that happen to me, too! [Laughs]