Know How to Tow – Safely

Has your vessel ever been towed? Have you ever towed another vessel? There are several things that you may not know regarding towing safety. Towing another vessel safely is done in the normal course of business for a professional towing captain. They routinely follow procedures that keep you safe.

The operator of a towing vessel must be properly licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. The examinations for those licenses cover both professional and safety topics. There are some towing maneuvers and procedures that may not be obvious to many mariners. Examination and licensing ensure that towing captains are familiar with those issues.

As a “Good Samaritan” in a “temporary assistance” situation, you do not have to be licensed. However, you cannot charge for your services. Proper forethought regarding your ability to safely do the job is of utmost importance. The risk of accident and injury is greater in these “assistance” situations than in the normal course.

Great care should be taken to be sure that your towline is of sufficient strength for the job. Also, the deck fittings to which the towline is secured on both the towing vessel and the vessel being towed are critical. Not all cleats are backed up with structural or reinforcing hardware. They can break loose under a strain and become a “high speed projectile” heading in your direction.

There are a few techniques that can reduce the risks associated with towing. First, if you are not sure of the strength of the deck fittings to which your towline is secured, you can rig a “bridle.” A bridle can be made of two short (but heavy) lines attached to the end of the towline. This arrangement will allow you to attach the towline at two points to distribute the load.

Another technique is to attach the towline, leaving enough length at the “bitter end” to secure to another deck fitting. In the event that the first cleat gives out, the second one “may” maintain the towline until you can stop and regroup.

The length of the towline is also important. The longer it is, the more of a “shock absorber” it becomes. All synthetic lines will stretch to some degree. If the towline is too short, it will offer very little shock absorbency. If your deck fittings are questionable, you need as much of a shock absorber as is possible. This becomes even more important in rough sea conditions.

Given that your boat is not fitted with a “towing bitt” or any other proper fittings for towing, you run the risk of “chafing.” A towline has a lot of stress on it even in the calmest sea conditions. Chafing, or abrasion, can exist at the deck fittings or at any place where the towline comes in contact with the vessel (bow pulpit, toe rail, lifeline stanchion, etc.).

Chafing can be eliminated or minimized by wrapping those areas of the towline that are exposed with protective material. Canvas tied with a small line is the easiest method. A short length of hose over the towline is another method. Just about anything will help.

The bottom line to all of this is that in a “temporary assistance” situation, if you do a little planning and apply common sense, you’ll all get home safely.

Until next time, we wish you clear skies, fair winds and calm seas!


World Wide Marine Training, LLC, is a U.S. Coast Guard Approved facility authorized to give examinations for captain’s licenses up to Master 200 Tons, Able Seaman up to Unlimited, STCW Basic Training, Radar, ARPA and other Endorsements. Please visit or call toll-free 866-249-2135.