Boat Towing Coverage 101: What You Need to Know
No matter how careful you are about boat maintenance, no matter how new your boat is, and no matter how well it’s built, it’s a simple matter of reality that it could one day break down. Truth be told, everything mechanical can fail to function even if it’s perfectly built and cared for (also be sure to read 12 Most Common Boating Mistakes & How to Avoid Them).
But when a boat breaks down, it can be a lot more difficult to deal with than breaking down in a car—obviously, you can’t just step out and walk home. That’s why having a plan and boat towing coverage is a good idea.
Options for On-Water Assistance and Towing Memberships
Having a plan starts with knowing who you are going to call for help when the unexpected happens.
The two major national boat towing networks are Sea Tow and TowBoatUS (BoatUS). Each offers a towing membership option, and both provide on-water assistance to members and non-members. If your boat breaks down, you run out of fuel, or run aground you can give them a call via VHF radio or cell phone to request help.
Getting a tow can, however, cost an arm and a leg when not a member. Most service providers will charge at least $250 an hour, including travel time to and from their port. As a result, even a relatively short tow can cost many hundreds of dollars, and a long tow can easily cost thousands.
There may also be a surcharge for going to work in rough conditions or in the dark. This is why it’s worth looking at the membership options available.
Boat Towing Coverage Costs
All membership options are not created equal. You need to determine which option works best for you based on where and how you boat. If you are a freshwater-only boater outside of Florida memberships options are about $100-$120 per year. If you are a saltwater boater membership options range from $165-$180 per year.
When reviewing membership options there are a few tips on evaluating your options:
1. How many providers are present in your boating area?
If there is only one, your choice is easy. If you have both a Sea Tow and BoatUS or other assistance tower near you, give your local provider a call. They can let you know what their normal response time is, where they keep their boats, and review any questions you may have about membership benefits. This will also allow you to get to know the local team and get a feel for them.
2. Ask your fellow boaters who they use and why. There may even be a referral bonus for them.
3. Be sure to choose the membership option that has the level of coverage you need.
For example: If you do not trailer your boat, you may need a tow from your home port to a repair facility. Is that service covered 100%? If you cruise outside of your normal boating area and need to use another provider, what is the maximum reimbursement?
What Does Boat Towing Memberships Cover?
What you may be surprised at is just how much boat towing memberships cover. In fact, it's not just towing. Using the term “boating mishap coverage” would be a lot more accurate. Most provide service under the membership for many of the basic snafus that can put a stop to a fun day of boating, like running out of fuel or needing a jump start.
According to BoatU.S., the following mechanical breakdowns only account for about half the calls for assistance they receive and generally result in a tow:
- Engine failure;
- Steering problems
- Blown fuses
According to Sea Tow, over 25 percent of their calls for assistance are solved on scene with a jump start, fuel delivery or ungrounding and they can often assist over the phone to get you back to boating.
Towing, fuel delivery, jumpstarts and quick ungroundings are all part of the membership services offered by Sea Tow and TowBoatUS, with some reasonable exclusions (you can’t cruise from Key West to Kennebunkport, then expect to be towed all the way home when you break down, for example).
In most cases, membership also covers part or all of the cost to tow your boat from your home port to a repair facility or trailer ramp so you can if service is needed.
And there’s more! If you own more than one boat, generally they will all be eligible for service under the one membership, regardless of if your spouse, child or friend borrows your boat and breaks down. And if the member themselves borrows or rents a boat they are eligible for service as well.
Towing companies may also offer additional membership options for trailer boaters to help with break-downs on land. These usually add around $15 per year to the membership, and like on-the-water assistance, provides service for things beyond merely needing a tow. Jump starts in case of a dead truck battery, flat tire assistance, or fuel delivery if your tow vehicle runs out of gas are some of the problems they help with.
There are also some added benefits to having a boat towing membership:
- The major companies provide 24/7 dispatch services, and have apps that make calling for help a piece of cake.
- There are generally no out-of-pocket costs (other than for fuel or parts), so you don’t have to foot the bill and then wait for reimbursement.
- While the major providers have very large areas of coverage, if you’re boating in some far-flung location that’s outside their service areas most memberships provide reimbursement for some or all of the expenses you may incur if your boat breaks down.
How to Choose Towing Company for Your Boat
As we stated earlier, the two largest boat towing services, Sea Tow and TowBoatUS/BoatUS cover the majority of the nation. Their rates and membership options are competitive, however, depending on where you live you may find that one or the other has better coverage in your particular area. Since the annual membership fees are also minimal, some boaters also choose to get memberships to both companies.
You may also hear about having towing coverage as a part of your boat’s hull and liability insurance policy as some insurance companies offer a riders or include some level of reimbursement for certain towing expenses. If you are going to rely on this coverage only there are a few things to remember:
- Not all coverage is equal. Be sure to check what services you can be reimbursed for and up to what dollar amount.
- Since you’ll be dealing directly with the tower you’ll generally have to foot the bill up-front.
- If you don’t also have a membership with one of the towing companies you may have to wait longer for service. This could be hours and hours on busy weekends and holidays.
Do I Need a Boat Towing Membership?
This is a question that ultimately, only you can answer. That said, a huge number of boaters do opt for a towing membership of one form or another, and many people feel that the peace of mind that goes along with knowing you’ll have a tow boat on call whenever you need assistance, and not have to pay out of pocket, is well worth the cost.
Because as we said right up front, all mechanical things can break down. And unfortunately, that does sometimes include boats.
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