Towing with the Flow
No one wants to have a towboat operator come for their vessel, but everyone is happy to see that towboat heading towards them when they need one.
I met with such a two-phased tow operator recently. Captain Jim Reynolds, owner of Towing and Marine Service of Bay Shore (part of the nationwide TowBoatU.S.), has been an unwelcome/welcome sight to boaters in distress since 1985.
Boating has long been a part of Reynolds’ life. His father was a tugboat operator, and Reynolds worked as a mate on local party boats before beginning his towing business with a converted clam boat. His fleet has increased tenfold, and now does much more than simply tow stranded or disabled boats — salvage and other marine services are part of his business. A master captain, Reynolds says he requires his fleet captains to “do the job safely and do it well.”
The day Reynolds invited me for a ride-along he didn’t receive a single call from an unfortunate boater. While I didn’t have the opportunity to see any “action,” I did have a chance to talk with him on a range of subjects.
The vast majority of his calls involve the kind of boating mishaps that include groundings, engine failure, and running out of fuel, but Reynolds also has calls to refloat sunken boats and engage in salvage operations. When I asked which of his tow or salvage operations were the most challenging, he smiles and says, “There’s so many, they all blend together.”
With some help from his dispatcher, Reynolds began recounting subcategories of casualties that brought him out to boaters, such as fires, groundings, electrical or mechanical failures, and boats taking on water. He notes that most incidents are avoidable — vessel owners and operators aren’t always knowledgeable about boat handling and navigation and don’t always engage in proper maintenance.
Many sinkings start with “a little trickle,” per Reynolds. It can start with a failing thru-hull fitting or a crack in the hull and can became a serious leak. That’s when a boater “prays to the bilge pump gods” and calls Reynolds if divine assistance doesn’t prevent a sinking.
A small electrical short or a worn connection can cause major electronic failures, a dead battery, or even a fire, says Reynolds. He cautions boaters to practice ongoing maintenance and inspection of the hull and systems, paying special attention to fuel lines and tanks. Fittings should be examined carefully for leaks or corrosion. For those boaters without the time or the inclination, Reynolds advises that using a qualified marine mechanic to do routine upkeep may prevent unnecessary and costly troubles offshore.
If your boat sinks and is blocking a channel and/or leaking fuel, Reynolds’ task is one of salvage to free up the channel and mitigate the environmental impact. (The salvage also allows for insurance adjustments.) Refloating a sunken boat may involve divers and flotation bags and becomes a “fairly complicated task,” says Reynolds. Larger vessels (recreational and commercial) at the bottom may require a heavy-duty crane to raise them.
BoatUS and Reynolds Towing often work in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). The USCG is charged with ensuring that vessels are removed from potentially dangerous situations like rough seas, so Reynolds may be called upon to tow a boat with engine failure out of harm’s way.
Whether the call comes from experienced USCG personnel or a recreational boater, Reynolds says the key to saving time when seconds count is good communication. An operator of a vessel in trouble must be able to effectively communicate his issue and location. A skipper shouting, “Help! We’re in trouble by the red buoy in the channel” is not going to be seeing the towboat as quickly as one who can assist the dispatcher.
Of course, the tow captain will try to pinpoint a location with landmarks if the two vessels stay in communication. Reynolds describes cellphones as a “blessing and a curse,” as they are not always reliable in a stressful situation. Cell service fades the further you are from shore, batteries run out, and phones get wet as a boat takes on water. Reynolds prefers conversing via the “more reliable” VHF radio, down to that moment when he says to a stranded boater, “Hey, if that’s you I see, wave your arms!”
By Paul Knieste
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