Joe Boater Gives a Tow

Oh, Joe, everyone needs a tow sometime! Engine failure is the most common reason for needing a tow. It’s happened to you, it’s happened to your friends, and you hear about it while monitoring VHF channel 16. It is never convenient and the saying, “it is better to give than receive,” usually applies. There are tow companies available, but unless you have the insurance, it is an expensive service. Also, depending on the location of the tow company, it is not the fastest or easiest solution to a breakdown. Sometimes, the most practical remedy is a passing boater who maybe has been in a similar circumstance, who doesn’t mind taking a line and making life a little bit easier for someone. It’s good boater karma. Who doesn’t need that?

Joe, you have been enjoying an afternoon sail in the Sound, working the sea breeze along the coast. As the evening progresses, the wind fades, and you call it a day, heading up Shilshole Channel to the Ballard Locks. You arrive at the locks just as the gates open and outbound boats are exiting. Great, this means you should be able to head right in without a wait, or so you hope. You circle, awaiting the green light to enter the locks. Finally, the last boat exits but seems to be drifting rather than under power. Then…..the gates close. Ugh. Checking the time, you see it’s just before 9pm. OK, this means the locks close for 15 minutes while the attendants corral the visitors from the park. Though the Ballard Locks operate 24 hours a day, the public space around them closes at 9pm. So be it.

Meanwhile, the last exiting boat, an 18-foot daysailer with one teenager, one young child about age 10 and one adult onboard appears to be adrift in the channel where the outbound current runs a good knot or so. They don’t have their motor on, they don’t have their sails up, and there aren’t any paddles to be seen. You then hear a Mayday call on VHF channel 16, loud and clear. Huh? Oh, it’s the daysailer. You’re not sure this should be a Mayday situation, but it is a clue that the people on board lack experience. They shout over to you “We don’t have any power, the motor won’t start.” You have to wait for the locks anyway, there is a child on board, and their incompetence is pathetic, so you ask, “Where are you going?” “Shilshole Marina,” they say. “Would you like me to give you a tow?” you ask. “Yes, that would be great.”

It appears to be the teenager’s boat. The adult could be the father, but he mostly defers to the teenager. The child is very excited and continuously talking. As they pass you the line for the tow, the child asks in amazement, “Are you the only one on that boat?” After securing the tow line to the stern cleat, you suggest the teenager cancel the Mayday call. You also follow up on channel 16, announcing you have the vessel in tow and there is not an emergency.

Shilshole Marina is a half mile away, and they are going to C dock, which is on the closest end to the locks. The teenager appears to have been given a slip assignment but does not have any familiarity with where he needs to go. Fortunately, you do, and approaching the slip, explain to them you will cast off the line and momentum should carry them in. There is no wind, and you suggest if they have a paddle, it would be a good time to have it ready. They ease into the slip safely. The child, who is still talking, asks, “do we owe you anything?” Your answer is “no,” and you head back to the locks.

This is the first tow Joe has ever given. While inconvenient, at his own expense of time and fuel, it was the good samaritan thing to do. It has given him a new boating experience. He could sympathize as he needed a tow several years back and could just as likely need one in the future. Still, he can’t help but shake his head. He did not have the full story, but it appears the boat was new to them and the motor, an unknown. Having a child on board was not the most responsible thing to do. They, at least, had a working radio on board, even if they didn’t know the proper way to use it. Since they claimed to have a paddle on board, why wasn’t it used to get the boat over to the waiting pier outside of the locks? There, they could have secured the boat to collect their thoughts and devise a plan. Why hadn’t the teenager done some reconnaissance at the marina beforehand, to know precisely where he needed to go?

Joe hopes the experience has taught the teenager a thing or two. The teenager can be excused, while the adult, less so. They were very fortunate that Joe was there and the circumstance could not have played out any more convenient for them. It seems unlikely they had tow insurance, and if they required Vessel Assist to give them a tow, the bill would have exceeded $600, and taken much longer. Of course, that might have better taught them a lesson!

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