Sunday, January 21, 2018

Don’t Do What I Did

August 1, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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My girlfriend and I were boating when we noticed two men and a young boy in a 14-foot dinghy waving us down. We motored over — they said that that their motor had died. New attempts to start the engine failed, so we agreed to tow them to their marina. We had never performed a tow, but what could possibly go wrong?

I rigged a 15-foot towline in a V shape from my stern cleats to their bow cleat and set off. Boat wakes tossed the dinghy about and we saw the white-knuckled occupants clinging to the gunwales. I feared the dinghy would capsize or someone would be thrown over. Nevertheless, we carried on. When we got to the marina, the shaken crew thanked us profusely.

I later learned that the worse place to tie off a boat towline is the stern cleats, as the tension prevents normal swinging of the stern when steering. Breast or forward cleats are best, provided they can take the strain (most factory-installed cleats can).

I also used a towline that was too short. A towing bridle should start with a line at least 80 feet long, of braided nylon line (nylon stretches to absorb shock) equivalent to the thickness of the anchor line. This line makes the V that attaches to two cleats on the towboat and then to the bow cleat of the towed boat. The second part of the bridle is a 30-foot length of the same nylon line with a large snap hook at one end. The bitter end of this line goes to the bow cleat of the towed boat and the snap attached to the middle of the V so it can slide back and forth as needed. Splice a small fender to this line so it will float and be more visible.

Another no-no was revving up immediately. I should have gradually increased the throttle while checking whether the towed boat needs to be brought closer or further from my vessel, keeping both boats on the same crest or trough at the same time.

Boat wakes and boating traffic in general are problematic in a tow situation. I used lots of arm waving and the horn to alert other boaters to slow down and provide a wide berth (most, but not all, did).

I know now that I should have transferred the boy and one man to my boat. The most able-bodied of the adults should have stayed on the towed boat, wearing a life jacket. The newly augmented crew on my boat would be instructed to keep a sharp lookout for hazards threatening either boat as well as watching the towlines.

I have towed others since and been towed by a fellow boater. It’s nice to help someone out and vice versa. However, each tow situation is different, with variables including boat sizes, weather, and current. Some adjustment in the length of the V line and bowline is needed. Practice with someone in your marina in all different scenarios for those times when your help is vital. Otherwise, leave it to the pros.

A footnote to this story: A little kindness can yield rewards, even if you have no idea what you’re doing. Once at the dock the two men informed us they worked at a local seafood restaurant and urged us to stop by. We took them up on their offer and had an excellent meal!

By Paul Knieste




is an R.N. in psychiatry and a professional photographer. He is an avid boater and fisherman in the waters of East Rockaway Inlet and Montauk Point, and loves cooking. Contact him at

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