Cruising

Towing - The Bottom Line

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Many sailors have memberships with TowBoatUS, Sea Tow and other organizations. But how many understand what services their membership includes, what their own responsibility is if they do call for assistance, and what level of assistance they should expect to receive? Most memberships have different levels of coverage, and if you’re unsure of what towing situation you are in when you make a call for assistance, you, or your insurance company, may be tapped for additional payments.

Here’s a hypothetical situation that will help make my point. You have enjoyed a nice day on the water and decide to anchor out overnight before heading home the following morning. You and your guests have a nice meal, a glass of wine at sunset, and everyone climbs into their bunk for a peaceful night’s sleep. Then, in the middle of the night you are bounced out of your berth by an unexpected thunderstorm.

You clamber out of bed and go on deck to discover that the anchor is dragging and the shoreline astern is a lot closer than it was when you went to sleep. You find the ignition keys to the engine, but before you can start it the boat suddenly comes to a stop. With the anchor now reset and the wind dropping quickly, you look around and then climb back into your berth and sleep soundly until daybreak.

You awake to bright blue skies and calm waters, but the boat is listing to port slightly. When you go on deck you find you are aground and the tide is going out. If you don’t act, your boat will be stuck even more firmly. Because you have a membership with a towing service you call the company and tell them you are aground. You give them your location and tell them that even though the boat and crew are in no imminent danger, the tide is falling. You are told that someone will be there as soon as possible, but it may be as long as 30 minutes.

One hour and 15 minutes later the towboat shows up, but of course, the tide has fallen steadily and instead of a soft grounding, which is covered in your membership, the tow boat operator determines you are hard aground. He may ask you to sign a consent form confirming this. The lack of a signed form does not mean that additional charges won’t be applied (or that perhaps a salvage claim won’t be made.)

Let’s assume you sign, even though you are not completely sure about the difference between a soft and hard grounding. After one attempt to get you off, the towboat operator determines this is no longer a hard grounding but a salvage operation.

This is where you need to check your insurance policy, because even though your policy may have a $4000 deductible, it should also contain a sue and labor clause that states you are required to maintain the boat. This clause means you must take necessary action to maintain the boat, so you probably are covered.

The towboat operator may want to put a water pump aboard and insert plugs into the exhaust and water discharge lines above the waterline—just in case. Unless it’s specifically referenced in your membership policy, you might also be charged for this. Finally, after the tide comes back in the towboat operator manages to get you afloat again in deep water with some skilled maneuvering.

This is a hypothetical example, but it does illustrate why you should really understand what is covered by your towing membership and your insurance policy and know how this protection pertains to assistance you may want or require.

There can be other details. Some tow companies charge more for working at night, which generally begins at dusk. And unless salvage is specifically addressed in your membership, it might instead be covered from the damage, or loss, clause in your insurance policy. So be sure you are comfortable with your deductible.

Should you get into a real-time towing situation always understand what kind of grounding assist is being given before you let the towboat operator put a line on your boat. Ask if there are any extra charges involved, and if circumstances allow it, call your insurance company for clarification. If you are not in any danger and you don’t feel good about the operator who has responded to your call, consider contacting another towing company; it may be covered by your insurance policy.

Commercial towing companies provide an important service and regularly bring boats in trouble home safely. But they are commercial ventures, which is why you must understand what services are covered by your towing membership and which service you are receiving when the tow boat operator puts his or her line on your boat and begins to pull.

But before you get into that situation, talk about the possibilities with your insurance agent and with the towing service that will be providing assistance. Find out how they would respond to this hypothetical situation. And do it before your insurance policy and towing membership become active.

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