Navigating the Towing Service Maze: Sea Tow/Towboat US

One of the biggest navigational challenges is deciphering the maze that is towing services!  Before you leave the dock to go for your first sail or excursion, it may be wise to invest in a towing service.  Sea Tow and Towboat US are the two main towing providers established when the US Coast Guard stopped responding to non-emergency calls for assistance.  There are other independent services, but if you’re planning coastal cruising, you’ll want either SeaTow or Towboat US simply for their availability in many locations.   Both services offer the basic services you might need at similar prices, so the selection is more a matter of who’s available where you might need them and other services, discussed below.

Executive Summary:   If you don’t want to read this entire post, the bottom line is that both services offer similar results, towing or other assistance when needed between 25 and 40 miles from their franchisee locations, sometimes as far as 150 miles away.  In extended areas you may be required to pay up front for a towing service and be reimbursed, so be sure to ask up front.     Both services offer a Gold Unlimited plan and in our opinion, that’s the only option for commuter cruisers.   Picking a provider is as simple as trying to decipher which one has the best coverage in the areas you plan to cruise – links provided below if you want to check.  Pick one, get it over with, and loose those dock lines and GO!!!

Sea Tow On The Spot

Sea Tow On The Spot

I will also write a post on contacting and working with a towing service that will post middle of next week.  Listening to conversations between towing services and boats on the VHF reminds me that there’s a need for this post!  I cannot believe the number of boaters who cannot respond to a simple request for location!

And as a disclaimer up front in this post, we currently are members of Sea Tow.  But before we left to go cruising we were members of Towboat US.  We’ve had good experiences with both.  The only reason we selected Sea Tow when we returned from cruising is they were offering a free month at our marina for new subscribers.  Let’s do the math … we’re going to sign up with one or the other anyway and we can save almost $500 by signing up with Sea Tow.  Done!!!

Also, we are “The Gold Unlimited Plan”.  In either case, I think unless you don’t plan to go anywhere outside your home area, it’s wise to spend the additional $50 or so annually for the Gold Unlimited Plan.  Both services offer them.  Sea Tow is $169, Towboat US is $157, but you have to buy a Boat US membership for $24, so it’s actually $181.  Both are bargains in our opinion.  Both services also have “value added” stuff to spice up their service … marina discounts, fuel discounts, etc.   Our experience is that we could never use any of the discounts because we could buy the stuff cheaper by shopping around, but your experience may vary.  The one exception was the Sea Tow/Burnt Store Marina discount where we saved a month’s marina fees!

We’ve had two experiences actually needing a towing service.  Before we left to go cruising, anchored out, our alternator belt exploded.  Back then, we weren’t very experienced and had no spares (we now carry several because for whatever reason we’ve had a problem with alternator belts not behaving!).   The engine overheaded immediately, we dropped anchor (luckily we hadn’t made it out of the anchorage yet) and called Towboat US.  They were there almost immediately.   Rather than tow us back, they wanted to go get us an alternator belt. OK, fine.  They said it would be less expensive for them to go to Advanced Auto Parts, get us however many alternator belts we wanted and bring them back than it would be to tow the boat (and much less strain on the boat too!).    He returned a bit later with the alternator belts and even helped us put it on – altho’ that was NOT in the policy, he wasn’t supposed to actually help, I don’t think.   Anyway, we felt Towboat US went above and beyond the call of duty and we gave the operator a nice tip.  In return he asked where we were heading before our small crisis, called ahead to check on the tide for us (we couldn’t get into this anchorage except on a mid-rising tide.  Then he led us down the ICW and into the anchorage and directly to the best spot to anchor!   We kept it on our GPS for use over six years later when we returned to the US!

Towboat US On The Spot

Towboat US On The Spot

Our other experience needing a tow was on our very first boat charter.   We left the marina headed directly into the setting sun, crossing a place on the ICW known as the Miserable Mile.  Safely across the Miserable Mile, we must have let down our guard because the next thing we knew we were a bit out of the channel and aground.  Long story short, we tried all night to kedge/float off but to no avail.  The next morning we called the charter company.  I heard them call Sea Tow on the VHF.  The closing part of the conversation was disconcerting … the charter company said to Sea Tow “Be nice to them, please.”   Be NICE to us?  What?  They came out and pulled us back into deeper water in less than 10 minutes and charged us several hundred dollars and I thought that was ridiculous … that was the point where we found out we should have purchased towing insurance for our charter because it’s good for any boat we’re on as long as the owner isn’t aboard!

But the experience left us wondering if the individual towing franchisees have the latitude to charge whatever they want whenever they want.  And I’m pretty sure the answer is yes.  For the most part they’re wonderful, but keep in mind, it’s YOUR boat and YOU’RE in charge.  Don’t agree to do anything that might compromise your boat.   And ALWAYS ask all the questions regarding what the potential charges might be.  Do NOT assume that just because you have towing coverage that the cost will be zero!

Just in case you’re thinking you don’t need or want to pay for a towing service, consider this example from the Towboat US website:

Towboat US:  When making your choice, keep in mind:

  • Commercial towing companies charge based on “Portal-to-Portal”. In simplest terms, they charge from the time they leave their port until the time that they return. These charges average $250 per hour! The distance you breakdown from your home port isn’t important. It is the distance you breakdown from the towers homeport that matters. So, even if you only boat close to your port, if the tower’s port is 10 miles away, your cost could exceed the expected.
  • Soft-Ungroundings – In addition to “Portal-to-Portal” and hourly towing charges, if you find yourself bumped onto a sandbar, non-members may also be charged up to $20.00 per foot of your vessels length to be pulled free. The ungrounding fee is NOT based on the time it takes to pull you free, but rather the length of your boat
It all adds up:

Let’s look at a scenario – You run soft aground 15 miles from the TowBoatUS home port in your 24 foot vessel.

Time (portal to portal) Rate Cost
Total: $1267.50
1.5 hours to scene $250.00 per hour $375.00
10 minute ungrounding 24ft @ $20.00 per foot $480.00
1.5 hours return time $275.00 per hour (night) $412.50

If you had Unlimited Towing your cost would be – $0

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Just remember once you leave the US to actually go cruising, there is no Sea Tow or Towboat US safety net.  In fact, there is no guaranteed US Coast Guard safety net either!   So start out being self-sufficient as much as possible and you’ll have less of a culture shock when you actually leave!

When I was doing the research for this post, I compared both services and tried to decipher what they’re telling me as accurately as possible.   I tried to ask a few different customer service representatives for each service specific hypothetical situations and get answers on how their service would handle the situation.  Unfortunately, although both services assured me we’d be taken care of, neither gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling as much as I wanted to believe them!

Sea Tow

Sea Tow

The bottom line is (I think) that with gold card coverage both services will get you assistance wherever you are within 25 to 40 miles of a franchisee and sometimes up to 150 miles.  Both will call other towing services (including each other) when someone is in need and they don’t have coverage there.  Be sure to clarify what you’ll be charged, if anything, when you call.

One overall difference I got from my research was that Sea Tow has no specific coverage areas, so to speak, you’re covered no matter where you are … within their undefined limits – definitely up to 40 miles offshore.  Sea Tow also lists the Bahamas as a service area.

Towboat US was a bit more unsettling telling me that each of their franchisees has their own limits, but that they are all required for 25 miles offshore.  My “home” service area of Charlotte Harbor offers extended coverage up to 150 miles offshore, but the Ft Myers franchisee is only 75 miles offshore.  So I asked how was I supposed to know how far offshore would be covered if I’m cruising up the east coast and the answer was that I would be responsible for checking with the map and franchisees in the areas I would be heading.

But after that, they also said that Towboat US would handle it and get whatever the situation was rectified either with their own franchisees or with “extended coverage”, both of which meant that I wouldn’t end up paying more than my membership fee.    Read further for my hypothetical scenario off Little Shark River, west coast of Florida for more information on “extended” coverage for both Towboat US and Sea Tow.     AAaaaarrrggggg!!!!   The dilemma thickens!

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To help select which service may be the best for your cruising style and location, I’ve assembled some information,  I hope it’s helpful!

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION… Both Sea Tow and Towboat US are franchise businesses, so you’re dealing with individually locally owned companies.    Below I’ve listed both companies locations and services.  But before you simply sign up online, check not only your home cruising area, but also anywhere you plan to cruise to insure your selected service covers the areas important to you.  SeaTow claims over 1000 captains in 121 locations in four countries, US, Australia, Europe and the Bahamas.   Towboat US claims 600 towboats in over 290 ports.  But the reality is if the service you select isn’t operating in the corner of the cruising world where you need help, all those locations won’t matter to you!  So be sure to check your home cruising area as well as ANYWHERE you think you might cruise in the foreseeable future.  (Ed. Note:  I cannot find an easy glance reference US map anywhere online.  I have e-mailed both Towboat US and Sea Tow and if they respond, I will update this post to include the reference maps.)   In our experience, the only package that made sense for us was the Gold Unlimited plan.

Sea Tow locations

Towboat US locations

Research the differences respective to your needs.  I called both services with a few hypothetical situations and asked about their response.   Here’s the first hypothetical, which really wasn’t hypothetical at all since it actually happened, but David jerry-rigged it so we didn’t need assistance:

Day-hopping down the west Florida coastline to the Keys from Charlotte Harbor our throttle coupling decided to de-couple, leaving us with no diesel power (and no wind) just leaving Little Shark River, in the middle of nowhere between Marco Island and Marathon, Vaca Key.     Luckily after a couple of tries, David got it to hold using duct tape and then computer ties.  If we had not been able to jerry-rig it, we would have been in the middle of nowhere.   I asked both services what their response would have been:

Sea Tow:     Would have found a tow for us and towed us to the closest location where we could have accessed repairs.  We wouldn’t have a choice of locations.   In some cases, if we were outside any coverage areas, Sea Tow would have arranged with an independant towing service.  In an extreme case, we might have to pay for the service until being reimbursed by Sea Tow.  Sea Tow would reimburse us up to $5,000 per incident.

Towboat US:  Would have checked with their Marco Island service which has offshore limits of 50 miles and hopefully we’d be within the 50 miles.  If not, they might have arranged a service for us and similar to Sea Tow, in extreme cases, we might have had to pay for the service until being reimbursed by Towboat US up to $2,500 per incident.

Review the available plans – below – this info was taken directly from Sea Tow and Towboat US websites, copied below:

Both services offer some other towing options, professional mariner, commercial, etc.   This review encompasses only the towing packages that in my estimation would be considered by commuter cruisers.

Sea Tow Gold Unlimited Plan:    $169 a year

The Gold Card is carried by 95% of members and will cover you on every boat you own, rent, charter, lease or borrow. A Gold Card also covers anyone operating your boats. It also entitles you to:

  • FREE towing, jump starts, fuel drops, prop disentanglements & covered ungroundings
  • FREE dock-to-dock tows for your primary vessel
  • NO distance or dollar limits in your Home Area (Home Area is the geographic area served by your local Sea Tow franchise)
  • FREE Multiple Area Towing, gets you home when boating in neighboring Sea Tow areas
  • Universal Towing Coverage, covers members in regions not yet served by a Sea Tow franchise by providing an unprecedented $5,000 out-of-all-areas coverage policy.
  • Navigational assistance, sea condition reports, radio checks, float plans, tidal and community information, 24/7 access to expert Sea Tow Captains for help and advice on navigations, weather and more.
  • Member-exclusive discounts through our Advantage Network™
  • Member-only pricing on insurance, financing, Trailer Care and more
  • Invitations to member-only events

As a Sea Tow member, you’ll be served by a Sea Tow PRO® with a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license and a vested interest in your “Peace of Mind on the Water.”™

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Towboat US:   Unlimited Freshwater:  $34; Unlimited Saltwater and Freshwater:  $125;                                                      Unlimited Gold Saltwater & Freshwater:  $157 (plus the BoatUS Membership fee of $24)

  • Unlimited Gold Saltwater and Freshwater Towing$157.00 – BoatUS pays the bill within a towing service area. The extra benefit of Unlimited Gold is that it Provides 100% payment for a tow from your home dock or mooring to a repair facility. Of course it provides 100% payment for a tow at sea to your home dock or repair facility and 100% for a tow from a restricted use dock to your home dock or repair facility.
  • Commercial Towing Service Level$257.00 – BoatUS Unlimited Towing designed specifically for industry professionals, charter boat operators and/or delivery captains.* The charter boat or recreational vessel that the member owns or is operating for hire is entitled to receive all membership benefits for that specific vessel.* Paid Services are available for a single boat for hire or charter boat named on the membership record, including charter, rental boat club, fishing, instruction, dive, survey, mooring maintenance and professional race boats, as well as for delivery captains who are being paid to deliver a recreational vessel.
Our Most Popular Towing Option
  • Unlimited Saltwater and Freshwater Towing$125.00 – BoatUS pays the bill within a towing service area. This is for both coastal and inland boaters, and all of Florida. Provides 100% payment for a tow at sea to your home dock or repair facility. 100% for a tow from a restricted use dock to your home dock or repair facility. 50% payment for a tow from your home dock or mooring to a repair facility.
  • Unlimited Freshwater Towing$34.00 – BoatUS pays the bill within a towing service area for tows in fresh water. This is for all inland lakes and rivers, and the Great Lakes, but not applicable in Florida. Provides 100% payment for a tow at sea to your home dock or repair facility. 100% for a tow from a restricted use dock to your home dock or repair facility. 50% payment for a tow from your home dock or mooring to a repair facility.
Basic Towing Options
  • $150.00 per incident Saltwater and Freshwater – $18.00 – BoatUS pays up to $150.00 per incident.
  • $150.00 per incident Freshwater – $12.00 – BoatUS pays up to $150.00 per incident.

Prices are in addition to the $24.00 Membership Fee.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Julie Sandler Lambert via Facebook says:

    When we left for our trip down the eastern seaboard and around to Texas we opted to purchase towing from both companies. There were times when the coverage didn’t overlap and we were purchasing a boat that had been left in a Marina unattended for two years. We assumed that there would be problems that we couldn’t anticipate during our time in the boatyard prior to our trip. We did end up with one tow (Sea Tow) but it was great knowing that we had the coverage no matter where a problem might arise!

  2. Walter Crawford via Facebook says:

    Damn good idea.

  3. We got ripped off by this co and if you use them be warned they double the 225 dollar per hour MINIMUM charge even if it takes 5 mins and if you argue the guy doubled it and then called the police he was abusive towards me and in front of my 3 year old son and other family and we had to pay this or risk getting a warrant for our arrest. we only thought it was a co we had a membership with but too late after finding out it wasn’t the exact one. He treated us like dirt wouldn’t even get in the water we had to jump in to grab his rope ourself. All this for $225 which was instantly more than doubled to $470 when we argued with him we felt threatened and upset. Big lesson learned DO NOT USE THIS CO THEY ARE THE PIRATES OF THE SEA! THIS PARTICULAR PIRATE OF THIS CO IN MARCO WAS CALLED JAMES.

  4. Thanks for sharing this! This is exactly what I needed to help me find a good owing company for my boat. I’m moving North, but my car is too small to tow the boat that I have. Hopefully I can find a good towing company that charges a decent hourly rate for towing.

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