Thirty years ago, Capt. Joe Frohnhoefer had an idea that would change the way boaters in need look for help. Today there are nearly 100 Sea Tow franchises around the world ready to assist 24/7. We caught up with Joe to find out more about the yellow and black.
Why did you decide to start Sea Tow?
In 1982 Congress passed legislation that mandated that the U.S. Coast Guard would no longer provide assistance to boaters in nonemergency situations. I knew of a gentleman who had tried to start a towing company on the Great Lakes, which was unsuccessful. He then defaulted on the purchase of a boat from Port of Egypt Marine. I saw this as an opportunity and purchased the boat to start my own towing company. We formally incorporated Sea Tow Services International on Sept. 3, 1983.
What was that first tow boat?
It was a 24-foot Privateer with a wooden Samson post. The boat, known as Sea Tow 1, is still in operation today and in great shape thanks to the restoration and maintenance efforts of the current owner of Sea Tow Eastern Long Island.
Do you remember the first distress call you answered?
Yes, it was a boater that we had talked to in the afternoon and had tried to sell him a membership, but he responded that he “had new twin 200 hp engines and he would never need us.” That night I received a call that he was far up on the beach on Shelter Island, New York. We responded to the scene to find that his boat was at least 25 feet from the high-tide mark up on the beach. He became a Sea Tow member that minute.
What’s the most common reason boaters call Sea Tow?
The boat’s engine died and they need a tow home. Delivering fuel and providing jump-starts are right up there as well. And it may surprise you, but our captains also get a huge number of calls for advice: on navigating the area, directions because they are lost, or even just a recommendation on the best waterside restaurant. Our members look at our captains as experts on the local area.
Does any particular daring response by you or one of your captains stand out?
I have always said the day you truly save a life is one you will never forget. I have been fortunate to do just that, and many of our captains get that chance, one we will never forget. While responding to emergency situations isn’t really our job, it is our responsibility as professional mariners to assist in any way we can. If we hear of a Mayday situation in the area, we are there — from boat fires to vessels sinking to boating accidents, our captains are often first on scene.
How many members does Sea Tow have around the country today?
In the United States, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands we are approaching 200,000 members. Thousands more boaters are served by Sea Tow Europe.
What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to a new member heading outside the inlet for the first time?
Call your local Sea Tow captain before you head out for the first time. They are on the water every day and know the waters well. As we all know, conditions change constantly. They can give you good insights on the area.