Top tips for towing a boat

Duncan Wells (Sailing Today) explains how to tow a stricken boat to safety




















Top tips for towing a boat. It doesn’t happen often but one day you may well come across a stricken vessel, which is perhaps suffering some form of mechanical failure, so knowing how to tow safely and effectively is essential seamanship.


For this article we used a RIB from Sea Start Marine Assistance and a Beneteau 37, Splash, loaned by Universal Yachting RYA yachting school.



























Guide to towing a boat

Towing a boat: Long tow – with a functioning rudder


How to tow will depend on where you are and why you are having to do so. For instance, in open water a long tow will generally be the best option. The length of tow should be roughly three boat lengths. So, for 35ft (10.5m) boats this will be about 30 metres. The idea is to have the tug and the tow on the same part of their respective wave, with the tug a wave ahead of the tow.


Set this up by making a bridle at the stern of the tug and a bridle at the bow of the tow. For safety, and to prevent cleats popping out, the bridle can be taken from the bow cleats to a midship cleat and then to a cockpit winch, or from stern cleats to cockpit winch and secured on a midship cleat.


The point is to share the load across all three fixings rather than have just one set of cleats take it all. Splash used a single-line bridle secured on the bow cleat, the windlass and the midships cleat each side. Dorothy Lee, my HR 352, used a doubled-up bridle – for twice the strength – on her substantial stern cleats only.


Where possible, the towing line should be multi-plait nylon, which is stretchy for absorbing shocks. And this is what Sea Start would use. Most sailing boats will have to use whatever line is to hand – in our case a very ‘unstretchy’ polyester braid spinnaker sheet. If your anchor cable is made up of warp and chain, you will probably have a good 30m of nylon warp, which can make a good tow rope.


Depending on the conditions, you can either pass the tow rope across, or throw a leader line across with the tow rope attached, or if the sea is lumpy it might be best to float the line down to the tow by tying it to a fender and paying out over the stern.


The tow will then attach the tow rope to its bridle with a bowline. Being a loop, the bridle will allow the bowlined tow rope to slide from side to side. The tug does the same, being very careful to keep the tow rope out of the water – polyester rope sinks and risks wrapping in the propeller or jamming the rudder. Then the tug will take up the slack and gently increase the revs. Use cushions or towels between the bridle and the toerail/gunwale to prevent chafe. Towing speed has to be judged against sea and wind conditions.


We had a calm day and when towing Splash, Dorothy Lee lost just 1kt of boat speed at 1,800 revs. In other words, where she would have been doing 6kt, she was doing 5kt. The job of the tow is to steer at the stern of the tug. That’s it.


Towing a boat: with No rudder?


If the tow has lost her rudder, which may very well be why she requires a tow in the first place, then one will find that she tends to veer all over the place, rather like a water skier jumping the wake of the ski boat, off to one side first, crossing over, then off to the other. You need to reduce this. A drogue will help and if a Sea Start boat is bringing you in, it will carry a drogue with a diameter of about 20in. Of course, I don’t have any drogues on Dorothy Lee that are up to the job and those on our lifebuoys would be too flimsy. If you have a Jordan Series Drogue, which you would use as a sea anchor in a storm to slow you down, this might work but don’t deploy it all – just a few of the drogues will do.


An alternative is to tow a bucket off the stern on a line. However, the force exerted will probably rip the handle off the bucket so you will need to attach a line by making two holes on opposite sides through which you run the line. Check your buckets on board to see how you could adapt them.


























Towing a boat: towing alongside


Alongside in open water, keep the towing lines long to allow for movement between the two boats caused by wash and wave action. As one enters a river or harbour tighten the lines to maintain control in confined spaces. The tug will always want her propulsion to be well astern of the tow, so the RIB will tuck into the quarter of the yacht. The same applies when a yacht is towing another yacht alongside.


The tug’s stern will be about one-third of its overall length behind the tow. When yachts are towing alongside you need to make sure the rigging is offset as well. The tug’s mast should be well abaft that of the tow. If a sloop is towing a ketch then the sloop’s mast needs to be between the tow’s main and mizzen, as long as the drive from the tug is coming from as far back as possible.


Bringing a boat back to a finger berth


With a RIB bringing a boat back to a finger berth in a marina, it is important to find out if there is enough space for the tow, the RIB and any neighbour in the berth. If there is, the RIB will come down the fairway, stop at or just past the berth, turn the two of them, point into the berth and approach slowly. Crew on the tow will be instructed to attach the bow line first. The reason for this is that the tug being to the side of the yacht the thrust when the RIB goes astern will be offset and will swing the bow away from the dock.


If there is no room for the towing RIB between the berth and the neighbour then the RIB should attach to the side of the tow on which she will be berthing. Berthing bows first and on the port side, the RIB will tie on to the port side and as far back as possible. The RIB will now drive at the finger.


When she is touching the end of the finger it is hoped that the tow will be sufficiently far in to the berth for crew to be able to reach the mooring lines and warp her into the berth from there.


It is always worth calling or ringing ahead to check what space is available, because a neighbour in a finger berth who wasn’t there this morning when you left, could well be back there now – just when you don’t want them to be.


It is never going to be possible for one yacht to tow another yacht into a finger berth, or at least very difficult, so it is best for them to bring the stricken yacht onto a hammerhead, or stretch of open pontoon. Again calling ahead will establish what is available.


Needless to say that mooring into the tide – which is what we always aim to do – is the only way to manage this.


What to do…



And a don’t