Top 5 Reasons Boats Get Towed

By Charles Fort

BoatUS claims data can tell us why, but we don't like to point out problems without solutions. A towing expert shares what you can do to avoid these situations altogether.

Distressed boater

When member John Fincham left the dock for a day of fishing for walleye on Lake Erie, he thought the engine in his 21-footer sounded a little slow when he started it. But once underway, everything seemed fine. Walleye fishing, says Fincham, is better on windy days, and that day was no exception. After a few successful hours of fishing, Fincham killed the engine and drifted while he ate some lunch. When the motion became too much, he decided it was time to head home with his catch. But this time, twisting the key produced nothing more than some clicks. Fincham said that his stomach dropped and he felt momentary panic. Fortunately, he carries a portable VHF radio. He hailed the local TowBoatUS port and gave his position from his handheld GPS.

"I was 7 or 8 miles offshore with a building sea, and the sun was already starting to go down. I'm usually pretty prepared, so I felt pretty stupid having a dead battery so far from shore." The tow back to his marina took a while, which gave Fincham time to reflect on how to make sure he didn't break down again on the water. We can help. Every year, the BoatUS Towing Dispatch center gets over 70,000 calls for assistance. Almost 90 percent of those fall into five categories: mechanical breakdown, running aground, dead battery, out of fuel, and engine overheating. In the article "Boat Towing Claims Analysis", we'll break down some stats on the who, how, when, and where, but here we'll tell you the why — and how to avoid a tow.

1. Mechanical Breakdown: 54%

Boat engines, transmissions, and drives have a lot of moving parts, which helps explain why more than half of TowBoatUS towing calls are for mechanical breakdown. Jeff Dziedzic, who operates TowBoatUS Mystic out of Mystic, Connecticut, says engine failures are a large percentage of tows, but other mechanical parts fail, too, leaving boaters stranded.

"We received a call from a sailor who was in the Mystic River when his steering failed. It was a busy Saturday, and when we told him it could be as long as 40 minutes to get to him, he nearly panicked. Because he had no way to navigate, we advised him to drop his anchor until we arrived," said Dziedzic. This brings up a good point: Because you may have to wait to get towed in, Dziedzic recommends that you have an anchor aboard and know how to use it.

Sometimes, he says, a problem can be solved without sending out a towboat. "If an engine alarm goes off but the engine seems fine, shut it down and start it again. It might just need a quick reset," he says. Dziedzic says his crew knows that during windy, choppy conditions, calls for service will increase, especially for sailboats. The reason? Choppy waters stir up junk in fuel tanks and clog filters. Sailboats, he says, usually don't go through fuel very fast, so tanks tend to accumulate crud. Keep a spare filter on hand and know how to replace it.

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Dziedzic's best advice is to make sure your engine is serviced regularly.

"You can't schedule a breakdown, but you can schedule maintenance that can prevent it." It also helps to have some basic knowledge that will help you fix a few common issues, such as a broken drive belt or water pump impeller, a blown fuse, or a corroded connection.

Also, Dziedzic says, have a working GPS aboard so you can give your position. Even better, he says, is the BoatUS app, which can call the BoatUS 24-hour Dispatch Center for assistance and send your position automatically to the dispatcher. Dziedzic says that often, when someone calls for a tow, he'll have the person download the app, if they can, and simply press the "Call for a Tow" button, simplifying the process.

2. Running Aground: 12%

The article "What Happens When You Run Aground And How To Avoid It" discusses the causes of running aground, which centered on distraction. Not paying attention to where you are and not looking at your charts is the surest way to get stuck on the bottom. But a study we did last year brought up some additional factors. Some, like the deeper your draft, the more likely you'll experience a grounding, are pretty intuitive; in a study of which boats run aground, sailboats topped the frequency list, with trawlers coming in second. But speed is a factor, too, because faster boats have less time to react to shallows. And some boats may not have their depth sounders calibrated properly and end up in shallower water than they thought.

Sailboat being towed after running agroundRunning aground is one of the most common reasons to call for a tow. Having a chart and knowing where you are — and where the dangers are — is the surest way to avoid being stranded.

While running aground is one of the main causes for calling for a tow, it can be much more. Dziedzic says that running aground can cause serious damage to the boat and its running gear, and can even sink it. "Slow down if you don't know where you are," says Dziedzic. Running hard aground is often more serious than a simple tow and might mean the difference between a tow and a far more expensive salvage.

3. Dead Battery: 9%

Batteries have a shelf life, though it can vary by years depending on how they're treated. Dziedzic says that many times calls for dead batteries come from boaters who are trying to get a little more time out of a fading battery. "Some boaters know their battery is weak but just haven't gotten around to replacing it," he says. "Sometimes batteries die because boaters leave on the radios (stereos and VHFs) or maybe a baitwell aerator, which take a lot of power over time." Dziedzic recommends checking your battery (charge level, electrolyte level, connections) once a month. Don't take the chance that it will die right when you need it. If it's getting weak, replace it. Nearly all batteries are marked with their manufacture date or warranty start date, and wet-cell batteries typically last five years or fewer on a boat. If you're prone to dead batteries, it might be a good idea to take along a small jump pack.

TowboatUS San Diego delivers battery

4. Out Of Fuel: 9%

Running out of fuel on the water is more serious than in your car. Not only can you start drifting into danger, you can't simply walk down the road to the nearest gas station to get more. According to Dziedzic, calls for running out of fuel are frequently due to erratic or nonfunctioning fuel-sending units. "If you normally fill up every week, but it seems like you're getting a lot more miles out of your tank, it's probably not because your engine suddenly got a lot more efficient. Suspect your fuel gauge," Dziedzic says. Pulling a tube or skier, excess idle time, and even foul weather can drain the tank faster than you think. Don't put off fueling up because you think you can "probably make it." The rule of thumb for fuel use that's served navigators and aviators well for decades is one-third of your fuel to your destination, one-third back home, and one-third in reserve.

Fuel can drop by TowBoatUSRough weather or pulling a skier or tube can drastically increase fuel consumption. Keep a close eye on your gauge. If your fuel gauge is not functioning (a common problem), get it fixed before you get stranded.

5. Overheated Engine: 4%

Dziedzic says that, in his experience, this is really a subset of mechanical breakdown, because an overheated engine is often caused by a failed water pump. Rubber impellers don't last forever, and to be safe, they should be replaced at least every two seasons.

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In most engines, it's a fairly simple DIY job. Do it once or twice at the dock and have the tools onboard so you can replace them on the water, and you might be the hero of the day. It's not just water pump failures that cause overheated engine though; clogged intakes and corroded exhaust manifolds, slipping or failed belts, and old hoses that collapse under suction can all cause an engine to overheat.

If your engine suddenly seems to be operating at a higher temperature than normal, you need to find out why and address it — it's probably not going to get better.

Now that you know the most common ways to avoid getting towed home, hopefully you won't find yourself on the other end of a towline. But boating can be unpredictable, and that's what TowBoatUS is for. 

— Published: February/March 2018


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