You can avert disaster by accepting a tow, but you can run into a lot more trouble if you get it wrong. Tom Cunliffe meets the RNLI for some expert advice
How to take a tow
It has been said with justification that we learn more from our own mistakes than from any manual, and when it comes to towing, I’d agree. I’d pottered about boatyards towing odd vessels astern and alongside for years before I came face to face with the ugly truth about towing offshore. My rig was disabled, the boat had no serviceable engine and I was 60 miles from help down the coast in Rio de Janeiro, so I accepted a tow from an old pal. My saviour, a sometime Greek ship-owner, had a 60ft motor-sailer of huge power. On the day in question he wasn’t quite himself on account of a broken toe incurred during a misunderstanding with his somewhat feisty cook the previous night. The cook had subsequently gone ashore and left him singlehanded. He hooked me up with a long length of whatever we could muster, swallowed a handful of painkillers, and away we went. With the autopilot set for the Sugarloaf Mountain, he selected 9 knots and promptly passed out. As we surged through the big seas left behind by a cold front, the Samson posts on my classic wooden boat, standing in for the mooring cleats of a modern yacht, began taking their leave of the foredeck. The seams were gaping to letter-box proportions before I hit on the answer. I dropped a bowline over each one, led the line aft to the cockpit and winched it back until it groaned. It worked. The boat wasn’t ripped in half despite being pulled at 2 knots above her hull speed, my friend woke up just in time to steer us into the magnificent harbour, and I’d learned a critical lesson about towing.
Sooner or later, from one end or the other, we all become involved in a tow. There’s more to it than just passing a line and securing it at each end. In open water, the job demands good seamanship. In harbour, what may seem daunting can be made safe and easy by adhering to one or two basic principles. There can be few organisations with more experience of towing yachtsmen than the RNLI, so we asked Yarmouth Lifeboat coxswain Howard Lester and his crew to show us how the professionals go about it.
One big message that came across from the lifeboat was that every tow is different, from the way the line is attached, to whether a drogue is advisable or if a lifeboat crew member should be on board. Much like a man-overboard recovery, we can offer general recommendations but, in the end, we all must think like seamen and make decisions based on what is happening at the time.
It might be a fisherman helping you off the mud, a clubmate towing you in on a calm evening when you’ve run out of fuel, or maybe you’ve got things badly wrong and the first craft on the scene to help you off a deadly lee shore is a big motorboat. In any of these cases, the principles spelled out here will stand you in good stead. Sometimes there might be an RNLI lifeboat involved and Howard was at pains to remind us that the RNLI is not a maritime pick-up service. The charity exists primarily to preserve life. If a boat can be saved sensibly into the bargain, that’s a bonus, although towing is sometimes the safest option for the people too. If you feel you’re getting into trouble and that things may get worse before they’re better, it’s best to call the Coastguard in good time. They will decide whether to alert the lifeboat, the helicopter, both, or neither. Howard said quite bluntly that it’s a lot easier and safer to take someone in tow in deep water with danger a mile to leeward than to wait an hour, then have to try and pull them off a breaking shingle bank in an onshore gale.
Yachts often need towing because they’ve lost their rudder or steering linkage. A rudderless vessel can be a nightmare to tow, because she will sheer from side to side like a drunk on Saturday night. The drag from a drogue over her stern will keep her more or less in line. Drogues are also used for long downwind tows in a big sea where a yacht may surf, causing snatching to the towline and major steering issues.
The drogue used by the Yarmouth Severn class lifeboat is a stout fabric funnel, open at both ends and secured to a long nylon line. The lifeboat approached our stern and passed us the bitter end of the drogue line, keeping the drogue itself on her own deck. We secured the line to a stern cleat rather than using a bowline, so we could slip it in an emergency. The loads on it were going to be huge, we were advised, so we set things up accordingly. The lifeboat then moved off and her crew tossed the drogue over when the line was fully extended.
Boarding the casualty
Next, the lifeboat, very well fendered, came alongside and Yarmouth crewman Graham Benton hopped on board. He brought with him a hand-held VHF radio with which to communicate with Howard, coxswain of the lifeboat. Graham took charge of our end of the operation. In a heavy sea, and if the coxswain judges the yacht’s crew are capable, it can be safer not to attempt a crew transfer. If so, the yacht is thoroughly briefed via VHF, or by a loud pair of lungs.
Passing the tow
The lifeboat manoeuvred close to windward, to heave a line across to Graham on our foredeck. Using that line, we could now pull the heavy tow line on board from the lifeboat. This is nylon and has a leather chafe guard near the end. Most yachts don’t carry a heavy towline, but any cruiser worthy of the name ships a decent kedge warp that can be brought into play when one yacht has to tow another. Whatever is used, it should be as long as possible and, ideally, stretchy nylon.
Six steps to securing the tow
I was curious to see how Graham was going to set about this task. For best steerage, the rope should leave the yacht on the centreline, which usually means a bow roller. If there isn’t one, it’s an initiative test to achieve something like the same result.
In our case, we had an extended roller with the anchor stowed in it, so our first job was to remove the anchor and stow it in the foredeck well, with the chain and windlass. That cleared the decks for action.
Rather than securing the towrope to one or other of the cleats, Graham passed a bight of it around them both and made a bowline forward of them. Thus, we had a loop on our foredeck hooked over the after horns of both cleats.
Next, he worked the leather chafing piece up to the bow roller and made it fast with a light line. This also served to secure the towrope into the roller so that it couldn’t jump out and tear off the pulpit. The issue of chafe is a serious one. On the lifeboat, during a long tow, they veer a little extra rope every so often to ‘freshen the nip’ and reduce chafe on a single point. This is impractical on most yachts, so extreme care must be taken to prevent wear and tear.
Spreading the load
As I’d discovered off South America all those years ago, one of the biggest problems with towing is the forces involved. Bow cleats unassisted may be ripped out of the deck, so Graham asked us to relieve them with lines led aft to the primary winches in the cockpit. We simply used the headsail sheets.
Rather than hitching these to the cleats themselves, he tied them with bowlines around the towing loop close to the cleats, so that when we winched hard, they dragged the tow rope a tiny bit off the cleats and eased their loading.
Where to secure
This is the classic case of no two yachts being the same. A sensible, seamanlike response is required. If the cleats look good, start with these. If there’s a suitable windlass that you’re confident is well attached, try that. A wooden yacht’s keel-mounted bitts or Samson post may serve. A keel-stepped mast may work, but using a deck-stepped spar is generally a bad idea.
If the bow is cluttered up and no fair lead can be achieved via a bow roller, it may be necessary to rig a bridle from the bow cleats and secure the towrope with a bowline to this. And so on. Common sense, backed up by an assumption that nothing is as strong as it appears, will generally win the day.
With all set up, Graham is now free to give the go-ahead to the lifeboat, by VHF radio or by making a recognised sign of crossed forearms.
As the tow commences, the towed boat, if she has a rudder, steers towards the stern of the towing vessel.
If the rudder has gone, keep weight as far aft as you sensibly can and watch for chafe as the boat inevitably veers about.
Where a drogue is in operation, don’t forget that the loads on it are as great as the action up front, so watch out for inquisitive fingers getting anywhere near the line. Communicate with the towing craft and give the tow itself as much rope as you have.
The sag alone in a 50m rope will create drag as it hits the water. This defuses any snatching and keeps the whole thing gentle. Howard said the Yarmouth RNLI crew never find it necessary to damp a tow by deploying weights on the rope, however he has seen it done by tugs on occasion.
If you are towing and the rope is not really man enough and is snatching, you can hang something off it halfway along, between the two boats. Ideally, use a couple of old motor tyres. You may not happen to have a tyre on board, so try a fender or three, a kedge anchor or anything else that serves. The story on p42 shows how one crew tried several different methods before settling on one that worked.
Towing from your yacht
If you are the one towing another yacht, the primary requirement is to get the tow as near to the middle of your stern as you can, so that you can steer. I have towed many times from many yachts and have found that this is generally best achieved by rigging a bridle from either quarter and securing the towrope to this with a bowline.
The important thing to remember is that if one end of the bridle is cleated or secured to a winch, rather than both ends being on bowlines, you will be able to slip the tow under load in an emergency. This is a prime requirement.
At the end of a tow, the casualty will need to be brought to a safe berth, often alongside. While it’s possible to slip the tow at a suitable moment and let the casualty steer in with the last of her way – so long as she has a rudder – the technique is somewhat hit and miss, and is not favoured by the Yarmouth Lifeboat.
Instead, Howard brings the yacht alongside when he’s in calmer water just outside harbour and tows her in under full control. The lifeboat slows down and, as the yacht surges alongside, the towrope is shortened and used as a bow line. A stern line and two springs are now passed across. If the towed vessel is smaller than the lifeboat, then the crew will make sure the yacht’s stern hangs out beyond her own. The stern line is then brought aboard the lifeboat via the midships fairlead. If it were secured directly up to the quarter and the boat rolled, the yacht’s cleats might suffer damage.
However, for yacht-to-yacht alongside towing, the technique is different. Here, the ‘tug’ will be far less powerful than a lifeboat, and the crew should ensure the tug’s stern is at or abaft the stern of the towed vessel. This is to allow easier steering by the towing yacht. If her rudder is in line with the towed yacht’s keel, the directional force of the tug’s rudder will be diminished. Move the towed yacht’s keel forward and the tug can push or pull the casualty around far more easily. Even with the two vessels in this staggered position, it is important that both steer if they can.
It is best to notify the port control or harbourmaster that you are towing before you arrive. This will also let other nearby craft know of your restricted ability to manoeuvre.
Generally, most alongside tows are very similar, but for towing astern, you must decide what is right for the circumstances.
Being towed by the Severn class RNLI lifeboat worked a treat for us, and we were placed alongside the town dock so gently you wouldn’t have crushed a whisky glass between us.