Offering assistance to a fellow boater in trouble is part of maritime law and culture and it's also the right thing to do: remember you could be the one in need of help one day. Although we have Seastart in the Solent, local rescue charities all over the coast of the UK as well as the RNLI, there are times when help is required from the nearest available boat – or no-one. Part of boating is self-sufficiency, and knowing how to tow and be towed is part of the skill-set.
There are far too many variables to be able to cover all towing situations. Variables include the relative size, shape, and draught of both the disabled boat and the tow-boat; the tow-boat’s horsepower, the sea conditions, the depth of the water, the steering abilities of both boats, and so on. But here are some tips that should cover a lot of situations.
1. Use the disabled boat’s line, so that the tow-boat can cast it off when the tow is over. A nylon anchor rode works well – it’s long, and the nylon is stretchy, so it will be a better shock-absorber.
2. If you happen to a have a ski or wakeboard boat with a towing pylon near the boat’s natural pivot point, you’re in luck – you have a nearly ideal tow-boat. Otherwise, make a bridle with a sturdy line between your two stern cleats and aft of your engine(s), but not so loose that the bridle will sink and foul your props. Make a loop in the end of the tow-line and tie a bowline so that the bowline loop can slide from side to side on the bridle. When you cast off the tow, just uncleat one side of the bridle and let the bowline slide off.
3. When in close quarters (like a harbour) and calm waters, keep the tow-line short. Or you may want to position the tow-boat alongside the disabled boat, with the two sterns lashed parallel, or better yet with the tow-boat’s engine or rudder aft of the disabled boat’s engine/rudder. In this case the tow-boat acts as an auxiliary engine for the disabled boat. If the disabled boat can use its rudder or engines to help steer, it will be a big help. Towing (pushing, really) alongside, "on the hip", requires very tight lines all around and a robust forward spring line on the tow-boat – that’s the line that will do most of the work. Make sure to have plenty of fenders between the boats. Boats can suffer damage quickly if this isn’t done right.
4. In open water and with any significant waves, make a long tow-line. The disabled boat should ride in sync with the tow-boat – both boats together in the wave troughs or on the wave crests, not one boat in the trough and the other on the crest. That means lots of violent shock-loading, and is a good way to pull out cleats and cause other damage and injury.
5. If there isn’t enough slack (catenary) in the tow-line, you can absorb more shock by hanging a weight, like a spare anchor or kellet, from a block in the middle of the tow-line.
6. Guard against chafe everywhere the tow-line comes in contact with the two boats. Remember that it’s heat, developed from the pressure and friction of the line under strain, that causes nylon rope to break down more than actual physical chafe. Cloth chafing gear – even old T-shirt material, will reduce that problem.
7. If the disabled boat is aground, assess the whole situation before making a move to come to the rescue. Is the water deep enough for your boat and engines? Is the bottom so soft that you’ll churn it up and suck solids into your intakes when you churn your props? Is there a hole in the disabled boat that will flood it if you pull it into open water?
8. Agree on communications before starting the tow. Use your VHF radios on a non-emergency channel, or mobile phones, or even hand signals. You’ll need to agree on the best speed for the tow, where you’re going, and what can be done to make the tow smoother and easier for both boats.
9. Sometimes conditions will just be too rough or dangerous to attempt a tow. In this case the tow-boat can either stand by until the lifeboat arrives, or, if it’s safe, take the crew from the disabled boat on board to protect them. In any case like this, the Coastguard should be called on VHF Channel 16 and kept informed of the situation.
10. There’s the law of the sea, but then there are suit-and-tie laws, and one of them involves salvage. It’s highly unusual (and very low) for anyone to try to claim salvage rights in situations involving small pleasure-boats, but it has been known to happen. So if your boat is disabled and someone you don’t know comes to the rescue, ask as tactfully as you can if there will be a charge. Similarly, it’s reasonable for the rescuing boater to wonder if he will be reimbursed for any damage incurred while giving the tow. These things are best worked out between the boaters themselves, but the MCA Receiver of Wreck is the ultimate arbiter.
If you go out in boats long enough, you’re more than likely to have a chance to tow someone, and also more than likely to need a tow someday. In either case it will work out best if you think through your towing plans ahead of time, and have your mind and your gear in order. When in doubt, stand by the disabled boat and wait for the RNLI or Coastguard to arrive.