Tow me tender, tow me sweet, never let me go

May 25, 2022 by Dorie Cox

The risk of loss puts a damper on the yacht–tender relationship.

Elvis Presley knew it: No one wants the pain of loss. Especially the loss of the yacht’s tender while under tow. Although rare, lost boats are just one incident that puts a damper on the towing relationship.

Like the day Capt. Tedd Greenwald looked off the stern to check the tender status — and saw only horizon. The trip from Florida to the Bahamas had been smooth until, as often is the case, the weather turned. “The oversized sportfish was an amazing sea boat and we were having no issues until my regular 30-minute check showed no jetboat tender in our wake,” he wrote to Triton. “Just the yellow floating tow line.”

As the yacht slowed, something appeared in the clear Gulfstream waters. It was the tender, which had flipped over, sunk, and now was headed back up, he said. “It accelerated toward the surface and cleared sea level by 10 feet. Then landed with a big splash upside down.” They towed the swamped boat to the shore, but it was doomed.

Yacht captains and crew love their tenders, and the relationship is usually healthy. The auxiliary vessel is perfect to ferry guests comfortably, ease local provisioning, amp up the water-sport fun, and serve as safety equipment.

But there is always a price — to love and tenders alike. Although captains tow lots of boats throughout their careers they know the risks. Towing is a serious business, agreed Barney Hauf, director of sales at TowBoatU.S. Ft. Lauderdale, a boat towing and salvage service.

“At TowBoat, we have six to eight weeks of training before our guy ever tows a boat — and towing is all we do,” Hauf said. “Overall, I think yacht captains do a good job of spec’ing out towing gear and most have the right chafe gear.”

He pointed out a couple of tips: Make sure the tow is in step, at the proper point in the waves, with the yacht not going up while the tender is going down a wave. Use lots of towline, with a section of nylon as a shock absorber. Use extreme caution when the tow is in closer quarters to avoid fouling the line. And mind the hardware.

“The yacht owner may say, ‘Just tow it, use that trailer tow eye, that’s what it’s for,’” Hauf said. “But on a safe tow, most will have fabricated an eye with backing plates. You never want to use bow cleats or a regular towing trailer eye — that stuff will fail.”

“And you need good eyes on watch, both ahead and behind, while in tow. Don’t just count on electronics. You need an alert watch,” he added.

Capt. Brendan Emmons, on the 100-foot (31m) M/Y Freedom, loves the fishing tender he tows. It has all the bells and whistles, and he’s in for the long-term relationship. But years at sea have shown him that towing can limit a trip. “The big boat can handle so much more without it,” Emmons said. “It complicates, say, going up the inside [Intracoastal Waterway] for eight hours. I love the flexibility of having a tender, but that means we have another crew for the tender.”

And there is much that can go wrong with the love of the tow. “I’d say the biggest concern would be trouble in the middle of the ocean,” Emmons said. “If a hose breaks, the tender takes on water — we would have to get a crew onboard. It’s hard enough to set up and break tow inside the turning basin. I can’t imagine doing it with swells.”

But he does know that if the relationship is troubled, he would break up. “I’m not risking a crew member’s life to save the tender,” Emmons said.

It doesn’t take extreme weather for a towing problem. Freelance Chef Caitlin Ferrell was at the stern when a veteran crew member was injured while feeding the tow line. Although the crewmate’s severed toe and nerves were surgically reattached after a grueling three-hour trip to the Bahamas for a flight out, Ferrell shares the incident as a warning to others. “People are quick to share horror stories, and well, they weren’t lying — things can be serious,” Ferrell said. “We really can’t let our guard down, especially when moving or lines are out.”

Laura J. Sherrod, director of yacht insurance with Newcoast, said although towing tenders is not a new kink in the yacht insurance relationship, there have been changes in the sector. “It has been a problem in the yacht insurance world for a very long time. But there are fewer insurers in the marketplace, which allows underwriters to be more selective on the risks they are willing to bear.” And she anticipates losses and claims to exacerbate the situation. “Owners and captains will have pressure put on them about towing restrictions due to the number of towing claims that the industry is having happen on a more regular basis,” she said.

DECKHAND TRISTAN ELDON AND DECK/STEW GIANNA MESI READY FOR THE TENDER, DRIVEN BY MATE SHAWN RIERA OF M/Y FREDDY.

Issues that lead to claims include:

  • Pressures put on crew for managing the towed tender.
  • Injuries caused in deploying the tow and bringing it back in.
  • Improper training of crew, or lack of the proper number of crew.
  • Pressure to go when the weather is not appropriate for a towed tender.

In response to claim increases, some underwriters have very restrictive terms, including these clauses, according to Sherrod:

50% deductible applies while being towed.

Warranted not to be towed in Force 4 or greater wind speed. (Beaufort Wind Force Scale 13 kt - 16 mph- 24 km/h)

No towing between sundown and sunrise.
Carriers typically do not want tenders that exceed 33% of the length of the yacht. So for a 120-foot (39.5m) boat, they do not want anything greater than 39.6 feet (12m).

They also require a tracking system, a custom-made bridle, and full details of the towing plan.

The complicated relationship of yachts with tows will continue, but the yacht industry will benefit by captains making sure they have the best match.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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