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Follow me: Trust, experience and preparation make for great yacht tow

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By Capt. Dorie Cox

Capt. Jamie Farnborough stood on the shipyard’s dock and peered around the empty slip. He wondered how best to dock the new 164-foot yacht under his command once the towboats had brought it up Fort Lauderdale’s New River the next day.

The bulk of the tow would be handled by Steel Marine Towing. Once in the shipyard’s basin, however, M/Y Omaha would be untied and the last few hundred feet would be Capt. Farnborough’s responsibility. Aside from the challenge of maneuvering a brand new yacht, he faced limited turning space, wind resistance on the tall vessel, and a current.

So he made a plan.

“I had already made up my mind to pass the berth and back in the port side,” he said. “There’s not enough room otherwise.”

That same day, Capt. Jim Steel slowed his towboat in front of M/Y Omaha at the dock at the Hilton on the Intracoastal Waterway and eye-balled its size compared with the adjacent 17th Street bridge.

“No one knew the air draft,” Capt. Steel said of Omaha, Heesen’s first 50m steel-class yacht. “I saw it next to the bridge and thought, ‘This is all so new. It’s probably the first time under a bridge like that.’”

The yacht was taller than expected. It had been slated for a slip in another marina farther up river, but Capt. Steel saw it was too tall to pass under the fixed I-95 bridge.

The next morning, the yacht’s crew met to plan for the tow. Chief Officer Wesley Tucker and his deck crew prepared heaving lines while Capt. Farnborough set up to monitor from the port wing station.

Capt. Steel idled the towboat just in front of the yacht’s underwater bow bulb, caught the heaving line tossed down by the crew and tied on the 1 3/4-inch towlines for the Omaha crew to lift back aboard. Tow Capt. Ryan Little backed up the stern towboat and handed the crew his towlines. Once made fast, the yacht captain listened for the two tow captains on the radio.

“He needs to be comfortable and relaxed,” Capt. Steel said of Capt. Farnborough. “This is naturally uneasy for a captain. Technically, he works under my direction now.”

The tow vessel in front pulls and the stern tow vessel works like a giant rudder, Capt. Steel said.

“One of us is this way,” he pointed to starboard, then to port. “And the other is that way.”

He slowly began to take up slack. Then he sped up.

“This one is a nasty tow. See how it’s tracking off-center now?” Capt. Steel said.

As the boats neared the turn at what locals call The Sandbar, he explained that the hydrodynamics of the yacht’s bulb are affected by different water depths.

“The bulb hunts for shallow water,” he explained. “Did you see where it was aiming? The Sandbar.”

He watched for the rudder and stabilizer to be centered. New yachts often have equipment that does not work exactly right, he said.

“They may say it’s centered, but it’s not,” he said. “Oh yeah, I can tell if it’s not centered.”

Even though Capt. Little cannot see much from his position behind the large yacht, he said he can visualize where Capt. Steel is and where all three boats are in relation to each other. As a 32-foot-wide and 120-foot-long barge passed to port, Capt. Steel grabbed one of two marine radio mics hanging near his face, one for the tow group and the other for river traffic. He finds that the radio talk makes yacht captains feel more at ease.

“I say, ‘you’re up,’ or ‘pick it up,’ as we work together,” he said of Capt. Little on the stern tow. “We’ve been doing this for so long. I wish I knew how many thousands of times I’ve been up and down this river.”

Capt. Steel is third generation South Floridian and second generation towboat captain; his father owned the company in the late 1980s.

“Back then, a 100-foot Broward was really a big deal,” he said.

The towboat captains’ experience and knowledge of every obstacle in the river gives yacht captains a deep level of trust. And that continues to surprise Capt. Steel.

“I don’t know how they allow me to do it,” he said. “It’s really mind-blowing. But everyone works together.”

Many times during the trip, both towboats pulled the yacht to the side to wait for passing vessels, such as the 125-foot tourist boat Jungle Queen. With parked boats on both sides of the river and moving traffic, it seemed too close.

“There’s plenty of room,” Capt. Little said. “Anything more than 5 feet is fine.”

The tide was high and a variety of things floated by on the 2- to 3-knot current.

“Palm fronds are our nemesis. They always get sucked up in the prop,” Capt. Steel said.

A couple of hours later, Omaha’s deck team dropped down the towlines to unhook and moved to the rail with fenders. Capt. Farnborough took back full control of the yacht.

The crew tossed lines to the dock team once in the slip at Lauderdale Marine Center. Dockmaster Dave Johns stood on the dock where Capt. Farnborough had stood planning just the day before.

“At 45 degrees, the port quarter was in the berth,” Capt. Farnborough said. “It worked.”

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

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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