boat towing

What you need to know about towing a boat

One day, you may well come across a stricken vessel that may be suffering some kind of mechanical failure, so knowing how to tow safely and effectively is essential seamanship.

Long tow – with a functioning rudder

Towing depends on where you are and why you need to do it. In open water, a long tow is generally the best option. Tows should be roughly three boat lengths long. For 35ft (10.5m) boats, this will be about 30 meters. Both the tug and the tow should be on the same part of their respective waves, with the tug ahead of the tow.

Create a bridle at the stern of the tug and a bridle at the bow of the tow. A bridle can be connected from the bow cleats to a midship cleat and then to a cockpit winch, or from the stern cleats to a cockpit winch and then secured on a midship cleat for safety.

The load should be shared between all three fixings, rather than being taken up by one set of cleats. On each side of the boat, a single-line bridle was attached to the bow cleat, windlass, and midship cleat. Dorothy Lee doubled up the bridle on her substantial stern cleats.

Towing lines should be multi-plait nylon, which absorbs shocks well. This is what Sea Start would use. Our spinnaker sheet is a very 'unstretched' polyester braid - as most sailing boats use whatever line is available. The nylon warp in your anchor cable can make a good towing rope if it is made up of a warp and chain.

You can pass the tow rope across, throw a leader line across with the tow rope attached, or float the line down to the tow by tying it to a fender and paying out over the stern.

A bowline will be used to attach the tow rope to the bridle of the tow. Having a loop, the bridle allows the bowling tow rope to slide. As well, the tug keeps the tow rope out of the water - polyester rope sinks and can wrap around the propeller or jam the rudder. The tug will then take up the slack and gently increase the revs. Bridles should be placed between the toerail/gunwale and cushions or towels to avoid chafing. It is important to judge towing speed based on sea and wind conditions.

At 1,800 revs, Dorothy Lee lost only 1kt of boat speed when towing Splash in calm weather. Therefore, where she would have done 6kt, she did 5kt. Tows steer tugs from the stern. That's all I have to say.

Whether you have a stuck boat or need emergency towing, emergency boat towing Austin can help.

No rudder?

When a tow loses its rudder, which could very well be the reason she needs a tow in the first place, she tends to veer all over the place, rather like a water skier jumping over the wake of a ski boat. This needs to be reduced. If a Sea Start boat is bringing you in, it will carry a drogue with a diameter of approximately 20 inches. The drogues on Dorothy Lee aren't up to the job, and those on our lifebuoys are too thin. This could work if you have a Jordan Series Drogue, which can be used in a storm to slow you down, but don't deploy them all - just a few.

A bucket can also be towed on a line off the stern. The force exerted will probably rip off the handle, so you will need to attach a line by making two holes on opposite sides through which the line will run. Take a look at your buckets on board to see if they can be adapted.

Towing alongside

In open water, keep the towing lines long to accommodate wash and wave action between the two boats. When entering a river or harbor, tighten the lines to maintain control. The tug will always want her propulsion well astern of the yacht, so the RIB will tuck into the quarter. When a yacht tows another yacht alongside, the same applies.

A tug's stern will be about one-third of its overall length behind the tow. Towing alongside yachts requires offset rigging as well. The tow's mast should be well aft of the tug's. As long as the drive from the tug is as far back as possible if a sloop is towing a ketch, the sloop's mast must be between the tow's main and mizzen.

Bringing a boat back to a finger berth

It is important to determine if there is enough space in a finger berth for the boat, the RIB, and any neighboring boats in the berth when using a RIB to pull a boat back to a marina. The RIB will come down the fairway, stop at or near the berth, turn the two of them, point into the berth, and approach slowly. Tow crews will be instructed to attach the bow line first. As a result of the tug being to the side of the yacht, the thrust when the RIB goes astern will be offset and will swing the bow away from the dock.

If there is no room for the towing RIB between the berth and the neighbor, it should attach to the side of the tow she will be berthing on. The RIB berths bow first and on the port side, as far back as possible. RIB now drives at its fingertip.

It is hoped that by the time she reaches the end of the finger, the tow will be far enough into the berth for the crew to reach the mooring lines and warp her in.

Calling ahead is always a good idea because a neighbor in a finger berth might be there now when you don't want them there.

Towing another yacht into a finger berth is impossible, or at least very difficult, so it is best to bring the stricken yacht onto a hammerhead, or stretch of the open pontoon. It is best to call ahead to find out what is available.

The only way to manage this is to moor into the tide, which is what we always try to do.

What to do…

  1. Wear gloves and keep your fingers clear

  2. Make sure you have a sharp knife on hand

  3. Cushions or towels can prevent the rope from chafing on metal gunwales

  4. Towing alongside in open waters should be done with enough slack in the lines to allow for wave and wash movement

  5. For added control, keep your lines short when towing alongside a river

  6. Gently pick up the slack

  7. Gradually slow down. Tows and tugs shouldn't collide

  8. Inspect the stern gear and props for sinking lines

  9. Make sure sinking lines are kept clear of the stern until the tow has been taken up and tensioned

  10. When leading bridles and tow lines through fairleads, ensure they are strong enough to handle the load

  11. Use winches, windlasses, and other cleats to distribute the load on the bridles

  12. If the nylon breaks or stretches, stay well away from the bridle and tow line.

And a don’t

  1. You shouldn't go too fast, but you shouldn't go too slow, either