"I have an idea for a column you should write," said the retirement-aged stranger across the bar. I just nodded and waited politely because every idea has merit and occasionally a bit of true genius floats my way. "You should write about the highway robbery that is going on with these tow boats!"
"Oh really, is this a personal experience of which you speak?" I don't really talk like that, but it looks good in print. Anyway, my encouragement brought his lady companion and him over to my side of the bar and a tale of woe, the likes I've heard a hundred times before, was spewed forth in a passionate fashion.
He had been returning from a luncheon outing some 20 miles south of his homeport when a low oil warning alarm went off. It was unclear if he shut down the engine as his lady friend remembered the incident or the engine shut itself down but he was afraid to start it for fear of ruining his new boat and motor.
"I called a local towing company, and they towed us in and then relieved me of $800!" Which of course he thought was "highway robbery," but was really a fairly normal bill for that long of a tow late in the day.
"Did you have towing insurance," I asked meekly, because just asking such a question to a knowledgeable boater could be considered a huge insult to his boater's intellect.
"I'd never heard of that before," said the gentleman, but at that same moment the woman was shaking her head.
"Now snook-ums, you remember that free 90-day membership the dealer gave us"
"That was just a come-on for some type of insurance," he said before he returned to his seat across the bar. The women smiled sheepishly and followed him.
I guess it's time for a little background for the landlubbers who read this column. Prior to 1981, the United States Coast Guard would tow your boat home for free. A few boaters, but only a few took advantage of the nice Coasties and were often rescued and towed in by some very expensive equipment.
But then the Congress relieved the United States Coast Guard of towing in non-distress boating incidents. In other words, your boat had to be sinking and lives were at stake before they came out to bring you, but maybe not your boat, home.
That policy change left the door open for small businesses to fill the void and a bunch of towing companies entered the field. There wasn't a noticeable loss of service, just a BIG change in financial responsibility. In the beginning, the hourly rate varied between $50 and $100 per hour, which sounded reasonable to most stranded boaters, until they read the small print.
That rate included the time it took to get the tow boat to the disabled vessel, deliver said disabled vessel to a safe dock, and it included the time it took for the tow boat to return to its home dock. So a boat floundering 10 miles offshore might have a bill of a several hundred dollars or more. The more difficult the circumstances, the higher the bill.
In response to the shouting of, "This is highway robbery," BoatUS began offering $50 of towing insurance with its membership and that took the sting out of many small bills. SeaTow and they began offering larger packages as hourly rates went up and distances increased. They eventually offered a complete towing package for under $100, which included unlimited towing.
I've often said that that is the best money a boater can spend for peace of mind. I understood that my newfound acquaintance didn't want to hear about it, so I asked politely what was wrong with his motor?
"The dammed wire came off the sensor," he replied. I must have had a stupefied look on my face when he said, "How was I to know I'm no mechanic?"
After a few minutes I thanked him for the idea for the column. I was mistaken in assuming that every boater knew about the expense of towing and towing insurance after 23 years. I hope he learned a lesson but I didn't ask him which group he joined because I didn't want to get him started again.
For your info, the phone number for Towboat US is 800-395-2628 and SeaTow is 800-473-2869! If you don't have it, get it now! Boat safe and send questions and comments to this publication or boatguiEd@aol.com.