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From the Bridge: Training, equipment, realistic expectations ease towing trouble

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

When photos began circulating recently of a deckhand being pulled into the water behind a yacht underway, criticism was fast and strong online. Those photos were part of a video snippet to promote the new season of the reality show “Below Deck,” which begins this month. In what looks like an attempt to retrieve a tender, the crew member is suddenly off the stern and it appears that a line on deck might be wrapped around his foot.

So we decided to have a conversation about towing at this month’s From the Bridge captains lunch. The captains’ responses to the images also were critical, and mostly tipped toward how to avoid such a situation. Everyone in the room agreed that towing a tender can be dangerous if not done correctly.

“If you ask the crew what makes them the most nervous, it is towing,” a captain said.

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion for this issue are, back row from left, Capt. Danielle Harangody, Capt. Harold Moyer, Capt. John Wampler, and Capt. Michael Mullen of M/Y Relentless; front row from left, Capt. Jason Brashears of M/Y Happy Hour, Capt. Henning Heinemann, Capt. Butch Kemp, and Capt. Norm Treu of S/Y La Perla. Photo by Dorie Cox

This group’s top tip for towing tenders?

“Don’t do it,” said a captain with a laugh.

Then came a flurry of technical ideas and each captain’s explanation for how to tow safely: “Use Spectra line.” “Have a captive winch.” “Use a hydraulic winch.” “No dead line on the aft deck.”

But even with crew training, proper procedures and good equipment, pulling a tender behind a large yacht is still not something they prefer to do. This group has experience with tows, including several captains who have worked commercially, but during this short lunch we aimed the focus on the human aspect of towing: how it impacts yacht crew and procedures on board.

Even with that aim, several captains clarified that proper equipment is critical for safe towing. Most of today’s yachts are not designed to tow and don’t have proper lines and capstans or windlass systems, one said.

“To properly tow, it needs to be on the center line, aft of the rudder, and yachts aren’t built for that,” one captain said. “We’ll have a 2,000-pound capstan and we need a 10,000.”

The tender must be in good shape with outboards properly lifted and locked.

“They [outboards] can tip over and change the weight on the boat,” a captain said. He recommended backing plates be installed for support on hardware or fittings that will take the load. This is often a modification, he said.

“And thru-hulls need to be checked,” he said. “A hose can pop and fill the vessel. I had one turn over.”

Fortunately, no one in the group had a crew member injured during a towing scenario, but most had a tale of a damaged or lost tender. These incidents were due to a variety of factors. Equipment had failed and lines had snapped even on well-maintained boats because of the mechanical stress. Ideally, captains would not tow during rough weather, but set itineraries may call for them to tow when they would rather not. And a towed tender faces the force of waves and swells. Tenders need to be towed at the proper distance to stay on the same position on a wave as the yacht to avoid being propelled down into a trough or gaining momentum toward the towing yacht.

Although the potential financial loss of a damaged tender can be large, captains continued to focus on personal safety.

“Safety of the crew and then safety of the yacht,” one captain said. “Our job is to explain that.”

“It’s all about what level of safety you can sell to the owner,” another captain said.

Owners don’t complain when the yacht requires fire-safety equipment, but towing equipment can be questioned, the first captain said. Occasionally, yacht owners may not recognize unsafe towing practices and think their captains should be able to run faster, even at night or in bad weather. Like when they see a boat blazing through the Bahamas with a tow behind at 24 knots on plane, one captain said.

And captains face unrealistic expectations on the size of tender to tow.

“Some people think you can tow 50 percent of the overall length of the vessel,” a captain said. “Insurance says you can, but that is not true. That would mean a 75-foot tender behind a 150-foot vessel.”

Ideally, a yacht will carry less than that, but a captain said, “Tenders keep getting bigger and bigger all the time.”

To which another captain replied, “If you want a bigger tender get a bigger yacht. A 60-foot tow on a 120-foot yacht is crazy.”

A larger tender may require more line, heftier equipment and more crew, a captain said.

“Ideally, you will have two crew on the aft deck and one with a radio out of the working operation,” he said. “And it’s better with one extra person.”

“Now you need a new crew,” another captain said. “And now your current crew cabin configuration can’t hold a new crew.”

“You really need an extra crew, but probably can’t have one,” a third captain said.

Dedicating four crew to a tow is difficult on a yacht with limited staff such as on a 120-foot, the first captain said. And these crew need a lot of training.

“It’s so important to have crew awareness,” a captain said. “You need all crew to realize how dangerous this can be.

“Anyone working on the aft deck needs to be in a life jacket,” another captain said.

“With shoes on,” another added.

During a difficult tender retrieval, one captain said, a crew member had to swim out to the boat to drive it in.

“He was all set with PFD and safety equipment,” he said. “That was the safest way.”

“I agree,” another captain said. “A smart move.”

There are other concerns. Towing can increase fuel consumption by up to 4 or 5 percent, a captain said. And a trip may often include towing at night. Many tenders are damaged or lost during a night tow when a symptom of a problem  might not be noticed.

“Insurance guides this,” a captain said. “They will let a large yacht tow, but you can’t do it at night. So you have a trip and can’t tow at night?”

One yacht owner wanted to tow the tender on a long trip, to which the captain responded, “Not if you want to see it when we get there.”

A captain said that happened to him. “The crew says, ‘The lights have gone off on the tender,’” he said. It wasn’t that the lights were off. “It was gone.”

A crew member is usually assigned watch duty for the towed tender, and many yachts have a camera on the operation. But one captain said the boat should be following further away from the yacht.

“If you can see the tow, it is not out far enough,” he said.

And vessel traffic can cause a problem with nearby, unmarked tows.

“You know one thing I never see is an updated AIS when people tow,” a captain said. “And often there is no GPS on the tender.”

To travel with a tender often requires an insurance rider and for a yacht to file a tow plan. That plan includes details of equipment and procedures: certification on shackles, hardware ratings, description of battery or solar lights, type of tow line, line weight and line length.

“It can be a 10-page document with two hours of preparation,” a captain said. “And then there are weather events that can change all plans.”

“A big danger is to be overzealous on the tow plan,” another captain said.

“You have to remember that we think insurance is good, but they look for every way possible not to pay,” a third captain said.

If the tender can be sent ahead on a trailer, that is faster and safer than towing, a captain said. Even if it needs to go to the Bahamas or the Caribbean, it can be shipped. Another option is to have several crew drive the boat to the next destination.

“Sometimes it’s better to run it on its own bottom,” a captain said. “But then you need another salary for a licensed captain. It’s costly all the way around.”

Doing so, however, can be a great opportunity for several crew to get sea time, another captain added.

The discussion came back to how to maintain safety, and everyone agreed on training.

“Training is the most overlooked thing,” a captain said. “Take the boat out without the owner, and train and train.”

“Make all crew aware to never touch a line under load and tension,” another captain said. “Do not be around loose lines. Nothing between a line and a hard surface.”

Several captains said that crew with sailboat experience often have better line-handling skills.

“You learn lines and the techniques of how to handle and respect lines,” a captain said. “You learn how to use them properly and use them the same way every time.”

A challenge to training is when a captain wants to train but needs to be at the helm during maneuvers at the same time.

“What hits me hard is that it’s virtually impossible to work one-on-one with the first mate on towing,” he said. “We’re trusting them to pay out and retrieve properly, but we really don’t always know what they don’t know.”

“One hundred percent of the operation is on the back of the mate,” another captain said. “We as captains can’t be there.”

And that makes some captains concerned. Several of them have seen too many towing incidents during their careers, and that brings up these concerns, even after training sessions. Crew often want to pay out the tender’s tow line, which can be dangerous, a captain said. To combat such crew member’s habit to release the line by hand, he teaches correct procedures with repetition and stories of what can go wrong.

“We will train as much as possible,” he said. “They will do launch and recover 10 times if it’s necessary, and I’ll put the fear of God in them as to how risky it can be.”

Each of the captains said procedures for towing are in the yacht’s standard operating procedures and in its International Safety Management (ISM) or mini-ISM code.

But one captain said the best tool that he has is experience. He said he occasionally pulls out his phone and shows crew photos of a tender that broke free and beached upside-down on shore. The images bring to life how towing can unexpectedly go wrong.

“Do you want to call the owner and tell him that the tender is gone?” the captain asks crew.

“But the reality is, none of this matters when you lose a finger, a foot or your life,” another captain said. “Towing is just dangerous.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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One thought on “From the Bridge: Training, equipment, realistic expectations ease towing trouble

  1. Old Salt

    Damn do I hate towing and luckily for the last 20 years I’ve not had to do it.

    I’ve got plenty of experience towing. Never liked it.

    I heard about boat owner who was a former crew blinded by a bow eye pulled out of the tender. Commercial tugs call it the death zone behind the tow line.

    We lost a 23′ Formula one trip to Bimini and a 13′ Zodiac jet. Managed to find the Zodiac after a few hour search. We put radar reflectors on a pole that really helped recovery.

    Best towing story was on the way to the Bahamas I looked aft to see the slippery Zodiac Jet was missing. Slowed down to pull in the yellow poly pro line. (I used to use floating line on a bridel as we were just 2 crew on a 90′ Sportfish. ) As we slowed the tender popped up about 20 feet in the air and landed upside down as it was being held under like a planer!

    Now in my old age I refuse to tow any tender And can afford to turn down jobs if that is a requirement.

    I’m surprised more folks are not injured by this stupid practice with understaffed yachts towing 30 -60′ tenders on substandard equipment.

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