Towing a vessel
it's more involved than you think!

By Wayne Spivak
National Press Corps
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

This summer, my wife and I went to one of our favorite haunts for dinner. It's a pleasant place to eat, and what makes it even more delightful is that they not only have a mean coconut shrimp dish, they are right on the water.

Sometimes we go by boat, other times by car, but in either case, one of our pastimes while we eat is watching the boat's passing by the eatery. We always get a good laugh watching people try to dock their boats at the restaurant. This is in part a result of the rather strong current that ebbs and flows by the restaurant and the strong winds that tend to blow.

If only people understood the physics involved in docking a boat, and that speed or rather the lack of it is a crucial factor in easy docking, we wouldn't laugh as much. But this article is not about docking; maybe another article will cover the techniques needed for an easy docking maneuver. This article is about towing.

What do my culinary tastes and entertainment values have to do with towing? Well, while watching the boats and the waterfowl playing in the estuary, I noticed a boat being towed by a Good Samaritan. What I saw caused those little hairs on the back of my neck to rise.

Good Samaritans

Let me start by saying that I applaud people who are willing to be Good Samaritans. Otherwise, why would I be involved with America's Volunteer Lifesavers™, the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary? But there is a difference between being a good and good-hearted neighbor and taking unnecessary risks because of sheer ignorance.

This country is based on neighbors helping neighbors. It is the indomitable spirit of volunteerism that drives many of our social organizations, our educational institutions and to some extent government service. It is for this reason that many states have enacted legislation that protects the Good Samaritan from acts of negligence.

Hippocrates gave some sage advice for medical emergencies, and it works for all Good Samaritans: Primum non nocere. "First of all, do no damage."

The English incorporated this advice into common law, now called Tort Law. Today, we have two legal terms that apply to the Good Samaritan; Negligence and Gross Negligence.

Negligence can be defined as "… a duty to ensure that a persons actions do not cause harm to others." {Hippocrates code} []

Gross negligence is "Any action or an omission in reckless disregard of the consequences to the safety or property of another. Sometimes referred to as "very great negligence"; it is more than just neglect of ordinary care towards others or just inadvertence." []

So, by definition, if you offer assistance, offer only the assistance which you are capable of providing safely.


Towing is not a simple procedure! There is a tremendous amount of stress involved, and it affects both boats and the tow line you are using. I'm talking about stress, as in force, the types of forces you learned about in Physics class. And, we're talking some major forces, in that a miscalculation could cause someone's death.

What follows is meant to give the reader a basic understanding about why towing is dangerous. This article is insufficient to prepare the reader to tow any vessel of any size.

The Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary provide their members with several different boat handling courses. Most of these courses contain sections on towing.

As an Auxiliarist in the Boat Crew Program, you first learn about towing in the Mission Oriented Operations chapters. Here you begin to learn the methodology behind a tow, but very little of the theory. We're talking the "how-to" under guidance of a Coxswain.

Auxiliary members would then refine the process of towing, in the Coxswain program. Here more emphasis is placed on theory, so that the Coxswain, who is in charge of the Auxiliary vessel (called a Facility), can make informed decisions on whether to initiate the tow, and, if the Coxswain feels confident that the tow can be safely handled, what type of tow to undertake.

In the Auxiliary Operations course AUXSAR (Auxiliary Search and Rescue); a sizeable portion of this course is about towing. This course provides all the theoretical information about towing. The course material states "Almost everything done during a tow is potentially hazardous; a successful tow is one during which no damage is done to the engine(s) of the towing vessel, no damage is sustained by either vessel, and no one sustains an injury."

Essentially, there are four factors that impact a towing situation: the hull characteristics of boat doing the towing, the hull characteristics of the boat being towed, the construction and diameter of the line used to tow the disabled vessel, and the sea state (waves, wind, and current). With all the different makes and models of vessels, as well as different line types, you can see that every tow is unique, making towing as much an art as it is a science.

I mentioned stress as one of the many reasons why you need to learn how to tow a vessel before you actually do it. There are three types of forces that a tow boat, the towed boat and the lines that connect them, undergo. These are: acceleration forces, steady forces and shock forces.

A brief definition will help you understand the dangers involved.

Acceleration Force is the stress placed on the vessels and the towline during the time the towed and towing vessels are dead-in-the-water, to the time they reach their maximum (constant) towing speed.

Steady Force is the stress placed on the vessels and the towline during the phase after maximum (constant) speed is reached. These forces are involved in pulling the towed vessel through smooth water at a constant speed.

Shock Forces occur because of the sea state. Towing in calm, smooth water would produce little or no shock force. Towing a vessel where there are five foot waves at 30 second intervals would produce considerable shock forces. Just picture your boat slowing down and speeding up as it goes up and down waves. The towed boat is doing the exact same thing. But they probably are not in synch, so the towline is being stretched and then goes slack, and then gets pulled tightly again and stretches.

An average size vessel towing a vessel of equal size will, at a minimum, incur several hundred pounds of force, depending on the type of line used, sea state, etc. While many lines may contain ratings for several thousand pounds of force, those statistics are for brand new line. Lines that are well used or weathered, are probably capable of sustaining loads much smaller than what they are rated for.

Deal Breakers - What Can Go Wrong, Usually Will

Now you know the factors that influence a tow and some basics on what the forces are - so what? Without doing all the math and physics involved, all you need to understand is this: Recreational vessels are often ill equipped to handle the stresses of towing for a variety of reasons:

  • While every piece of equipment has different breaking characteristics, given enough stress, any part of this towing system could break, and often will with catastrophic results. If you must tow another vessel, examine its hardware (cleats, bits, etc) as well as your own to make sure it is bolted through.. Never attempt to tow another vessel using a "ski rope" or other lightweight line incapable of sustaining the stresses outlined above. Under no circumstance should anyone stand directly in line with the tow line, because if it were to break, it would "snap back" like a rubber band, wreaking havoc with everything in its path.
  • The cleats and deck fittings on most boats can only accommodate smaller lines; this limits the amount of force they can take and thus the size of the vessel you an tow. How fast you tow another vessel can impact the forces exerted.
  • The pitch of most propellers on your average recreational vessel is geared towards maximizing speed of the vessel, not torque. Using the average propeller with a pitch of 19" or 21" results in a great deal of slip (inefficient movement of water through the propeller), making towing inefficient and stressful on an engine.
  • The amount of power it takes to tow a vessel (if done improperly), could cause serious damage to one of the most expensive pieces of equipment in your vessel - your engine(s)!
  • The average recreational vessel does not carry lines of the length that may be necessary to minimize the shock forces by keeping the vessels "in step" with one another. It is important to adjust the length of the tow line to minimize the shock forces caused by wind, waves, and/or current.
  • If the boat doing the towing is an outboard or an inboard/outboard, you have another potential disaster - getting the towline caught in the prop of the tow vessel. At the very least, this usually means cutting the tow line free from the prop, and could totally disable the tow boat, resulting in the need for another potential tow

Given the information above, I hope you can see that there are a myriad number of things that can go wrong when towing another vessel. In any case, if I was a professional gambler who was asked to bet on whether the average recreational boater could tow another boat without incident, I would pass, as the odds favor the house. The "house" here is the fact that you'll likely experience damage to either the towed boat, the towing boat, or that someone on either vessel would sustain an injury.

Being the Good Samaritan

I hope I've shown you that part of being the Good Samaritan is learning when to just standby and when to act, at least when it comes to towing. Under most circumstances, towing should be left to professionals.

Standing by, and waiting with the other vessel, is still considered offering assistance. Should the situation worsen, you would be able to provide help in sheltering the occupants of the other vessel. You can also provide protection from other vessels and help communicate with the Coast Guard.

If you want to learn how to tow a vessel, why not join the Coast Guard or the Coast Guard Auxiliary. We'd be more than happy to teach you the skills you need to be not only a better boater, but a trained lifesaver.

To find out how to join, contact your local Coast Guard unit (visit for details), or visit the Coast Guard Auxiliary web site at , and click on the Flotilla Finder link on the right side of the page.