Who Ya Gonna Call
I have had only one occasion on the water when I needed emergency assistance from Coast Guard assets. Many years ago while on a coastal delivery of a new 52-foot twin engine trawler we had a fire in the engine room. In the early morning hours while northbound along the Northern Oregon Coast and approximately 20 miles due west of Tillamook Oregon, a dark acrid smelling smoke from the engine room completely filled the accommodation spaces of our vessel. I was in the pilothouse at the helm when from the saloon a crew member announced we had a fire in the engine room. I immediately took a quick scan of the engine gauges and saw no abnormal indications. As I was pulling the engines into neutral and making an emergency call for assistance by hailing Coast Guard station Tillamook on VHF Channel 16, simultaneously the crew was shutting down the generator and blocking all accessible engine room vents. For the next few minutes the crew gathered our emergency gear consisting of float coats, survival suits, ditch bag, portable VHF radio, EPIRB, and signal flares on the foredeck while I passed pertinent information such as GPS position, current situation, and number of people on board to the watchstanders. The next few minutes were a blur as we attempted to find hot spots, locate evidence of an active fire and the staging up of our portable fire extinguishers. All these activities were simultaneous to my determining if the vessel could be safely maneuvered, along with my continued communication with the Coast Guard. Not only had Station Tillamook launched a 47 Motor lifeboat to our position, Air Station Astoria had launched a MH60 Jayhawk helicopter. As we were considering entering the machinery space, since the amount of smoke had decreased and we found no hot spots, we received a radio call from the MH60 that was only a few minutes from our location and coming to our assistance. We decided to wait for the Jayhawk to be overhead before we entered the engine room just in case our situation deteriorated. Fortunately, the ordeal ended well several hours later with us able to make Tillamook under our own power with the motor lifeboat escort.
With no other vessels in the vicinity to assist us our United States Coast Guard sent very costly assets to prevent loss of life. This is their mission and you can count on them. When the situation does not involve imminent loss of life, the Coast Guard will not immediately send assets but rather will put out a marine assistance broadcast asking if there are any good Samaritans in the area willing to lend assistance. I heard a case where a mariner had run out of fuel and waited for hours to be assisted by a passing yachtsman while the USCG made a broadcast for assistance every thirty minutes. That passing yachtsman was me on a yacht delivery and I heard the marine assistance request for several hours before being anywhere close and able to divert and pass over a 5 gallon can of gasoline from our dinghy. That mariner now knows that there is a better solution to drifting miles offshore hoping for help to arrive. That better solution is to become a member of BoatU.S. and get the towing insurance.
Membership in BoatU.S. costs just $24 per year for the basic plan and a total of $84 per year for unlimited fresh water towing. For boaters that do not navigate further west than New York point, this is a great program that provides 100% towing coverage for you on any boat that you own, borrow, or rent. In the Bay and offshore, our best option is the unlimited gold program. Check out the BoatU.S. website at www.boatus.com/towing for more details on all of the marine assistance programs they offer.
I am not in the business of selling insurance, but Gary Clausen of Twin Rivers Marine Insurance is, and when I asked his opinion of the TowBoatU.S. emergency assistance insurance programs his reply was that he recommends the unlimited gold program for all his clients. As he explained, “…even though your yacht policy will have coverage for reimbursement of some portion of the costs, for things like soft grounding, fuel delivery and jump starts, there is a limit based on your specific policy. When you consider that the cost for commercial non-emergency marine assistance runs approximately $400 per hour and the clock starts when the assist vessel leaves its home dock and ends when returns, the costs add up quickly. If your policy has a $1,500 limit you are probably going to be out of pocket for some of the costs.”
It was late afternoon on a Sunday when I got a call from a prospective yacht client having issues with the propulsion on his single engine trawler. Apparently the owner and a few guests had been out fishing near the Farallon Islands when the vessel′s transmission had become unreliable. It seemed to go in reverse properly but would not engage forward every time. They were able to limp back to San Francisco and secure the boat and now needed it repaired.
First, check the fluid level in the transmission and see if it is at the proper level, was the proper color and did it have a normal smell? Smelled liked burned rubber, was black not pink, and barely registered on the dipstick. Second, drain all of the fluid and add the proper amount of new fluid and see if the gear would engage properly. That did not help as it would engage in forward every third time and was not reliable enough for me to move the boat under her own power. Third, make arrangements to tow the boat to Helmut′s Marine Services in San Rafael to have the transmission repaired.
Time to call TowBoatU.S. San Francisco and arrange to be towed to San Rafael.
TowBoatU.S. San Francisco And Delta
In the late 1980′s there were two prominent recreational vessel towing services in the United States, BoatU.S. on the East Coast, and Vessel Assist on the West Coast. Both companies offered a subscription for marine vessel assistance and towing much like emergency roadside assistance for vehicles, and in some areas competed against each other.
Around 2004, BoatU.S. acquired Vessel Assist but continued to operate them as separate companies focused on their existing areas of operation. In 2015, shortly after Berkshire Hathaway acquired BoatU.S., they discontinued the use of separate names for the marine assistance and towing services and combined them into one common brand, TowBoatU.S.
In the late 1980′s Phil Delano and his father owned and operated the Vessel Assist service in Ventura California. When Phil moved to San Francisco to attend the California Maritime Academy in 1991, he was working for Vessel Assist San Francisco. After graduating Phil took over the Vessel Assist contract in Monterey Bay and then when the Vessel Assist contract for San Francisco became available in 1998 he jumped at the opportunity and with his father took over Vessel Assist San Francisco operating with just two boats. In 2002 when the Vessel Assist contract for the Delta became available Phil again jumped in and placed two boats at a private residence on Bethel Island and began servicing the Delta. Today Phil has built the family business and has eight boats, four at Bethel Island and four in San Francisco Bay, providing Non-Emergency Towing, Fuel and Parts Delivery, Jump Starts, Diving Services, Dock-to-Dock Towing, and Marine Salvage. With their eight boats, four full-time, and three part-time, licensed captains, TowBoatU.S. San Francisco and Delta cover all of San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay, Suisan Bay, and the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta to Sacramento and Stockton. Weather permitting, they also service as far south as Pillar Port, north to Point Reyes, and west to the Farallon Islands. TowBoatU.S. San Francisco and Delta is a true family business with three generations of Delano′s, father, son, and daughter, actively involved in the business. Phil tells me that he has already recruited his grandson into the business, so really there are four generations in the family business.
Over my forty plus years of recreational boating I have been a member of BoatU.S. for most of those and have had a towing service membership since it has been offered. With rates for uninsured marine service hovering around $450 per hour, even the smallest need for assistance can quickly get expensive. Some mariners I have talked with have misinterpreted the mission of the United States Coast Guard and thought they did not need marine assistance insurance as the Coast Guard is always ready. Not so! Our Coast Guard is there when loss of life is imminent or when the seas are too rough for anyone to be on the water. They are not going to send assets when you run out of fuel or have a dead battery and the engine will not start.
Think that pulling a vessel off a shoal or towing it across the Bay to their dock is easy? It is not and requires specialized training and specialized equipment to safely tow a vessel. Consider for a moment that you are being a good Samaritan and offer to pull another vessel off the mud. Assuming that you can maneuver your vessel close enough, they toss you a line, which is fixed to a cleat on their bow that you tie to your stern cleat. Put your vessel in forward and apply throttle, and more throttle, until their boat breaks free of the sticky mud. Seems easy enough except did you use the correct line? Common three strand nylon rope will stretch up to 15% and when the boat breaks free of the mud, the line will act like a rubber band and propel their boat directly at your boat. Or using the correct line such as Dynema that has only a 0.1% stretch, you put more strain on your stern cleat than it was designed for and when it breaks it whips back towards the vessel you are trying to assist potentially injuring someone. In either instance the results may not be exactly what you were expecting and any damage done will have to be explained to your insurance company.
Towing other vessels requires specialized equipment and training. TowBoatU.S. San Francisco and Delta just took delivery of two custom designed and purpose-built towing vessels, TowBoatUS Alameda and TowBoatUS Bethel Island. Both boats are 28-foot rigid aluminum hull with an inflatable tube, RAIV, have an environmental controlled enclosed cabin, and a full suite of modern electronics with backups. With the twin Honda 225 HP outboards these new boats can make better than 30 knots and carry 260 gallons of fuel, enough for all day. In addition to the main tow line that consists of 600-feet of 9/16 inch Dynema™ line both new boats have a second towline of 300-feet of .٥-inch Dynema™ line along with an assortment of specialized bridles and rigging. All of the response boats carry a range of dewatering equipment as well. Designed and manufactured by North River Boats in Roseburg, Oregon these are considered best in class towing boats. North River Boats is one of the largest commercial aluminum boat manufacturers in the United States and supplies specialized boats to the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and many state and local water patrols. These new boats represent a significant capital investment and along with six other boats in their fleet provide 24/7 assistance service anywhere in the Bay and Delta.
If you find yourself needing assistance there are several ways that you can request service. For emergencies hail the Coast Guard on VHF Ch. 16 or push the DSC button, for non emergencies hail TowBoatU.S. on VHF Ch. 16 or use the BoatU.S. smartphone app.
While you are downloading the BoatU.S. app get the U.S. Coast Guard app as well. Both apps are useful for emergencies and non emergencies.
Towing Vs. Salvage
Often misunderstood is the difference between non-emergency assistance and salvage, and the differences are very important. The vessel offering assistance must meet three criteria in order to claim a salvage reward that is based on a percentage of the vessel′s value. There must be (1) a marine peril; (2) the salvors service is voluntarily; and (3) the salvor must be successful in saving persons or property. If these three requirements are met, the salvor may present the owner of the salvaged property with a claim for reward. The size of the reward will vary, between 25 and 100 percent of the value of the vessel, and is based on the circumstances of the peril. Keep in mind that the fundamental incentive of the marine salvage laws has been to provide a reward for salvors who voluntarily come to the assistance of vessels in distress in order to save property and/or lives. The laws of marine salvage apply to every vessel on the navigable waters of the United States. Passing boaters or good Samaritans are known as Chance Salvors and are also entitled to present a claim for a salvage reward. The amount of the reward for a Chance Salvor will be less than the professionals since the professional salvors have an investment of time and money for their equipment and must be ready in an instant to assist boaters in distress.
Your yacht policy will cover salvage, your TowBoatU.S. policy will not, even though it might be Phil or one of his captains coming to your rescue. BoatU.S. Magazine explains salvage as “any operation involving immediate peril to the boat, the marine environment or requires the use of special salvage equipment (pumps, airbags, dredging equipment, cranes, etc.).”
In addition to your yacht insurance policy do not leave the dock without your TowBoatU.S. policy.
Time for me to sit back, enjoy a good glass of port, and light up a fine cigar while I plan my next cruise. Until next month please keep those letters coming. Have a good story to tell, send me an email. pat email@example.com. I love a good story.
Curious as to what Dynema line is and why the professionals use it? Dynema is an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene material that has the best strength to weight ratio of any material including steel, has excellent fatigue, UV, abrasion, and chemical resistance.
A line made from Dynema fibers has only 15 percent of the weight of a steel cable with the same strength, has less stretch, and it floats. It is the best choice for lines used in marine applications. H