What to Expect From a Tow - Sail Magazine

What to Expect From a Tow

I’ve been on the wrong end of a towline twice. At the very least, being towed will ruin your afternoon. At worst, it can cause serious damage to your boat or injury to your crew. Knowing what to expect and what to do to help yourself—or to help others help you—will ensure things go safely and smoothly.
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I’ve been on the wrong end of a towline twice. At the very least, being towed will ruin your afternoon. At worst, it can cause serious damage to your boat or injury to your crew. Knowing what to expect and what to do to help yourself—or to help others help you—will ensure things go safely and smoothly.

There is no one best way to tow a boat. Variables include the vessels involved, the location and distance of the tow, and the weather and sea state. It’s also important to take into consideration the towline itself. The preferred towing line is double-braided nylon, which is elastic so that it can absorb shock loads, is stronger than three-strand line, and will not kink. It also will not float, so watch that it doesn’t end up in the towing boat’s prop. Sometimes you’ll need to use whatever is available. Remember that a thin line may break or damage equipment, and that polypropylene line doesn’t stretch much and can actually melt as it chafes.

In rough conditions, be sure to keep the vessels a safe distance from one another when passing the line. You can use a telescoping boathook to pass a line across if throwing it proves unsuccessful.

Tying On

The next thing to think about is how the two vessels will be connected. The logical place to attach a line on the towed boat is at the bow cleats, if they’re fit to carry the load. A bridle works best, as it spreads the load and makes the towed boat easier to control. Small trailerable boats have bow eyes, and if yours has a backing plate it can be used to secure a towline. In this case, you can tie on with a bowline and should dress the bight of the knot with chafing gear if possible. 

 Illustration by Alastair Garrod

Illustration by Alastair Garrod

If your bow cleats are suspect, another option is to attach the towline to a keel-stepped mast. Lead the towline on deck via the bow roller, or rig a temporary fairlead with a block if you don’t have a bow lead. Lead the line through the block and secure it down low near the partners. Never tie to a deck-stepped mast, since the towing forces in even a dead calm may be enough to pull it out of its step, leaving you dismasted. Instead, pull the towline through the bow roller and then tie an eye in it with a bowline. From there, use bowlines to attach two more lines, which can be led down either side of your deck to your primary winches.

If the towing vessel is from a professional service, it will have a towing post to carry the towline. If you’re being towed by a Good Samaritan or are towing someone else, stern cleats are normally the best bet. Again, a bridle spreads the load and increases steering control. 

Whichever end of the line you are on, when securing to a mast, winch or post use a capstan, or tugboat hitch, made up of two or more hitches that alternate the directions of the turns against the line. It can be tied quickly and released under load if necessary. A bowline will serve in a pinch, but keep a knife handy so you can cut it in an emergency.

 Illustration by Andy Steer

Illustration by Andy Steer

Towing Distance

For long tows in open water the two vessels should be in phase, with the towline length calculated to keep both boats at either the crests or troughs of the waves at the same time. Otherwise there will be big shock loads on the line as one boat slows down in a trough and the other accelerates down a wave face. For a long-distance tow in flat water, a towline of 5-6 boatlengths should be sufficient. Remember, the boat being towed cannot stop, so make sure you have plenty of distance between the two boats in case of a change of direction or conditions. Turns should be wide and slow so the towed vessel has room to follow.

Once near a dock or in a tight harbor, the towed vessel should be taken alongside, or “on the hip,” with the disabled boat slightly ahead of the beam of the assisting vessel. The two boats are then tied together with a pair of spring lines and a couple of warps with plenty of fenders in between. When towing alongside, speeds will drop, but control is increased, which is key when maneuvering in tight quarters. 

 A primary winch makes a sturdy anchor for a tow line

A primary winch makes a sturdy anchor for a tow line

While Being Towed

The helmsperson aboard the towed boat should steer toward the transom of the towing boat so that the two stay in line as much as possible. Make sure you are towed at a speed that is safe for your boat given the conditions. Some people will want to tow you at 15 knots. I don’t know about your sailboat, but mine can’t handle that.

Sometimes you’ll see small sailboats being towed in a line to a race start or back home when the wind dies. That’s fine for lighter vessels, but if you have a large cruising sailboat, it’s best not to allow the towboat (even a professional one) to attach another large boat to your stern cleats in a double tow. If it can’t be avoided, you can tie the line that is towing you to the line towing the boat behind you. In other words, tie a bowline through the bowline around your mast. (This arrangement may not be feasible if structures like a dodger, wheel or other hardware are in the way.) Do not tie the second line directly to your mast, otherwise it will be carrying the weight of both your vessel and the one behind you. 

Never have anyone just hold a towline, no matter how small the boat being towed. Any line can take off a finger as it loads up. Also, never let anyone stand next to the towline. If it breaks or a cleat fails, the line will recoil, possibly causing injury. Maintaining a steady load on the line throughout the tow is key to avoiding damage and injuries.

Keep communications open via VHF radios or cell phones. If no phones or radios are available, agree on hand signals to communicate critical messages. Good communication is critical when it comes time to move the towed boat on to the towing boat’s hip, or if anything goes wrong during the tow. 

Make sure you can quickly disconnect the two boats if necessary. If you feel the towing skipper is inexperienced or careless, you may want to cast off the towline. Always be prepared to deploy your anchor in case the line breaks or you find yourself disconnected with no control.

Legal Issues

If you’re getting a tow from a Good Samaritan, be sure to pass them one of your lines as opposed to accepting one of theirs. That way you will know what shape it is in. Unless they are professionals, you should avoid relying on someone else’s equipment. Agree with the towing party what you are asking for­—a tow only—so they cannot later claim they have salvaged your vessel. Some will tell you that you must pass your line to a towing vessel to avoid a salvage claim, but these days things are not so cut and dried. The best thing to do is to have a conversation about what you are asking for and what the expectations are on both sides. Stay on board your own vessel for safety and in case any legal issues pop up later.

Finally, consider when to offer or accept a tow and when to pass. If you’re the one offering a tow and anything goes wrong, you will most likely be considered a Good Samaritan and unless there was negligence on your part, you will be protected legally. If conditions are such that you question your boat’s ability to manage the tow or you have reservations about the seaworthiness of the other vessel, you can call a commercial towing firm on behalf of the boater in trouble. Standing by and waiting with them is still rendering assistance. 

Photos by Charles J. Doane

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