Towing a boat: how to tow and be towed

When a boat needs towing, cruising yachts are often among the first on the scene. James Stevens explains how best to go about towing a boat

Knowing how best to tow a boat on the water (as opposed to towing a boat on a trailer) is not necessarily something that occurs to most yachtsmen. But knowing how to do it is still a key seamanship skill, and anyone listening to VHF Ch16 in the summer months will hear a good number of boats, of various descriptions, requesting assistance.

Whether it’s towing a dinghy, a small motor boat with engine problems, or another yacht in difficulty, cruising yachts can often be the first on the scene to lend a hand, at least until other help arrives.

Towing is incredibly simple in principle – just attach a line between two boats and off you go – but it is not always so straightforward, and mistakes can be costly. The weather and sea state make a huge difference, changing an easy process into one that can be difficult and possibly dangerous.

Helping a boat in distress

Some of the best boat handlers I have ever examined at yachtmaster and instructor levels are tug drivers. They have an ingrained ability to sense the effect the huge tension on the towline is having on the tug and the grave danger if the tug ends up beam-on to the line under tension. As a result their boat handling under power is first class.

For yacht skippers, apart from tenders, towing is a rare event and usually involves assisting a fellow yacht; not as hazardous as a tug towing a ship, of course, but it can still be difficult, especially in the open sea.

Towing a yacht is done to get them home following a problem caused by engine failure or some other non-urgent inconvenience.

If you come across a yacht in distress your primary obligation is to save the people on board rather than the yacht, although this might be achieved by towing the yacht away from danger. In a rough sea it’s probably going to be a difficult and possibly dangerous manoeuvre, so standing by until the rescue services arrive might be more appropriate.

In less urgent situations you have to weigh up whether your yacht is capable of taking on a tow. Towing a larger yacht in calm water for a short distance is relatively easy. If there is no wind or tidal stream and the sea is flat you can safely tow a yacht twice your size.

In the open sea with a swell and wind it is best not to attempt towing vessels larger than your own. Again you might have to stand by until help arrives.

What’s the difference between Salvage and Towage

Legally a towing vessel can claim salvage if the tow has been rescued from danger with no pre-agreed terms. Alternatively towage is where there is a prior agreement between tug and tow.

Legally it does not matter who passes the towline. Insurance policies vary on whether they cover
salvage and towage.

By accepting a tow on any vessel I think a skipper is not in a position to start telling the tow where they are going to end up; that is a decision for the towing vessel to make. Also by accepting a tow a skipper should realise it is a considerable favour for any towing vessel to make and be gracious
and generous afterwards.

If a tow is in response to a Coastguard request, the Coastguard will need to be kept informed. They will ask you to provide details for their records, but don’t let yourself become distracted from the task at hand. Tell them you will call them back if you are busy and focus on the situation in front of you first!

Throwing a heaving line

Setting up for towing a boat

Throwing a heaving line is the safest way of making contact.

It has to be very calm to come alongside in order to pass the towline by hand. In any kind of sea the rigging is going to get tangled if you get too close. Remember heaving lines only go downwind.

Hopefully the crew of the towed vessel will understand that the actual towline will be on the end of the heaving line when they have pulled it in, although it’s surprising how many crew cleat the heaving line and signal they’re ready to go.

A heaving line is a light line with a soft weight on the end; traditionally a monkey’s fist knot. The length is usually a total of about 10m.

Many yachts have a heaving line with a quoit or weighted bag attached for man overboard emergencies. It will go further if you throw overarm but it takes a little practice to master the technique.

To attach the heaving line to the thicker towline you should use a double sheet bend. Both working ends should emerge from the same side to make the bend more stable.

How to set up a tow for a boat

The traditional way of attaching the tow is with a bridle. This is a line led from one quarter to the other to which the towline is attached via a bowline around the bridle line.

Use a bridle to allow the tow rope to move

The reason for this is first to allow a quick release by dropping one side of the bridle, and secondly the bowline will slip to one side as the towing boat turns, assisting the turn.

Commercial tugs attach the towline forward of the pivot point making manoeuvring much easier. On a yacht the pivot point going ahead is usually near the leading edge of the keel, so attaching the tow forward is normally impossible.

For tows of short duration the towline can be attached to the bridle with a bowline, but if the yachts are in for the long haul, chafe is a problem and a double sheet bend is the best connection.

On the towing yacht, it is worth spreading the load of the bridle via the stern cleats to the primary winches and other strong points on the boat.

Most of a sea tow will be in a straight line but the length of one side of the bridle can be adjusted to assist steering if necessary – adding more weight to the side you want to turn towards is much the same as one of the methods for steering after rudder failure, so works well, and might help stop the bows being blown off course.

How to prepare to be towed on your boat

The towed crew need to organise themselves to attach the towline securely especially if there is a protracted tow ahead.

Sharing the load between strong points, minimising chafe and avoiding weaker fittings, is key. Use the winches if possible by leading a bridle aft from the bow, via the midships cleats and to the cockpit winches.

The foredeck anchor windlass ought to be a strong point but on some modern yachts it will not be tough enough for the job on its own, as the deck below may have insufficient strengthening for the potential shock loads of a tow at sea.

The towline should be attached to the bridle in such a way that it can be easily released. A bridle that passes from the cockpit winches, all the way to the bow cleats and back to the cockpit can be released from the cockpit, providing the towline was tied in a bowline around the bridle.

If you have used two lines from the cockpit as we did, we found that using a round turn and two half hitches meant we could release the tow line when it was under load.

The rougher the sea the longer the towline should be. A towline which continually snatches puts huge stresses on both yachts.

Snubbing can be reduced by using chain for at least part of the towline, even attaching the towline to the anchor and paying out anchor chain is possible – only in deep water of course.

Other items such a jerry can of water, placed part way along the tow line, could be used to induce catenary in the tow line and reduce snatching.

Towing a boat underway

It’s crucial the towed vessel steers to follow to avoid sheering and adding significant strain to the tow. Towing is most difficult downwind in rough conditions.

Towing is much more difficult in rough conditions

Once both yachts are accelerating and decelerating on waves this is challenging to say the least. The towing yacht has to maintain enough speed to avoid being overtaken.

The best prevention in this situation is to have a tow line long enough to keep the boats more than one wavelength apart. That way, if the towed boat does accelerate, it still has another wave ahead of it before hitting the towing vessel.

In this situation it is essential to have a radio or phone connection. The towed yacht can stream a drogue or a long bight of rope to help slow it down. A bucket can be used providing it is not the usual sort with a handle which falls off in a few seconds.

If it is all proving too difficult it may be worth rethinking the destination or tacking downwind, steering a more oblique angle to the waves, and thereby reducing acceleration of the towed vessel down the faces of the waves.

Towing upwind puts more strain on the towline, deck fittings and the towing yacht’s engine but the tow is generally more stable. You will need to reduce speed to a point where both vessels feel comfortable, while still making progress to windward.

As usual it is essential to keep a good watch both ahead, on the towline and on the course. Towing is not a good time to make a navigational error or wrap a lobster pot line round the prop.

Make sure you have enough line out to avoid collisions

Avoiding collisions when towing a boat

No day shapes are required for tows under 200m. Over 200m both the towing vessel and the towed vessel should display a diamond shape. Avoid towing a boat at night. Showing the lights of a tug might prove difficult, but have a torch ready to scare off vessels.

At night tugs have distinctive lights to minimise the danger of vessels crossing the towline. If the tow is under 200m the towing vessel should show two masthead lights in a vertical line. There should therefore be an extra light with the same arc of visibility as the usual one used for night motoring.

A tow of over 200m requires three white lights on the mast. There should also be a yellow towing light above the sternlight. Turning on the normal steaming lights and the anchor light at the masthead is fine from the bow but puts a white light above the sternlight.

Reaching port

Once you have reached sheltered water, slow down and shorten the tow. At this stage you may want to ask the marina launch or harbour master to take over as their boat may be better suited to the task.

Whether that is not possible or not, the best plan is to opt for an alongside tow.  Setting it up correctly is crucial to manoeuvrability.

It might be best to tow alongside in busy ports

Opt for an alongside tow in busy waters

Once you arrive in the congested waters of a harbour you need greater control of the tow – and importantly the ability to slow down easily.

The alongside tow allows you to position the disabled boat on a pontoon which is probably best for any repairs.

Think carefully about which side is best for the tow, bearing in mind what the wind and tide are doing on the mooring or pontoon at the final destination. The tug will need to be on the outside when you come alongside.

Utilise bow and stern lines

Use plenty of fenders and position the tug so the pivot point of the combined vessels is well forward of the propeller and rudder of the tug.

This usually means the tug is positioned on the towed vessel’s quarter with the prop and rudder of the tug behind the transom of the tow. Use bow and stern lines to keep them parallel, or slightly bows in.

The spring from the towed vessel’s stern to the tug’s bow will take the weight of the tow, and the spring from the towed vessel’s bow to the tug’s stern will stop the towed vessel surging ahead when slowing down.

Steering the alongside tow

The tug must steer, but the towed vessel can assist. With the tug’s rudder far enough aft and plenty of throttle, turning either way is possible, but it is much easier to turn towards the towed vessel.

Conversely when the tug goes astern to slow down at the destination, the tow will rotate towards the tug’s side. Unsurprisingly the stopping distance is much longer so take it slowly. The helm of the tug may not be able to see clearly all round so keep communicating between tug and tow.

Problems with towing a boat

So far we have only considered towing when the crew of the towed vessel are capable of assisting.

In the open sea the towed crew might be incapacitated. In this case the towing yacht will have to put a crew member on board, preferably with a handheld radio. The Coastguard will need to be informed.

Towing becomes much harder if the towed yacht has steering failure. The most difficult yacht to tow is one with a fin keel and hanging rudder where the rudder is unusable. They sheer badly, making progress very slow and hazardous with a risk of the towed vessel becoming swamped.

The only solution is to stream a drogue aft of the tow. This will of course slow down the tow but should make it more manageable.

There have also been incidents of yachts being towed by commercial vessels sinking under tow. If this happens it is because the yacht was being towed too fast, or the crew were taken off the yacht for safety, but leaving the towed vessel without steerage.

Towing a boat under sail

Generally towing under sail is much harder than towing under engine, and if it’s a real rescue situation, you will probably choose the most effective and timely way to resolve the situation.

For a prolonged tow, however, using your sails may add to your horsepower, which isn’t really suited to heavy towing work, to save fuel, or to avoid rope in the water near the propeller.

Towing under sail is best reaching or downwind. Upwind you may find you have significantly increased leeway

Of course, you don’t want to exceed a comfortable speed for the vessel being towed, but it can help.

It is worth noting that with the wind aft of the beam, you should be able to sail reasonably well, potentially just under genoa so that you don’t need to round up to hoist or lower the main.

Upwind, however, you may well be going slower than normal and you will experience much more leeway. This is exacerbated by having lines attached to your stern, which makes it harder to head up into the wind.

With the helm down to leeward, you will only make more leeway until you bear away enough to build sufficient speed to reduce leeway again.

In terms of setting up the tow under sail, very little changes. If anything, it is more important to move the attachment point for your bridle further forward to maintain manoeuvrability and to increase the length of the tow or the weight on the line to make the tow as smooth as possible.

Realistically this is best done on a reach. Upwind the drag will cause so much leeway and it will be impossible to point anywhere near your normal wind angle. Directly downwind with the main up it is difficult to adjust speed which is sometimes necessary to do if the sea conditions are rough.

The extra drag of the tow means you will need power, so hoisting both the main and the jib is usually the best option.

If conditions are difficult for hoisting the main then opting for motor sailing with the jib might give more control.

Towing a RIB or small powerboat

Small powerboats that carry only one engine can be vulnerable if they have engine failure. Mostly they tend not to venture too far out to sea so efforts to help them shouldn’t take too long, but if they are close to shore, time can be of the essence if they are drifting towards a lee shore.

RIBS usually have a V-shaped hull and a securing point below the sponson on the bow. This strong point is for recovery on to the trailer but makes a handy attachment for towing.

Thanks to their hull shape, RIBs tow well but they can also be towed alongside

RIBs tow reasonably well even with the engine raised, thanks to the increased drag of the sponsons towards the stern of the boat, but they can still start sheering when the V-bow digs in and pushes the bow one way. If this happens, lowering the outboard will increase drag aft.

Other small, light GRP powerboats with planing hulls are notoriously difficult to tow due to their sharp bows and flat aft hull sections, giving them a pivot point very close to the bow at displacement speeds. Keeping the outboard down helps and having someone on board steering is useful too.

Try to keep the weight aft to keep the bow out of the water and the stern pushed down to prevent sheering.

A bridle is useful on both vessels, if only to provide a quick release if they sheer into a position where the tow is pulling from the beam instead of ahead.

Towing a sailing dinghy

A group of dinghies at sea is usually part of a club or sailing school and will normally have a safety boat afloat nearby. However there are plenty of hardy souls who cruise in dinghies, some covering substantial distances.  Frank Dye sailed a 4.8m Wayfarer dinghy from Scotland to Norway and Iceland.

A dinghy will need the skipper to remain in the boat to steer

When becalmed, almost all dinghy sailors have accepted a tow at some time, certainly all those who have been to a sailing school or club. They will therefore know what to do if passed a towline. Many yacht skippers have sailed dinghies too and know the score.

Traditional dinghies such as the Wayfarer may need bailing after a capsize but most have a self-bailing system which, once underway, clears the water quite quickly.

Modern skiff dinghies with no transom hold very little water so they drain almost instantly under tow, but because they are designed to use the crew weight for stability they capsize very easily if there is no one on board, so at least the helmsman must stay on board at the stern to steer. Even then it can be slow and difficult. Safety boats overcome this problem by towing alongside with the
racks or overhanging gunwale resting on the sponson.

On board the dinghy the tow line is fixed to a strong point, usually the mast, and led through a bow fairlead if there is one. The main is lowered and the jib too, if possible. Daggerboard or centreboard must be lifted up and secured so it can’t slip down. While a tiny amount of centreboard may help with steerage, under tow the dinghy can easily ‘trip’ over the centreboard or the bow digging in. If the dinghy sheers off to one side, it is highly liable to capsize.

The helm should sit astern to keep the weight aft and the bow up. They will need to balance the dinghy to keep it level and steer to follow the towing boat.

The dinghy crew can drink tea on the yacht, leaving the helm to steer to follow the yacht’s transom. If the dinghy is being towed with no crew on board, the centre-board should be secured fully up and the helm tied amidships with the rudder down.

Towing a tender

We have all towed inflatable tenders easily enough but even that can go wrong. If the weather
is rough, or even just windy, inflatable dinghies can flip; this is bad enough if there are oars and other kit inside but it gets expensive if there is an outboard on the stern.

Towing a tender is something most sailors will be familiar with

It makes sense to adjust the length of the towline so the dinghy is riding up the wave astern rather than riding down it. Rather obviously the painter needs to be cleated securely and gathered in when the yacht slows down and goes astern or the dinghy will end up moored to the prop.

Pumping up a dinghy takes about five minutes, so it is worth considering whether towing a dinghy is going to slow your passage by more than that. Alternatively, if you are going to tow under sail, it’s worth removing the outboard and any other loose kit before setting off.

Many dinghies will also be small enough to stow on the foredeck, where they can be lashed down securely, which is arguably safer for the dinghy and less detrimental to boat speed for the cost of very little effort.

Towing kayaks 

Sea kayakers usually keep close to the shore or are mostly resilient and strong enough to reach their destination without help.

If inexperienced paddlers end up in the open sea there is trouble ahead. The most notorious example of this was in 1993 when four children attending an outdoor activity centre in Lyme Bay drowned on a kayaking trip when their instructors lost control of the group.

You can tow a kayak but it might be preferable to bring them and their kayak onboard

The problem with rescuing a kayaker from a yacht is the height of the yacht’s topsides. If the kayaker can still paddle it is best to stop beam on to the sea and beckon them into your lee.

If you can, secure a ladder over the side, if not, have a couple of ropes with bowlines to hang on to.

As the kayak approaches do not attempt to take away the paddle – it is what stops them inverting and staying there. Once they have taken hold of the ladder they can probably work out how to get up it. Ask their advice and use your knowledge of MOB recovery.

Towing a kayak is almost impossible so it will have to be lifted on deck. This can be difficult if it is full of water.

A sea kayak usually has bow and stern handles and a watertight compartment at each end so it is easier to lift than a standard kayak which has no bulkheads. On board a RIB a kayak is retrieved by rolling it horizontally to remove the water, then sliding it over the sponson. Trying to retrieve a kayak horizontally from a yacht is really difficult, especially if there is a swell and the yacht is shorthanded.

If it is retrieved vertically there will be water in it and if this is removed by levering it over the guardrail the whole kayak might split. The kayaker may be able to help and advise, but if you have an aft bathing platform, this may make the process much easier.

Paddleboards and sit-on kayaks are usually retrieved on to the deck of a yacht rather than towed.

Towing a jet-ski or personal watercraft

I realise most yacht skippers would rather unblock the heads than tow a jet-skier but as fellow water users we would of course give assistance to someone who needed it, regardless of vessel.

Jet-skiers usually travel around in groups so they can help each other and it may interest yacht skippers to know that a surprisingly large number of them are qualified. The main reason jet-skiers need a tow is running out of fuel, but there can also be problems if the rider gets separated from the jet-ski in windy weather when the craft gets blown away downwind. So if you find a jet-ski without
a rider, inform the Coastguard and start searching for the rider upwind.

Jet-skis, or more accurately, personal watercraft, have a towing point on the bow and because the weight of the engine is low down they tow reasonably well at fairly slow speed, even without the rider, who might appreciate being taken out of the wind.

Because a jet-ski is steered by a water jet, steering under tow would not make any difference.

Enjoyed reading How to tow a boat – or be towed – out of trouble?

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Source: Yachting Monthly

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