Boat Towing Claims Analysis

By Charles Fort

"Had to get towed in," is not the response you want to give when asked about your weekend. We've analyzed five years of towing claims so you can make sure your answer is "awesome!"

Line toss from TowBoatUS boat

Last year, more than 70,000 of you (and some of you more than once) — you know who you are! — called for on-water assistance from TowBoatUS You guys in Florida, California, and Texas who can boat year-round really keep the phone ringing with almost a third of all calls, and you sailors seem to find all the shallows. But everyone can learn a few things about why boats get towed.

While getting towed is much more likely to turn out to be a long, boring afternoon than a dramatic salvage or life-threatening situation, no one wants to be on the wrong end of a towline.

Frequency By Cause

It's no surprise to learn that mechanical breakdown is the number-one cause for a tow, and those calls comprise more than half the calls for service. But if you think it's just engine breakdowns that are the reason, think again. Steering systems, transmissions, fuel systems, and even lost props are all examples of mechanical breakdown. Grounding is the second most common cause for a tow and is often caused by operator inattention. Having good charts and knowing how to use them can keep you out of trouble.

Towing claims by cause chart

Dead batteries from running lights, radios, pumps, and stereos (or from keeping batteries past their usable life) are common problems, too. Consider also switching light bulbs to LED. With more electrical demands on modern boats, it's more likely a boat will run down its batteries and not be able to start the engine. Running out of fuel is also a major cause for a tow, often due to faulty or inaccurate fuel gauges. Trying to push the limits of your range is a sure way to find out that it's not quite as far as you thought. Engine overheats round out the top five reasons for towing service calls. Failed water pump impellers are a prime cause, along with corroded manifolds, clogged intakes, and collapsed hoses.

Frequency By Boat Size

Big boats get towed more often than small ones, and boats over 28 feet comprise more than a third of towing calls. Larger boats have bigger, more complicated engines and transmissions, steering systems, and fuel systems that tend to be fussier without the proper maintenance. Bigger boats and sailboats with keels also draw more water and can get caught where smaller ones wouldn't, and their running gear hangs down farther in the water, which can be damaged by shallows, necessitating a tow.

Towing claims by boat length chart

Frequency By State

Folks in Florida are at the top of the list with 18 percent of the calls for towing service coming from there. Part of the reason is likely that the weather is conducive to year-round boating, and it's such a great place to boat that lots of inexperienced people are out on the water — learning and having fun. New folks may not have a good grasp of navigation, and their boat maintenance skills may not be up to par. There are also plenty of shifting shoals to get boaters into trouble.

Towing claims by state chart

The number two spot goes to New York and at number three is California, another place with year-round boating. The rougher waters of the Pacific Ocean might be a factor in mixing up crud in the fuel tank that strangles engines.

North Carolina and New Jersey round out the top five.

Frequency By Month

July is the high season for tows. In fact, the week of July 4 is the busiest of the year for TowBoatUS May and June (springtime) and July and August (summer) are when boats break down most. In the springtime, a recommissioning plan can help you avoid a breakdown, and regular inspections and maintenance in summer can help prevent a tow.

Towing claims by month chart

Boat Types

Power cruisers are the most likely to call for a tow and make up two-thirds of all calls. Fiberglass boats last a long time, and there are huge numbers of 20-, 30-, and even 40-year-old powerboats still happily cruising. But a lot of these boats have old equipment that's aging, too. Thirty-year-old wiring may be getting corrosion issues, 20-year-old fuel lines are past their lifespan, and older equipment is just more subject to failure, leading to a tow.

Sailboats tend to run aground more and need a tow off due to their draft requirements. Runabouts are simpler boats, and when they have a mechanical failure, it's most often associated with their engines or dead batteries.

There's no shame in calling for a tow, but now that you know what we know about towing claims, you stand a much better chance of answering "Awesome!" the next time you're asked how your last boating excursion went.  

— Published: February/March 2018


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