Frank's Blog - Yes, Finally
The Tow Boat - 1 December, 2016
A couple of years ago, when we first started cruising full time, we were in Saint Augustine, when a friend of ours got her boat stuck in the mud. She
ran too close to a shoal in the river, moving from one anchorage to the other, and had the misfortune to do this close enough to a high tide as to
make floating off problematic at best.
In her post on the subject, she admitted to having to call the "red boat of shame." For the uninitiated, the red boat of shame is the assistance tow
from TowBoatUS, one of the two major towing franchises in the Unite States. All of the boats in the TowBoatUS franchise are painted a deep fire
engine red (for those of us who remember when fire engines were painted red). The other major towing company is SeaTow - or, I suppose, the
yellow boats of shame (I will leave it to you to figure out why that nickname).
Both of these companies work on a similar business model. You, the boat owner, pays a modest sum for an annual contract. The contract is with
either the TowBoatUS or the SeaTow organization. Each of these companies have contracted with franchisees in major boating areas, who agree
to keep boats of a certain size, painted in a distinctive color and manned by competent experienced captains, available 24 hours a day, seven
days a week.
When you get into trouble, you can either contact the local company directly by hailing them on VHF Channel 16 or you can, if within cell tower
range, call the main 800 number and talk to an operator who will take all of the pertinent information and transfer it to the local operator. It is
something like AAA for the water.
Now, I don't claim to be a perfect boater. I have had things happen that have required me to call the "red boat of shame." (I have always had a
relationship with TowBoatUS, because when I first had boating insurance, I got it through BOATUS and it was easier to keep everything in one
bucket). Recently, I have had the opportunity to call them twice, a few weeks apart.
In the first case, we were coming from Annapolis, MD, and heading for the ICW when I noticed that the transmission on Rockhopper was leaking a
lot of transmission fluid into the absorbent pads I keep under the engine. Although we tried to get to the marina that we knew could do the repair,
we didn't make it. I was forced to call TowBoat in order to make the last ten miles of the trip.
It took a couple of hours for the boat to appear, but anyone who has ever called a tow truck on a wet evening knows what that is about. It takes a
while for the crew to get to the towboat and then for the tow boat to get to you. While we waited, we sat just off the channel with our anchor down,
on short scope. There truly is not much to do when you are waiting for the tow, except answer the radio. It seems like everyone who passes wants
to know what they can do to help. I find this truly different from being broken down in a car, but I suspect the difference is the radio and the speed.
If we could call the owner of a car broken down on the side of the road as we passed them at ten miles an hour, we would, I am sure, offer to help.
Unless, of course, the reason we are traveling ten miles an hour is because of the broken down car at the side of the road. Then, I would bet the
offer would not be to help. Ah, well....
When the towboat arrived, the captain and his mate verified that we were the people who called and where we wanted to go. After ascertaining
that we were safe and well, they came close aboard and handed over a towing bridle, which I slipped over the bow cleats. I raised the anchor and
secured it and off we went. Soon, we were tied up at the marina, safe and secure.
Now, here's the thing about TowBoatUS, and I am sure that SeaTow is similar. For this tow, the tow boat left their home base at 11:00, picked us
up at 12:30, got us to the marina about 3:00 PM (we had to go through a lock and a bridge opening and they do not often change their schedule
for an assistance tow vessel), left at 4:00 PM and were back at their home base by 6:30 PM (an estimate actually, but a pretty good one, based on
the time it took to get us to the marina). That's seven and a half hours underway.
In addition, there was a gale warning in effect (it wasn't really blowing that hard, but the gale warning was there) and this was in their "winter
season." The regular towing rate was $170 an hour, plus $25 an hour for the winter rate, plus $25 an hour for the gale warning. Total cost of this
tow would have been $1,650. I paid - nothing.
You read that right - I paid zip for this tow. Now, you might say, "well, Frank is a highly respected member of the boating community and there was
obviously some professional courtesy rendered." You might say that, if you live in one of those states where the inhalation of burning hemp is
legal. Actually, I got this service because I pay for "unlimited saltwater towing" every year and have for more than ten years.
Unlimited saltwater towing, at the risk of sounding like a commercial for TowBoat, is a service level within their system that pays 100% of the cost of
towing within the local franchisees towing area (generally speaking, a 25 mile radius from the tow boat's home dock). It also pays for jump starts,
soft ungroundings and the delivery of fuel while on the water (you do have to pay for the fuel). Now, how much does this service cost? For me, it
is $149 a year. If you are a freshwater boater, it is about half that.
Now, I could have taken that $149 a year and put it in a special savings account and, when I needed it, I would have had about $1,490 (plus
interest). That would have (almost) covered my tow, assuming I never had to use it again.
But, that's the thing - you are betting that you will never use it again. After three weeks at the marina, my transmission was good to go, we were
told. They had investigated the problem, put in new parts and reassembled and tested everything. So, we disconnected the power lines, got
underway, stowed all of the dock lines and fenders and headed south. For three and a half miles.
At that point, the transmission pumped all of the transmission fluid back into the absorbent pad under the engine. We were, once again, stuck
without a transmission. We drifted over to the edge of the channel and called again for TowBoatUS. Within two hours, we were headed back to
the dock. This tow was a lot quicker, since we didn't have to go through the locks this time and we were closer to the marina. Also, there wasn't a
gale warning in effect. Still, for the five hour tow, at winter rates, I would have had to pay $975. That would have been an issue.
Now, I am sure that if I abused TowBoat, they would eventually tell me to take my business elsewhere. Also, there are some "hidden" details in the
service - like that fact that "unlimited" towing doesn't mean they will tow you an "unlimited" distance or that you have to wait 30 days for the benefits
to kick in. Of course, these make sense - let's face it, if you could get free towing by signing up just before calling them, why would anyone pay for
the service in advance?
But when you need them, there is nothing more reassuring than knowing that the red boat of shame is on its way and nothing more satisfying than
knowing that you are covered for the service.