How to Tow a Sailboat

As most of you know, my temporary home base currently is Isla Mujeres, Mexico where I happen to have become some sort of unofficial first responder to all sorts of maritime mishaps and emergencies. During this time I gained a lot of experience in salvaging, searching and rescuing. But before I share some of it (specifically on how to tow a sailboat) I wish to tell you a story.

It all started with an incident that you may remember from my short story “Tied to a Rope of Sand” about Seefalke’s and mine unfortunate experience during tropical storm Gamma (that retrospectively was upgraded to hurricane Gamma by the way which made me feel a little better). This story also had made it into my book “Birth of a Solo Sailor”.

In trouble during hurricane Gamma
Seefalke and I got into trouble during hurricane Gamma

How it all Began

If you remember this story you may also remember Liam from Australia who was the first on the scene to offer help, at a time when everyone else was still hunkered down and the Mexican coast guard refused to help because the “gusts and the seas were too dangerous”. Liam, or Storme or Capitán Tormenta as he was called by friends and locals, giving a hint to both his name as well as his nature, was always there where help was needed. A true sailor spirit who would never forget the sorrows of tight-budgeted blue water cruisers even long after he became a successful businessman here in Mexico.

I remember how in the storm his confidence nourished mine and how it kept me from despairing over the fact that I was sitting ducks high on a reef with hurricane Delta already on its way baying for blood. After the successful rescue operation I asked him what I would owe him.

The maritime community stands for one another
The maritime community stands for one another

Paying it forward

He replied “Just pay whatever you think is fair to the next one who needs help, my friend.”

And this is how we became friends. Not the kind who spend lots of time together, just when the shit hit the fan for some poor sailor soul out there we would team up without asking questions. Without allegations. We worked on Starship’s rescue as well as on Harlekin’s and would discuss routing options for crazy Adrien limbo dancing across the Atlantic during the worst possible time of the year.

We would still be doing this today if not a year ago some mother fucking son of a bitch took the freedom to decide that Liam’s time was up. Cowardly shot while driving home with his son who only survived because he covered him with his body.

The Legacy

So, long story short, we cannot do it together anymore but it became his legacy for me to help fellow sailors in need if I only have the chance to. May it be searching overdue sailboats, pulling boats off the rocks, bailing mischievous sailors out of jail or negotiating a ransom for a stolen dinghy, you name it.

Bailing mischievous sailors out of jail also is part of the job description

The most frequent assistance I render, however, is to give other sailboats a tow. May it be that their motor broke down or they lost their steering or that the captain is not in the psychological or physical condition to drive the boat to a safe anchorage or dock. During the last two years I have towed more than 15 boats in various conditions, close to the coast as well as offshore, and now I would like to share some chunks of my experience.

Towing assistance is the most common request
Towing assistance is the most common request

Advice: How to Tow a Sailboat

My advice below does not mean that there is no other way. It also does not claim completeness. It only describes what has worked well for me during the last two years as unofficial first responder.

For the tips below please imagine a sailboat that has lost her engine or steering and needs a tow to a safe anchorage or dock and you are the skipper of another sailboat willing to provide assistance.

  • Before you even take the decision whether or not to offer assistance you need to review carefully if it is reasonably safe to do so, taking into account if your boat is seaworthy and ready to go to sea, if the size, design, power and equipment of your boat is adequate for the anticipated weather and sea state and the size and type of vessel requesting assistance. Beware that there is always a risk that your boat will suffer damage, too, and there is no-one you can hold responsible for that. Always remember, there is no such thing like a risk-free rescue!
  • If possible, agree on a rendezvous position that provides sufficient maneuvering space, especially leeway, that is located away from shipping or ferry lines, provides calm water without swell and currents. Depending on the situation and location this might not be possible. In that case pick a rendezvous position that appears safest for the anticipated maneuver.
  • Agree on a VHF bridge-to-bridge working channel. Respect local channel reservations. Don’t forget that some VHF channels are not available on a US radio vs. European radio and vice versa. If VHF is not an option try to find another means of communication that can be used before and during the tow.
  • Prepare as much as possible while you are at the dock. Don’t fall for the idea of leaving in a hurry because there is an urgency. Clear your deck, prepare lines, fenders, snubbers, spotlights, handheld radios etc… everything that might come handy.
  • Assume that your line will be used. Don’t trust that the lines – or anything – will be ready on the boat to be towed. Like in any extraordinary maritime situation the psychological factor plays a big role. Assume that there is great deal of tension, nervousness, exhaustion and even fear on the other boat. The crew might be seasick, nothing is worse than a boat deprived of propulsion and stability at the mercy of the sea. Assume that the decision taking ability on that boat is compromised. Be patient and forgiving with skipper and crew.
  • If possible don’t set sail for any salvage or rescue mission single-handedly. If you have to, don’t forget to issue a float plan. Try to have a contact on land that you can communicate with during the mission.
  • For operations at night consider taking provisional lights also for the boat to be towed. Often, lack of propulsion goes with lack of power and towing an unlit boat at night is extremely dangerous.
Rendezvous point
Agree on a calm rendezvous position

  • The most challenging and dangerous phase is the handover of the towing line. Plan it well, take into consideration sea state and the weather in general. Don’t get frustrated if the line handover takes one or two hours. This can easily be. Don’t take excessive risks!
  • At all cost avoid side-by-side towing with one sailboat towing another.
  • It has proven practical to have the to-be-towed boat drifting freely while the towing boat approaches her bow in reverse from lee until line throwing distance is reached. This way exact maneuvering is possible at all times and if an evasion maneuver should become necessary it is easy to facilitate.
  • Higher seas may require different approaches. Pay utmost attention that the riggings won’t touch.
  • One alternative method that works well with a higher sea state but requires some patience and possibly several attempts is to tie a fender to the tow line (or possibly a pilot line) and let the fender drift to the to-be-towed boat.
  • Another option is that the to-be-towed boat deploys her dinghy on a long line and the tow line will be thrown into the dinghy and later retrieved from the crew of the to-be-towed boat. This avoids that the boats are getting dangerously close.
  • The tow line should be at least two boat lengths long. On the other hand the line should not be too long because it will get difficult to handle. For me a length of approximately 30 m (100 ft) has proven to be a good compromise. During off-shore towing at higher seas the distance between the two boats should be adjusted so that both boats are always on the crest or in the trough at the same time. This significantly reduces shock forces.
  • If possible, use a floating line.
  • If you need to tie two lines together to reach the needed length make sure you use a good knot for it. For me the double sheet bend has proven helpful and safe.
  • Make a line connection to an anchored boat only, when there is insufficient leeway. If there is enough leeway, have the to-be-towed boat weigh anchor before the line connection is established. (There are arguments to do it in reverse order, however, that never worked for me and lead to great hassle.)
  • If possible, start the tow downwind to minimize shock forces when the line comes tight. It is helpful to give the crew on the towed boat a countdown.
  • Once the line connection is made, do not throw the complete line into the water but unreel it slowly as the distance between the boats increases.
  • If possible, tow at continuous speed, for longer tows and if the wind allows, tow under sail. This significantly softens the shock forces and makes the towing smoother and more enjoyable.
  • At higher seas it is recommended to set a steadying sail.
  • If possible, the towed boat should be steered actively.
  • When passing harbors, shipping channels and areas of high traffic density make occasional securite calls to let vessels in the area know of your limited maneuverability.
  • Change speed and course as slowly and smoothly as possible. Take wide berths around markers and other obstacles. If you have established communication with the skipper of the towed boat, always let him know your intentions.

  • Make sure the towing destination is clear early on. Inform the skipper of the towed boat about the route and the towing strategy.
  • Make sure the towing destination is prepared for the arrival.
  • The anchoring or docking maneuver needs to be carried out in close coordination between the skipper of the towing boat and the skipper of the towed boat.
  • If the tow ends at an anchorage, best case is to reduce the speed of the towed boat to zero on top of the anchorage spot. Then the towing boat puts the gear into idle and signals to the towed boat that it is ok to throw off the line. This way the crew of the towed boat can focus on the anchoring or docking maneuver and the towing line won’t get caught in the propeller.
  • If the tow ends at a dock it is helpful to deploy a dinghy or organize dinghies to assist with the final docking maneuver.
  • Stay near the anchorage/dock until the boat is safely anchored or docked.

You want to read more cruising resources, maybe check out our passage planning checklist!