How to tow a yacht

24 September 2019

There are few things certain in life, but one thing you can almost guarantee is that if you own a yacht at some time in your life, you will either need to be towed or be asked to tow another. It is therefore sensible to know how best to do it and, perhaps more importantly, when you shouldn’t consider it!

Starting with the initial decision, it’s worth remembering that even a small 36ft yacht is likely to weigh several tonnes. In even a small chop, the loads put on your cleats and strong points will be huge, especially if you are not towing properly. When a cleat let’s go, you may be faced with a lump of cast aluminium or stainless steel flying towards a soft human being at a rate of knots - and that’s forgetting the repair bill for your pride and joy!

If at all possible, only tow vessels in calm water and even then, make sure the vessels are matched in weight and are properly rigged for towing effectively and safely. This might mean your best action is to simply standby and wait for a more suitable towing craft to arrive. Of course, if the situation escalates you may need to think again, or evacuate the other vessel, but don’t be tempted to put your vessel in harm’s way just because someone would prefer to get home before the pub shuts. Your insurer will not thank you for it.

If you have decided to take or offer a tow, it is usual for the tower to set the rules and for the towed vessel to provide the tow line. Many well suggest that this is because taking a line from another vessel can leave you open to a salvage claim, although in reality the law is more complicated than that.

Remember, whilst under tow you are still master of your own vessel, so don’t be shy of speaking up if you don’t agree with a plan. Most people, you must hope, have had some training, so the two primary ways to tow should be known by everyone. Namely;

(i) Line astern

(ii) Abreast midships

Towing line astern is normal, especially if you have a long way to go. There is less likelihood of contact between vessels as you will probably have a good deal of line or line and chain between you, making it difficult for the follow vessel to drive into the lead vessel accidentally. 

To set up a tow this way, make sure both the towing vessel and the towed vessel have rigged strong bridles to connect to the tow line. A bridle should spread the load between several strong points and then be connected to the tow line, either by a bowline with extra hitch or a solid double sheet bend. Other knots will do the trick but the latter is probably best. Watch for chafe.

If you are towing, your bridle will be astern and run off near the transom, ideally having been run from your primary winches to deck cleats and then through your aft fairleads. Make sure most of the weight is on the strong points designed to take loads and always protect your pushpit, deck, toe rail (and helmsman!).

The towed vessel should rig a bridle on her bow and the line should run out of the starboard side’s fairlead, around the bow (outside everything) and back through the port fairlead. The line needs to connect to strong points on the bow of course, and in most cases the most obvious place is the windlass, which is designed to take these sort of loads when you lie at anchor. However, running the line via cleats and then back to your primary winches will help spread the load and reduce the chances of breakage. You want the centre of effort to be forward of the main mast. Of course, each boat will be different and you should consider the manufacturer’s advice in this respect.

To dampen the tow line and reduce snatching, the towed vessel should be steered by a competent helm (assuming you have steerage) and some would suggest hanging a weight midway along the tow line. Better still, consider tying the tow line to you anchor and passing the towline to the tow boat. The chain is strong and will act as a damping weight also. Just remember to take it in as you come to the end of your tow, or you’re likely to be anchoring with a lot of chain once they let you go.

Ideally, before you come alongside, a line astern tow will be abandoned in favour of the following.

Towing abreast at midships is the best way to move vessels from one place to another over short distances in calm waters. 

The two vessels should be made fast to each other using bow and stern mooring lines and fore and aft springs (as though you were going alongside the other vessel in port). The masts should be offset so as to prevent spreaders connecting when underway and this will mean one of the two vessels must be set off centre, slightly astern of the other.  It is usual for the towing vessel to be set behind the towed vessel, thus allowing the towing vessel maximum steerage and flexibility.  Use all the fenders you can muster and make sure crew are kept well clear of the toe rail, guard rails and any cleats or lines under load. 

Make sure to use mooring warps when connecting the two vessels so that their stretching properties are used to full benefit.

When coming alongside, try to put the towed vessel alongside the pontoon. This makes leaving much easier for you later. If you are close to home, think about this when you set up the tow so that tide on your berth at arrival can be predicted. This will dictate which side you tie up to on the towed vessel.

When being towed, the towed vessel should either secure the wheel at centre or, preferably, it should be steered so as to assist the tow vessel. Especially when coming alongside. Remember, you’ll need to move some fenders before you berth!

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make sure a round of drinks or a bottle of your rescuer’s preferred tipple is delivered promptly with a smile and abundant gratitude once you are safely ashore.

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