ANNAPOLIS–Boats will always break down for one reason or another, but finding a friendly tow to shore is not a certainty.
Maryland autumn weather harbors spells of unpredictable storms and winds that cause people on the water worry at the end of boating season, more so than in the summer months when the conditions are more consistent, said BoatUS Annapolis Capt. Ham Gale.
“With the weather picking up now, there’s increased apprehension when boaters are left out on the water; people want service faster,” Gale said. “People who would wait four hours for their friend to tow them back to shore in the summer now start to worry if they are waiting for two hours.”
Some emergencies – like a sinking ship – require the U.S. Coast Guard or local maritime authorities, but other incidents where the boat and passengers are safe are often taken care of by the two biggest names in boat towing, Sea Tow and BoatUS.
Boaters could be looking at monstrous costs if they are stranded safely on their boat without a tow service membership, said Adam Wheeler, vice president and director of towing for BoatUS, a corporation headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, that provides boat safety services, including boat insurance and tow service.
“The average tow length is about three to four hours,” Wheeler said. “If you’re not a member of a service like ours, then you would get charged at what is called the ‘public rate,’ which ranges from anywhere between $200 to $300 per hour.”
The most popular tow service memberships are available for less than $200 annually from BoatUS or Sea Tow, and cover any incidents for the year, similar to AAA’s Roadside Assistance service.
Capt. Dave DuVall owns Sea Tow’s Central Chesapeake Maryland franchise in Annapolis, the longest-running location nationally for that boat service corporation, which is based in Southold, New York.
“Instantaneously, yes, it’s more financially rewarding to tow a non-member,” DuVall said. “In the long run, I get paid to provide a service to my members in advance. So if I don’t provide that service to members, suddenly the word gets out and all of a sudden the membership falls. If the membership falls, I lose money that way.”
Unfortunately for non-members, tow services like Sea Tow and their rival company, BoatUS, are required to give preference to their paying customers, which means they can divert from assisting a non-member in the middle of travel to help someone who subscribes to their service, leaving them stranded at sea for longer, DuVall said.
These corporations developed a network for the near coastal waters, providing tow service to boaters in distress and helping the U.S. Coast Guard, state and local maritime authorities in certain emergency situations.
DuVall equipped his fleet to respond to most emergencies and will assist the Coast Guard in certain situations, but describes it as a non-emergency tow service that responds to calls commonly dealing with some type of engine failure on recreational vessels.
“It truly is an on-call business,” DuVall said. “You seldom know until you answer the phone what you got, and even then, you may not know until you actually see it.”
Most of Sea Tow’s six Annapolis boat captains live within a mile of their dock behind the Watergate Village, and someone is always at the boats, ready to respond.
Duvall and Gale, along with other boat service operators in the Bay area, took a course to become certified in proper search and rescue procedures, so that “the Coast Guard can actually believe what we’re telling them,” DuVall said.
Sea Tow assisted the Coast Guard getting their fleet into shallow waters until about three years ago, when they received their new 45-foot utility boats, which draw less water than the old 41-foot vessels, DuVall said.
Gale helped the Coast Guard in September 2013 when a vessel carrying about a dozen people hit a rock pile by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and began to sink. The Coast Guard rescued the people, but could not get a pump on the sinking boat and resorted to Gale’s resources to save the vessel. BoatUS Annapolis was able to salvage the boat and is still waiting on payment from the government for the job, Gale said.
The U.S. Coast Guard used to direct boaters without rescue memberships to tow companies on a rotating basis, but the policy changed in 1983.
They now send out a broadcast specifying the incident, providing tow companies a first-come, first-serve call for service – an unbiased, but inefficient system. Tow captains in the Chesapeake Bay area decided to develop their own system, said DuVall.
“In this area, tow captains got together years ago and formed The Maritime Towing and Assistance Association to figure out a way to handle the new Coast Guard policy, which we didn’t like,” DuVall said. “We came up with a way to work within the guidelines of the policy, but instead of everyone running on one job, we’d figure out who would provide the closest and best response, and probably the cheapest, depending on the situation.”
Sea Tow does not have as many members in the Chesapeake Bay area as BoatUS, therefore making it easier and faster for Sea Tow to respond to subscribers and non-members, DuVall said. BoatUS has about 500,000 members nationally, and Sea Tow did not provide membership numbers.
Sea Tow and BoatUS have dispatchers all over the country that utilize every means of communication possible, from VHF radio to cell phone, to ensure immediate response at any time, said Scott Croft, BoatUS Director of Public Relations.
DuVall once rescued a non-member in a vessel who was grounded in soft mud, requiring 2,500 feet of rope from a second boat and a kayak for the last 150 feet to save the person in distress. “I told him, ‘Don’t even think about getting out of that kayak, because you’ll be up to your waist in there and we’ll be pulling you out,’” DuVall said.
Boaters that believe they have coverage for towing through their boat insurance company could be misinformed when they return to the dock. “I’ve seen instances where a guy thinks he has all this coverage, and then he’s only got about $150,” DuVall said. “That doesn’t even pay for us to get out of the slip.”
While BoatUS and Sea Tow are corporate competitors, the local towboat captains from each service are aware of wasting resources and coordinate to avoid doing so, even at the expense of a potential customer.
“One of the worst things you can do is call both companies at the same time if you’re not a member and need service,” DuVall said. “We listen to each other, so if I hear them dispatching on the same call I’m dispatching my guys on, I call the other company and we both stand down. We can’t afford to send out two boats to one guy, especially if we’re busy on a weekend.”