How to tow a boat safely
As a boater, you’ll eventually have to learn how to tow. Whether you’re at the helm of the towing boat or the boat being towed, safety should be your top priority.
The wrong way to tow a boat
Simply tying a line from the towing boat’s stern cleat to the other boat’s bow cleat would make steering the towing boat difficult, if not impossible, and cause the towed vessel to yaw. Even worse, the towing boat’s stern cleat could rip loose and shoot back into the towed boat, or the towing boat’s stern could dip underwater, swamping the rescue boat.
The right way to tow a boat
Before getting started, plan the tow with the other boat and stay in touch on VHF.
First, you’ll need to make a tow bridle for each boat. Tow bridles spread the strain over two or more attachment points and minimize yawing, or back-and-forth swinging. To make the tow bridles, tie the spliced eyes of two dock lines to each end of the towline. (Use bowline knots if you want to untie the lines later.)
Attach the ends of one bridle to the towing vessel’s stern cleats and the ends of the other bridle to the towed boat’s bow or midship cleats, as illustrated below.
In rough water, take a couple of turns on the cleats and run the lines aft to more attachment points, e.g., the midship cleats, stern cleats or mast.
When transferring the line, don’t toss it to the disabled vessel unless the water is calm. Instead, tie a fender or life jacket to the end and another approximately 50 feet up the line. Then, approach the vessel from behind and run parallel, bringing the line to its stern.
As you’re towing, make sure everyone stands clear of the towline; if it snaps, it could injure anyone in its path. Also make sure the vessels stay in rhythm, riding up and down the waves at the same time. Don’t go faster than 7 knots.
In protected waters, shorten the towline for better maneuverability, and slow down even more. –Jim Sever
What type of towline should you use?
The towline should be strong double-braided nylon, slightly stretchy and long enough to maintain a catenary, or dip, during the tow. The longer the towline, the easier the ride and the less stress on the hardware. The bridle should be even stronger than the towline; if anything breaks, you want it to be the towline.
More knots to know
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