The best advice I ever received about boating was from a salty old captain years ago. He said, “Safe boating is simple: keep the water out of the boat, keep the boat off the bottom, and everything else can be worked out.” Truer words were never spoken, but despite their best efforts, boaters fail at one or both on a regular basis.
For this reason, we are fortunate to have access to professional towing services, covering most recreational boating waters in this country. Whether boating in the ocean near shore, or in most large inland lakes and rivers, assistance on the water is just a VHF radio or phone call away.
Two national entities — Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S., along with a few smaller regional companies — make up a network of towing operators ready to help you on the water during a boating mishap. Towing service is not inexpensive, with the cost of a response averaging $1,000. That’s why most boaters take advantage of the annual membership programs these companies offer, where the cost of service is covered by their membership plan.
I absolutely recommend membership in one or both national companies. While Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S. have boats in most popular boating destinations, neither covers all areas. Having a membership with both assures you can access help in most locations. In joining, it is important to know what you’re getting in return for your membership fee, what the service covers, and maybe more importantly, what it doesn’t cover.
Although commonly referred to as such, a membership with a towing service is not insurance. Towing services offer no coverage for loss of your boat or boating equipment, nor do they cover personal injury or any sort of liability. Within the terms of their membership agreement, both national companies provide similar services to their members. While each differs slightly in what they provide, the basics they both offer are towing, fuel, jump starts for dead batteries and delivery of easily accessed basic parts for a mechanical breakdown.
It is important to understand having a membership is not a promise of rescue and is restricted to the services that can be provided by the equipment available in the specific area at the time of need. Each individual towing operator is an independent business, which provide services under an agreement with or as a franchisee of the national company. Their equipment could vary from small single engine center-consoles to medium sized commercial RIBs, or in some areas large offshore vessels.
For offshore assistance, all towing companies have limits on how far they can go to offer assistance, but it varies. In Sea Tow’s case, they state: “We do not have specific offshore distance limits. How far offshore Sea Tow will go to get you is only limited by the sea conditions, fuel capacity of our boats and our ability to communicate with you. If, for any reason, Sea Tow cannot respond, we will assist in arranging for an alternate provider and provide reimbursement up to $5,000 per incident. In most cases, if we are unable to respond no other commercial assistance provider will be able to either, so we will defer to the U.S. Coast Guard.”
If you frequently boat offshore, know how you will communicate with the towing providers. In practicality, the offshore range they are capable of reaching could be up to 30 or 40 nautical miles from the towing company’s base. Keep in mind this could be out of mobile phone or VHF radio range. It will do you no good if they can help you, but you can’t reach them. Ask if the towing provider in your area can communicate with a satellite texting device like a Garmin inReach or a satellite phone.
Occasionally a dispute between towing operators and boaters arises over the thorny issue of whether you simply needed a tow or whether the assistance is considered “salvage.” Both national towing services attempt to describe the difference in their agreement; however, despite their best efforts, it can still be highly subjective. If it is considered salvage, the terms of the assistance changes dramatically.
Your towing provider will likely ask a lot of questions before dispatching a boat in order to arrive properly prepared to assist. However, they cannot know the exact degree of assistance needed until they actually arrive on the scene and assess the situation. When they arrive to offer help, always ask the towboat captain if this is a “tow” or “salvage” operation. The difference in the cost and who pays the bill could be substantial.
Given the potential for subjectivity between towing and salvage, it is imperative that you know the nature of the assistance you’re receiving. Salvage is historically and more importantly “legally” defined as the rescue of a boat from a “peril” at sea.
The definition of peril may take many forms. Typically, a marine peril involves a dangerous situation at sea, wherein a vessel may incur damage if it is left to the forces of wind, waves, weather and tide without prompt assistance. Any number of simple boating mishaps can quickly descend into peril if left unaddressed. What may have been a soft grounding on a sand bar can quickly become a salvage operation, with an ebbing tide and slight shift of the wind.
Marine salvage laws have existed for centuries. They were derived to incentivize salvors to come to the assistance of vessels in distress, thereby saving the loss of property and possibly life. Marine salvage laws date back to a time when most vessels at sea were commercial and have changed little with the growth of recreational boating.
Many boaters believe salvage laws do not apply to them and think salvage only applies to big ships, not their 33-foot express cruiser. Marine salvage laws apply to every vessel upon navigable waters, from a kayak to a 600-foot container ship. They are not limited to only vessels engaged in commerce. This opens all recreational vessels to claims for salvage rewards.
When selecting a towing provider, read and understand the terms you are agreeing to for dispute resolution. Many towing providers will ask the boat owner to sign a contract before towing. In signing these contracts, you may be agreeing to some form of binding arbitration, which is intended to provide for a quick determination of the appropriate amount of the salvage reward. You may also be acknowledging that the services provided will form the basis of a salvage claim, where the salvor could be entitled to a lien upon your boat in the amount of the claim.
Too frequently boaters discover the difference between towing and salvage when presented with a bill for something they believed was covered under a membership plan. Boaters also must be careful when accepting assistance from a passing boater. It is not necessary for a salvor to be a professional towing company. If you accept assistance from a passing boater, they may have the right to claim a salvage reward; legally these are referred to as “chance salvors.”
Assistance to boaters is offered regularly without any extraordinary needs or costs, but exceptions occur often enough. Read and understand the terms of service offered by your towing provider. The national companies offer excellent service within the terms of their agreements and individual towboat captains do their best to assist boaters for the least cost; however, sometimes assistance truly deserves to be salvage. Always protect yourself by knowing which you are receiving before you connect a towing company’s line to your boat.