Towing for Fun

He’s got the cover off his outboard, his buddy and their wives (?) are sitting with glum expressions on the gun’ls. Yours is the only other boat in the area so there’s no chance that he’s hollering at someone else, and although you had been planning on a quiet day of cruising with your family, it looks like you will have to detour long enough to tow him in.

You could be looking at a rewarding half-hour job, or a day of disaster and expense; mostly depending on how well prepared you (and your crew and your boat) are for towing. The preparation might start right now, with you sitting where you are and thinking about the implications of towing someone’s boat.

Your very first thought should be one word: RESPONSIBILITY.

The moment you hook a line to a derelict boat, you become responsible for it and all aboard it. Of course, that doesn’t decrease your primary responsibility — that owed your own boat and crew, so let’s start there....

  • Are you and your crew trained in towing? (It’s not all that difficult, but you do need to practice.)
  • Do you carry towing gear? (Not much required, but your tow line is likely to be better than his!)
  • Is your boat capable of towing? (It isn’t a question [Usually!] of power, but fittings.)

Take those three items in reverse order and start by checking the stern fittings on your boat. If they are not heavy duty with backing plates, install a couple of sturdy cleats or a pair of transom eyes. You can’t have backing plates that are too big or too sturdy. Although cleats held by through-bolts backed by "fender washers" will do, this is only acceptable for light-duty, short distance tows in fine weather. I don’t have the space here to properly cover the selection and installation of fittings so if you are not confident of your mechanical ability, have a professional do the work, and insist that it is done correctly.

Tow fittings should be as far apart as possible and accessible when underway from inside the cockpit or on deck. Don’t rely on water-level fittings that can be reached only by laying on the swim platform. If a problem arises while towing, it may not be possible to reach such fittings quickly enough to rid yourself of a sinking tow. (Note 5)

With the fittings taken care of, turn to the tow line. Now, I don’t want to imply that you should get into ocean towing of derelict Liberian crude oil carriers. If you have a ninety foot yacht and want to tow stuff the size of the Queen Mary, that’s your affair, but this article is for us small-boat skippers, and none of us need an inch-and-a-half towing hawser. In fact, if you give it some serious thought, you will see that if anything is going to fail while towing, it should be the tow line, not the deck cleats (or the deck itself) on your boat or that of the derelict!

Force on Fittings

If you don’t think you can multiply a force in this way, I invite you to tie a line tightly between two fittings, then pull hard on the middle of it. Wait! On second thought, don’t do that! You’ll get mad at me when you jerk a fitting out of the deck. Farmers have used this principle for a century or more to stretch fence - they tie the end of a fence section to a tree with a long length of heavy rope, pulled as tight as possible, then either pull on the center of that line or have the biggest person hang on it, and while the fence is under tension, staple it to the last post.

I recommend polypropylene for tow line because it floats and will usually stay out of your prop if you have to back down.

"But poly’ is weaker than nylon!" someone said. Yes, it is; and that’s good, because you have no business towing anything that is too heavy for 3/8" cable-laid poly’ line (No, no! Don’t use that hollow-braided junk!) Poly’ is subject to ultraviolet deterioration, so keep your tow line stowed in a sheltered location when it is not being used.

And before you remind me, I’ll admit that nylon is more elastic than poly’ — and that is another reason you should avoid nylon for towing. If a line breaks, the less stored energy (in the form of stretched line), the better.

Make the tow line up as follows: Start with 75 feet for sheltered waters or 150 ft. for coastal towing. If it is too rough for 150 feet, you should not be towing with light recreational craft. Splice an eye in each end. (Note 1) Make the working eye (the one you will hand to the derelict) at least 12 inches in diameter. Make the eye you will keep on your boat appropriate for the fitting. If you have transom tie-down U-bolts, use heavy-duty snap-hooks or carabiners here instead of eyes. Fix these with anchor bends. (Note 2)

Now measure the distance between those towing fittings; cut a second section of that line, twice as long as the distance between those fittings, plus enough allowance for the eye or hook at the tow-boat end, and a "side-splice" at the other. Side-splice the loose end of this short section into the long line so that the two eyes match up. The side splice is made exactly like an eye splice.

When you have finished, you should have V-bridle with an included angle of about 30 degrees. This prevents the towing load from being unduly multiplied at the fittings.
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This bridle will allow some steering control while underway, but only practice will teach you how much (or rather how little) control you have. To make a sharp turn you must slack off the tow, arrange your boat in the direction you hope to take, and then resume towing. Don’t be surprised when you end up pointed somewhere between the way you were previously headed and the way you thought you would be headed.

You should now have two sturdy towing cleats or eyes (or in my case, U-bolts) installed on your boat, and a dedicated tow line. Now you can enjoy some practice: Get a friend to act as the derelict boat, and after a day’s exercises, go out for a nice meal as a reward. The friend can be as poor a boater as may be — in fact, the worse the better. Believe me, you will find a few helpless souls out there who know nothing at all about boat handling!

Before laying a line on the derelict, make one slow pass all the way around it (presuming you have space and time — if it is about to go over the falls, you’ll have to act in haste.) Have everyone aboard the derelict get into their PFDs; you already have a problem and you don’t need any more, such as a man overboard without a PFD!

Pass the tow line to the derelict. If possible, come alongside to do this; if the weather is windy or a current is causing problems, you may have to be more creative. First try crossing the T, staying far enough ahead of the derelict to prevent your boat from drifting down into it, while a crew member coils the tow line and throws it to someone on the derelict’s foredeck. This is often one of the most challenging activities during practices — do try to avoid breaking out windshields or giving the derelict’s crew concussions.

If the weather is truly foul, and you elect to try to pass that line anyway, you may want to tie it to a type IV (ring or cushion) PFD and let it float down to them. Personal experience indicates that this is only marginally better than just telling them to put on PFDs and jump overboard so that you can pick them up. To be more realistic, if the weather conditions are bad enough that you cannot throw the tow line or pass it directly, your most prudent move might be to call for professional help and stand by to pick up survivors if the derelict sinks before help arrives.

Ohhhkay! Presuming that you’ve managed to get the line to the derelict, and that their crew has been able to figure out how to loop it over the foredeck cleats — whoops; did you think to get out your binoculars and survey the derelict’s fittings? Hhmmmm. You surely don’t want one of those to pop out and snap back into your cockpit on the end of a recoiling tow line. Knew a lady who was killed that way, and I’ve been mighty sensitive to the other guy’s fittings ever since then. There is not much you can do about the deck fittings on the derelict, but if they appear the least bit fragile, elderly, or otherwise uninspiring, have the derelict’s crew loop the tow line through itself to make a running loop, and lead that loop around two foredeck fittings (presuming that there are two fittings available.)

So here we are, hooked up, with the other crew in their PFDs, ready to get going. Wait. Call them on the VHF or holler at the skipper to tell them to put the drive(s) in neutral and the steering centered. Then have everyone to move aft away from the tow line and stay seated. If the derelict is a small craft, any movement of persons aboard can have a considerable effect on tracking. And to reiterate, you already have one problem or you would not be towing, so there is no need to add more problems by having someone go overboard or get zapped by a snapped tow line. Now, you’re ready to go.

Drop the drive in gear and have one of your crew watch the tow line. If it is not a floating line, they will have to hold it out of the water aft to prevent fouling your propeller. This crew member should holler out "On the tow!" as soon as the tow line is under tension. When you hear this, increase power enough to maintain the tension, otherwise there can be a tendency to "bounce" against the line’s elasticity — and that bouncing is really hard on fittings. Immediately have all of your crew move away from the tow line — no one may ever stand in line with it while it is under a strain! Here is where nylon line can be particularly deadly; nylon can stretch up to 25% and stores a tremendous amount of energy which it releases like a huge rubber band when it breaks. A person struck by a snapped tow line can be killed or seriously injured.

If there is any wave activity, you should try to keep the derelict and your boat "in step." This will require adjusting the length of the tow line, and you are about to discover that this is not easy to do. When writers advise you to do this, they apparently think that you have a cable on a drum anchored to your cockpit deck, just like the professional tow rigs. I’ve never seen one of these outfits on a recreational boat, and I surely don’t have one; I have to adjust the length of the line by asking the derelict to haul in ten or fifteen feet of line and re-fixing it to their cleats. This is not a simple task because most of the time the crew of the derelict has no idea of how to tie a proper cleat hitch, and you end up taking a knife to the tow line when you finally get them into a harbor.

An alternative is to shorten up the line at your end. Slack off the tow, haul some of the tow line aboard, and put a sheepshank hitch (Note 4) or some other "shortening" loop in the middle of it. This assumes that you know how to tie a sheepshank, and even if you do, remember that any knot weakens the line. You may find that it is easier to pull in a big loop of slack tow line and tie it in a "figure-of-8" knot around the working part. If these aren’t satisfactory answers, keep in mind that other writers simply tell you to "shorten the tow line..." without giving any hint as to how that might be done!

If you haven’t taken my suggestion about practicing towing with a friend’s boat, you will now discover that steering under tow is difficult. Depending on the configuration of your boat and the mass of the derelict, you may find that you can not turn in less than a couple of football-fields’ length. You may have to slack off the tow, haul in forty or fifty feet of line, then at idle speed make your turn while carefully (Carefully! Keep hands and feet out of loops of tow line!) paying out the tow line. You may have to repeat this maneuver several times to get going on the desired heading.

Once you have the derelict ready to go into harbor, you will probably have to shorten-up the tow line for better control in close quarters. For really precise control you might have to go over to towing "on the hip" — a subject I’ll have to leave for another article. When ready to secure the tow, the easiest method is to put your boat alongside the dock, have one of your crew step ashore and pick up the tow line with the boathook, then haul the derelict up to the dock. If the weather is troublesome, secure your boat first and haul the derelict up close behind.

Must you go through all of this preparation and practice? Thousands of recreational boaters help someone every season without taking this much trouble; they just throw the other guy a ski rope and haul him in. True, true; but a few of those helpful skippers will get hurt, or harm someone else — a snapped tow line, a deck cleat jerked out and flipped back into the tow-boat, or perhaps only cosmetic damage or a broken fitting. You must decide: "How much is it worth to tow safely and effectively?" For me, most important is the satisfaction of knowing that my boat and crew are prepared to help with good gear and some training. How much is that worth to you?


(1) The Ashley Book of Knots, Clifford W. Ashley. Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1944. Pp. 445 - 460 give details of many kinds of spliced eyes. The "side splice" is made exactly the same as an eye splice.

(2) Ashley - Page 309

(3) Surprisingly, Ashley does not give a useable "deck cleat" hitch - see cleat hitch.

(4) Ashley - Page 11 Note that Ashley did not work with slippery stuff like poly’ line. I do not trust the sheepshank in modern synthetic line unless the folded bight is lashed to the standing part to prevent slipping.

(5) Unless you tow only in waters shallower than the length of your tow line, carry a sturdy sheath knife (Not a folding knife!) or a small hand-axe so that you can instantly cut the towline if the derelict sinks. This is not — I repeat, not — a joke!

Thanks to W. J. (Bill) Laudeman for this informative article!
To contact Bill,

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Category: Sailing , Overnight Cruising , Day Cruising