Assisting a Fellow Boater
By Dusty Miller
Boats break down. Not often, fortunately, but they do and it’s a helpless feeling to be out on the lake with no way to get to shore under your own steam. If you find yourself in the situation where you have to borrow some “steam” from another boat, there are a few things you should keep in mind. People have to be careful
towing, whether you’re the tow-er or or the tow-ee.
Let’s look at this situation 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, for instance, set an anchor before you do anything else. Please 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 someone on it is in immediate dire danger. “Pan Pan” indicates urgency and will get you attention. If you do not have a radio or cell phone, continuous sounding of an air horn or other noisemaker, flares, or distress cloths are recognized signals. If you’re within sight of someone on
shore or another boat, the arm signal of raising your arms at your sides and lowering them slowly is also a distress signal. These are all laid out in the Safe Boating Guide but be aware that 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 deal more with that from the tow boat’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 in the other boat’s props. Then there could be two of you adrift.
Under tow, make sure your rudders are in the center position and leave them there. Without power they don’t give you a lot of steering ability but they can throw you to one side of the tow or the other. If you have to head downwind and you find your boat keeps catching up to the one towing you, trail a line or small sea anchor 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, all the fenders you can to protect your hull.
OK. Now the tow-er. When you determine that you are going to tow another vessel, what you want to do is approach the vessel from an upwind position, so you have control. You don’t want him blowing toward you; he doesn’t have any way of changing his boat’s speed or direction. Throw a line to the other vessel to secure on its bow and tow from there.
Predicated on the velocity of the wind, you’ll require sufficient length of towline to ease the jerking action of the boats in the waves. If the line is too short, the quick tension or snatching loads could snap the line or pull the cleats right out of the deck. The best line to use is a springy nylon one, 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 got in as close as he could and secured a line to the stranded vessel, not realizing that the other vessel had grounded. He secured a line to the grounded vessel and to one corner post of his boat and proceeded to accelerate, quickly. The slack rope suddenly snapped to and the corner post
dislodged and almost pulled right out of his boat. The lesson there 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 attach 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 – say the length of twice your beam – from port aft cleat to starboard aft cleat. Secure a single towing line from that bridle to the other
vessel. Use a bowline to secure the towrope to the cleated line.
As you approach the harbour, or landing, start to slow down gradually and shorten the towline. 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… 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 fun.
Return To Index of Articles
The above article was originally published in Power Boating Canada Magazine.