We were about halfway home from the Bahamas. Both engines were running off the center fuel tank — the one, it turned out, with a flaky gauge. The outboard motors quit simultaneously, and the priming bulbs, located near the engines, wouldn’t draw fuel up half-full saddle tank pickups, through long hose runs and higher still to primary fuel filters. There we sat, effectively out of gas with 75 gallons still aboard.
So we did what thousands of boaters do every season; we called Sea Tow. Will Beck, the owner of Sea Tow Palm Beach, headed out to help. “On some boats I can get engines to prime by pumping the bulb while turning the key and cranking the motor,” Beck said. That didn’t work for us, so Beck dragged us for five hours back home. With clarity from hindsight, the owner has since rigged his boat with priming bulbs before the Racors. (“The lower they are and the closer to the tank pickup the better,” Beck said.) It’s also easier to prime engines from full tanks than tanks that are near empty.
Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S. skippers provide that kind of hindsight nearly every day, so we decided to ride along with Sea Tow Boston for two days to see what wisdom its skippers, and their stranded customers, could pass along to help other boaters avoid a slow tow home — or worse, a mayday call.
The Home Stretch
My first day with Sea Tow started slowly — as most do, until the afternoon, when everyone starts heading home. In the lull I asked Capt. Michael Yorke about his thoughts for avoiding a tow. “Don’t think you have enough fuel,” he said. “Either know you have enough or go get more.” Yorke proved to have foresight as well as hindsight. Within minutes of that utterance he got a call about a boat that had run out of gas. The 25-foot Pro-Line sat anchored about 150 yards from the fuel dock he was headed for before the engine quit, even though his fuel gauge still showed half a tank. “Know your boat,” Yorke advised. That includes how many gallons each tank holds in order to verify gauge accuracy every time you fill up. “Note your engine hours when you top off, and know about how much fuel you burn an hour at cruise,” Yorke said. That gives a rough accounting of fuel on board that includes a reserve from hours spent idling, not cruising. We towed the Pro-Line to the fuel dock and helped get its engines running. More often, Sea Tow supplies fuel to boaters offshore, and they reimburse $25 for each 5-gallon jug.
Sea Tow Boston’s busiest days come when low tides — 12 feet from highest to lowest — overlap with the afternoon rush to get home. “The marks on the chart and buoys in the harbor are aids, not a road map,” warned Steve Winkler, co-owner of Sea Tow Boston. “If you’re not absolutely sure about where you are or where you’re going, stop and figure it out.” Not just low tides but also spring high tides call for diligence, because they sweep prop-wrecking shoreline debris into Boston Harbor’s strong tidal currents.
The next call: a 32 Wellcraft drifting near Boston’s North Channel sea buoy. “One engine overheated, and not long after, the other one did,” said Sea Tow member Alan Berkowitz. He was out with friends who had recently bought the boat, and they were still learning the ropes. “The boat had a lot of growth on the bottom, and the sterndrives’ water intakes were clogged. We couldn’t keep either engine running,” Berkowitz said, and worse, “the owner is diabetic. We were just planning a short cruise and didn’t have any food aboard.” Yorke said that’s not uncommon. “You never know when you’re going to break down, and it might be a long tow home. Always pack warm clothes and extra food and drinks,” he advised.
Sea Tow services cover any boat that a member is “in charge of,” but sometimes a member, like Berkowitz, is aboard a buddy’s broken boat and discernibly not the skipper. “I’ll give the benefit of the doubt if I can,” Winkler said. “The bedrock of my business is renewals, and a happy member is a fantastic salesman, but if he needs a six-hour tow, that’s entirely different.” That leniency worked in Berkowitz’s favor. Membership definitely has its privileges.
Adrift at Sea
I headed out again the following Sunday with franchise co-owner Capt. Dave Winkler, Steve’s brother. On our first call, we towed a 24-foot Sea Ray that had broken down adjacent to Boston Harbor’s main ship channel. It turned out to be a blown engine still under warranty. “I don’t know much about engines. It’s nice to just call and let them safely get you back to your marina,” said John MacKenzie, the vessel’s owner. A few weeks later, Sea Tow towed MacKenzie from his slip to a boat ramp to haul the boat for service — again free of charge.
After lunch we went back out to fetch a 32 Luhrs adrift near Boston Logan airport. The owner had just purchased the used boat. It ran fine on sea trial and the first few trips, but when boat wakes in the busy channel stirred up debris in the 30-year-old boat’s fuel tanks, the fuel filters clogged. “Both motors shut down within a few minutes of each other,” said Bill Paranella, the boat’s owner. “We were in the middle of the channel with sightseeing boats, commuter ferries and private boats racing by. We were rocking all over the place,” he said. The lesson: Always check your fuel filters before you leave the dock, and be prepared to deal with clogs offshore.
Worse, Paranella’s boat started drifting toward the runway at Logan airport. “He was inside the security zone of the airport, blowing right toward the riprap,” Yorke said. Which brings us to his next piece of advice: “Have an anchor ready to go. Things happen quickly out there.” A VHF radio and GPS are also vital equipment. “You need to be able to keep yourself in one spot, call us for help, and tell us where to find you.”
Towing Paranella’s boat home exposed another problem, again from boats passing close and throwing large wakes. “When we hit one particularly big wave, the bow went up, the boat bucked back, and that windlass [where the towing hawser was attached] pulled out of the deck and sailed like it was catapulted,” Paranella said. The windlass bolts were backed only with small washers that pulled right through the plywood deck core, which had turned soft. Make sure your hardware is mounted with the proper gear to handle the load.
Wakes are a bigger problem for Yorke when he’s towing “on the hip,” or worse, when he’s leaning beneath the bow of a boat trying to hook his hawser onto the trailer eye. “Give us a slow bell [slow speed],” he asks of passing boaters. “It might be you that’s broken down tomorrow, and you’d appreciate the courtesy.”
On my last call with Sea Tow Boston, I accompanied Capt. Ken Webber to return a brand-new 190 Bayliner to its dock at Constitution Marina. The engine wouldn’t turn over at all, even with an attempted jump-start. “We’re not mechanics,” Yorke said of the incident. “We’ll check for loose or dirty battery connections or try to prime an engine that ran out of gas, but we don’t take the cowling off. We’ll do what we can to get them going as an alternative to towing, but the main thing is to get the boat into a safe situation.”
Other common offshore fixes include jiggling the shift lever to engage a finicky neutral start switch, checking that kill lanyards are fully in place, and ensuring weak batteries are paralleled for the best chance at starting an engine. When older carbureted inboards are warm and won’t start, Winkler suggests advancing the throttle to full while still in neutral and cranking the engine, which opens up plates to let more air into the carburetor. Outboards with high engine hours and worn cylinders sometimes benefit from advancing the throttle while cranking the key as well.
Spending so much time with Sea Tow Boston helped me reflect on my own Sea Tow experience, adrift and helpless so far from home. It made me think of both what I could have done to prevent needing the tow and, once I needed help, how lucky I was to get it. That long tow home from the Bahamas made the value of that Sea Tow membership readily apparent — the tow would have cost $1,925 without it. In the end, having an assistance-towing plan and never actually needing it is a much better deal.