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For Whom the Boat Tows: Practice this essential skill


Many of us have a general idea about how we’d tow another boat back to the harbor or gas dock or a safe anchorage. While most sailboats don’t generate a lot of pull, they can generally tow a similarly-sized sailboat at four or five knots, which frequently beats waiting for the wind to fill in. Since the loads generated are more modest than those generated by a vessel capable of higher bollard pulls, a few rules suffice:

  1. If possible, use double braided nylon for your towline, which has great strength, and enough stretch without having too much stretch. Avoid three-stand nylon and running rigging.
  2. Use a bridle that has a relatively “fine” included angle: perhaps making each leg 2-3 times the beam of your boat.
  3. Attach the bridle to stout cleats, or better yet, cockpit winches to ensure you have strong attachment points.

But what if you need to provide a tow, and you have a 12’ inflatable and need to help a 40’ sailboat back to a marina? Anyone who has towed with an inflatable knows that it is frequently a question of who is towing whom. It’s virtually impossible to maintain a heading or to turn the boat being towed.

In situations like this, it may be that an alongside tow is the only way you’re going to be successful. In an alongside tow, the boat providing the “oomph” is placed way aft on the quarter of the boat being towed. It’s necessary to have the towing boat actually extend aft of the transom of the towed boat by perhaps 4-6 feet.

The line that takes the greatest load runs from the bow of the towing boat, aft to the boat being towed. This must be attached to the strongest point on the inflatable’s hull, which is frequently a lifting eye or interior cleat. This line has all of the tension on it, and should have relatively little stretch. A second spring line, running in the opposite direction from the stern of the inflatable to amidships on the towed boat will allow this improvised “catamaran” to be stopped or maneuvered in reverse. Finally, a couple of breast lines can be run to hold the inflatable in the correct orientation along side the larger vessel.

Once power is applied, the towed vessel’s larger rudder may be used to steer the combined boats, and have more effectiveness than turning the small outboard on the inflatable. But even if the sailboat’s rudder is locked amidships, you’ll be impressed by how well the inflatable can steer the larger boat.

This is a great exercise to try on a calm morning, perhaps with other CCA members, to prove that it actually does work. Don’t align the two boats entirely parallel, but rather cant the boat’s together at the bow by perhaps 5-10 degrees. This counteracts the greater drag due to the sailboat’s wetted surface, and increases the maneuverability.

The Cruising Club of America is a collection of passionate, seriously accomplished, ocean sailors making adventurous use of the seas. All members have extensive offshore boat handling, seamanship, and command experience honed over many years. “School of Hard Rocks” stories, published by the CCA Safety and Seamanship Committee, are intended to advance seamanship and help skippers promote a Culture of Safety aboard their vessels