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How to Avoid a Boat Breakdown

We ride along with Sea Tow to learn how to avoid getting stranded.

September 9, 2015
How to Avoid a Boat Breakdown
Great tips gleaned from riding along with Sea Tow will help you keep from getting stranded. Capt. Vincent Daniello

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.

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How to Avoid a Boat Breakdown
Author’s Log
Aug. 16, 2014
Aboard Sea Tow Boston Responder with Capt. Michael Yorke 1133 Arrived alongside Sea Tow Boston Rescue 2 towing a 17-foot Boston Whaler that broke down 22 miles offshore. (Capt. Dave Winkler departed at 0815 in 4-foot seas to fetch it.)
1158 Underway again from Winthrop Public Landing, “on patrol” in Boston Harbor and then on standby on a mooring at Spectacle Island.
Cost for service, $0; retail cost if not a Sea Tow member, $1,350 1500 Capt. Yorke’s first call of the day: Departed Spectacle Island toward Back River for a 25-foot Pro-Line that ran out of fuel.
1517 Arrived alongside the anchored boat and towed it about 150 yards to a nearby fuel dock.
1543 Underway again from Hewitt’s Cove Marina.
Cost for service, $0; cost if not a Sea Tow member, $375 1548 Responded to a 32-foot Wellcraft with overheated engines at North Channel sea buoy.
1620 Came alongside and then took the boat in tow back to Point of Pines Yacht Club marina.
1744 Underway from Point of Pines Yacht Club.
Cost for service, $0; cost if not a Sea Tow member, $825 1829 Met up with Capt. Mike Murphy aboard Sea Tow Boston Rescue 2 to swap his empty fuel jugs for our full jugs.
1920 Back at Sea Tow Boston docks. My day was over but Capt. Murphy’s continued, quietly that night, until 2300, and then he had to drive two hours home to Maine.
Capt. Vincent Daniello

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.

Nonstarters
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.

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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.

How to Avoid a Boat Breakdown
Author’s Log
Aug. 30, 2014
Aboard Sea Tow Boston Rescue 1 with Capt. Dave Winkler 1255 Departed Sea Tow docks for a 24-foot Sea Ray broken down and anchored adjacent to Boston Harbor’s main ship channel buoy No. 2.
1309 Came alongside; the owner retrieved his anchor.
1317 In tow toward India Wharf marina.
1357 Secure at India Wharf.
1401 Underway again, back toward Sea Tow Boston docks.
Cost for service, $0; cost if not a Sea Tow member, $450 1430 Underway aboard Sea Tow Responder with Capt. Yorke to a 32-foot Luhrs adrift near Boston Logan airport.
1438 — Alongside the Luhrs, which is drifting toward the rocks surrounding the runway.
1439 In tow.
1517 During many large boat wakes, the windlass we were towing from broke away from deck.
1528 In tow again.
1628 Secured to a mooring at Fore River.
1630 Underway toward fuel dock.
Cost for service, $600 (the first $400 of the tow was paid by the boat’s insurance) 1808 I jumped aboard Sea Tow Rescue 2 with Capt. Ken Webber to return a brand-new 190 Bayliner back to its dock at Constitution Marina. The engine wouldn’t turn over, even with an attempted jump-start.
1849 The boat was taken in tow by a small tow boat operated by Constitution Marina. The dock is too narrow for a Sea Tow vessel to side-tow, so this is a common occurrence for tows to this marina.
Cost for service, $0; cost if not a Sea Tow member, $450 1910 Arrived at Sea Tow Boston docks. My day was done, but at least one captain stayed past 2200, and someone is on call 24/7/365.
Capt. Vincent Daniello

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.

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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.

How to Avoid a Boat Breakdown
Make sure your hardware is mounted with the proper gear to handle the load. Capt. Vincent Daniello

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.”

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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.

How to Avoid a Boat Breakdown
When Tow Boats Were Red, White and Blue
With U.S. Coast Guard budgets soaring, the United States Congress and the administration of Ronald Reagan cut free tows from the Coast Guard in non-life-threatening situations in 1983. Joe Frohnhoefer founded Sea Tow as the first assistance-towing company that same year. By 1987 the Coast Guard officially ended nonemergency responses. Sea Tow handled most BoatU.S. towing until 1992, when BoatU.S. started offering TowBoatU.S. service to its members.
Capt. Vincent Daniello

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.

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