Why tow?

Knowing how to tow is an essential skill for any yachtsman and is a part of your seamanship knowledge to keep in your personal toolbox. Helping a fellow sailor in need may be your main reason to tow, however, due to a mechanical failure or damage you may also find yourself requiring a tow. It may sound easy just tying two vessels together but due to the forces involved, combined with the sea state, if not performed properly it can be very easy to cause damage to crew or the vessel. 

Towing vs Salvage? From a legal standpoint, a towing vessel may possibly claim salvage if they rescued the stricken vessel from danger with no pre-agreed terms. If the tow has a prior agreement then it’s best to agree on a price. The stricken vessel will not be in the position to mandate a destination – it’s best to be gracious and thankful for the help. Communication with the local coastguard may be required especially if they were the ones that requested assistance.

Types of tow:

The Alongside Tow

The alongside tow is suited for shorter tows and confined areas. You may need to tow up a river, through a lock and onto a mooring for example. This tow allows for more controllability regarding speed control and direction. The vessel being towed will need to be the one manoeuvred onto the dock.

The Setup

Fenders are your friends! Both vessels are secured together using bow and stern lines plus a bow and stern spring line, similar to mooring on a dock. However, the towing vessel should be offset aft of the vessel being towed to allow for optimum steerage. If both vessels are sailing vessels it will reduce the risk of the masts contacting each other.

The sea conditions will determine how tight you want to connect the vessels.

Long Tow

A long tow is best suited for long passages in open water where you have lots of sea-room. This tow requires a long flexible tow, roughly three boat lengths, with the warp from the stern of the towing vessel to the bow of the stricken vessel.

The Setup

Both vessels should set up a bridle. The tow vessel should have an aft bridle set up from the primary winches and around the aft cleats to share the load. Additional cleats can be used if necessary. The vessel being towed should also use its primary winches and pass the warp forward around as many cleats as possible.

A long nylon warp that not only floats but provides flexibility against shock-loads should be attached via bowlines to allow movement along the bridles.

If the sea is rough, this line can be floated to lee from the tow vessel or if calm, passed via a heaving line between the two vessels. If you don’t have a warp that floats, attach a couple of fenders to it so it doesn’t get caught in propellers. This may also reduce the danger from the warp snapping, recoiling and endangering the crew. Keep the crew clear of the bridal areas.

Ideally, the vessels should be maintained on the crests of successive waves so the acceleration and deceleration rates are similar to avoid snatching. If the vessel being towed has steering, keep the rudder centred. If the vessel being towed doesn’t have steerage it may fishtail and therefore using a trailing warp or attaching a small drogue or strong bucket may help stabilise the tow.

Have the crew on both vessels wear life jackets and gloves and have a sharp knife ready to cut the vessel free if needs be. Communication is key so agree on a VHF channel and maintain a listening watch as you may need to adjust speed for example depending on tow stability. If radio communication isn’t possible, maintain a visual watch and agree on simple hand signals. Prior to towing, have a clear understanding between crews of the direction each boat will take to avoid collision in the event that the towing vessel has to stop.

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