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Towing the Line: a Day in the Life of a Towboat Operator

Suddenly, the phone rings and Winkler springs to action, taking down information from the skipper of a stranded 36-foot SeaRay. It’s not yet 0930, and he’s already completed one tow this morning.

It’s a gorgeous Tuesday morning in August, and Captain Steve Winkler sits at his desk in the Sea Tow building in East Boston. The VHF radio cycles through channels at breakneck speed, searching for voices. Suddenly, the phone rings and Winkler springs to action, taking down information from the skipper of a stranded 36-foot SeaRay. It’s not yet 0930, and he’s already completed one tow this morning. “It doesn’t take us long to get out there,” he says, “let’s see how fast we can respond to this one!”

Winkler is a Franchise Owner of Sea Tow, one of two towing companies that serve the Boston Harbor area (the other, Tow Boat U.S). His fleet includes five tow boats that run at about 25 knots, meaning he or his co-workers can typically get the job done and get it done fast. As we tear out of the harbor in the white, yellow, and black towboat, it’s easy to see why.

We make our way out of the office, and Winkler tosses a PFD to me as we climb into the 33 foot Tow Boat. Shouting over the twin outboards on our way out to the SeaRay, he shares some tips on how to get the help you need quickly and safely if equipment failure renders you immobile on the water.

First, secure your boat. “Typically you want to check if you need to anchor,” explains Winkler, “If you’re in a thoroughfare or channel it might be a good idea, to avoid getting yourself into more trouble. Then, everyone should be wearing life jackets.”

Once you’re secured, call for help. “If you’re in dire need, obviously you call ‘mayday’ on channel 16, but typically its much less extreme than that,” he says. You can reach Sea Tow and other towing services on channel 16 as well. In some cases, they will be able to offer advice over the radio and try to help fix the problem. If for some reason you cannot reach anyone via VHF and have cell coverage, you can also call.

Before you contact the towboat operator, be ready to provide all of the information they need. “We’ll ask for the nature of your distress, your position and how many people are on board. We also need to know the size and type of boat, and if there is any possibility of a life-threatening situation,” explains Winkler, “If we have to, we will get the Coast Guard involved. But generally it isn’t dangerous and we’ll just go out and get ‘em.”

Sea Tow operators are fully trained and are all Coast Guard licensed captains up to 50 or 100 tons offshore. When Winkler describes the ability of his captains: “Everyone that is out on the water for a while comes into some crazy situations. We know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. We do what we can and we take our time doing it if we have to.” Winkler prides himself on being calm and in control of all situations, especially those where boat-owners could be a little frazzled.

As we approach the SeaRay, we find out that she has lost her power steering. Winkler calmly asks the skipper for some fenders in addition to his own, and sets up a tow. With little fuss, the SeaRay glides easily behind the towboat, and we make our way back past Logan Airport and up into the harbor.

As useful as guys like Winkler are, however, most boat owners make it a point to avoid encountering them. A lot of the time, the calls that Winkler gets are for easily avoidable problems. “Running out of fuel is one of the most common problems we deal with,” says Winkler, “fuel gauges on boats aren’t as accurate as they are in cars, and with fuel prices the way they are people don’t fill up as often.” The best way to avoid this embarrassment? “Always leave the dock with a full tank,” says Winkler, with a glimmer in his eye, “Or, when you run out of gas, we’ll come save you!”

The other issue Sea Tow often deals with is dead batteries. “People will go out and tie up or anchor all day long and listen to the radio, and then go to start the boat and the batteries are dead,” he says. The solution is to have a multi-battery system aboard, and always keep one additional, separate battery in reserve. According to Winkler, boats with interconnected battery systems often don’t charge the batteries properly and run out of juice more quickly, and there is no way to keep one battery aside in case of emergency.

Even those who follow all of Winkler’s suggestions can still run into trouble, like this past July when 60-knot winds from a microburst just outside of Boston Harbor put a 43-foot sailboat on the rocks. One of Winkler’s boats was stationed nearby and was able to pull the boat off safely and quickly. Being aware of weather patterns and conditions is important, but it’s nice to know guys like Winkler have your back if something goes wrong.

Winkler guides both boats into Boston’s Constitution Marina, and smoothly slingshots the motorboat into its slip. The radio crackles again, and Winkler grabs the microphone. “It’s 11:15 and this is our third call of the day,” he says, looking over his shoulder at me, “It’s working up to be a busy day already!”


There are a number of local towing companies in every port, but the two major companies that serve most boating areas in the U.S. are Sea Tow and BoatUS. Both of these companies offer competitive annual memberships and a variety of benefits to suit all kinds of sailors. Here’s how it breaks down:

Best for cruisers Sea Tow not only covers almost all of the coastal United States, but another benefit of the ($169) annual membership is their universal towing coverage. This means if Sea Tow can’t get to you because you’re cruising the Whitsundays in Australia, they will arrange for another service to come and foot the bill up to $5,000. seatow.com; 1-800-4-SEATOW

Best for daysailers Tow BoatUS (a division of Boat US) boasts the largest towing fleet in the country. They have a handful of membership options, but for daysailers the Unlimited Salt and Freshwater towing package ($125 a year) offers free towing from a repair facility or from up to 30 miles offshore to your home mooring or dock, and covers half the cost for tows from your home mooring or dock to a repair facility. towboatus.com; 1-800-888-4869

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