How an Emergency Tow Can Lead to Disaster

towedThis 4th of July weekend I noticed 3 boats getting a tow back home. It was a nice weekend and the waves were low key, so none of them were having a problem. That wasn’t the case with the Questar.

The Questar was an open fishing boat with a small cabin around the helm. It was in a fishing derby with a thousand boats in the area. But it was in a large bay and the area was under a small craft advisory. The Questar ended up being towed by a member of the Coast Guard Axillary. I’m sure the towing captain had the right equipment and the right training. Then why did the Questar swamp,overturn and drown the operator?

It usually takes more than one thing going wrong to cause a disaster. For the Questar it was:

  •  A small craft out under small craft advisory warning
  •  Poor De-watering equipment
  •  No water separator on the fuel line
  • Tow point was high on the bow pulling an already swamped vessel lower in the water
  • 150 ft tow line. I know that is the recommended length. I take issue with it. You need to maintain control and the longer the line the harder it is to control.
  • No VHF radio on the towed vessel
  • Heavier than water tow line. Again I’m sure that it it a recommended material due to the strength. Tow lines should float and not stretch.
  • Captain of the towing vessel wasn’t paying attention.
  • Operator of the towed vessel could not swim.

Here’s what happened; The Questar started taking waves over the gunnel. The poor bilge pump system could not keep up with it. The single outboard engine failed because of water in the fuel.  Situation was bad and they needed help. They flagged down a passer by because they had no radio. A Coast Guard Aux boat finally came to give a tow. The Questar was almost swamped.

The rescue went like this; a too long tow line made of a material that sinks was attached too high on the bow which ended up pulling the bow down and swamping the Questar, tipping it over trapping the handicapped operator in the cabin underwater. When the captain of the tow vessel realized the boat was swamped, he put it in reverse and tangled the props with the long sinking tow line. The delay it caused meant the difference between getting cold and wet or death to the operator of the towed vessel. That was a Disaster.

The last time I was towed, (never again), I watched as my scabbed together 3/8″- 1/2″  nylon tow line stretched and sank, back and forth as the stresses between the boats changed. I paid particular attention to the people that were sitting at the stern of the tow boat with their heads nearly  in line with the tow line. Nylon stretches up to 40% before it breaks. That means its like a rubber band storing energy with the potential of releasing it in the direction of those heads.

What if the cleat broke, sending whats left of it directly into those passengers. I once heard of a story about a Navy vessel tied to the dock with a huge 3 strand nylon line. Apparently the stresses were so great that when the the line gave way, it took out a small building.

Bottom line:

  • Use polypropylene(poly) or Dacron tow line. Poly floats, doesn’t stretch much and is cheap but you need to protect it from the sun.
  • Keep control and pay attention. Adjust the length of the tow line for maximum control.
  • Equip your boat with adequate bilge pump capability, fuel/water separation, radio communication (sometimes a cell phone is enough)
  • Know the capability of yourself, your boat, your crew in face of the conditions you will be under

Make your boat reliable so you can enjoy the rest of the summer.

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