Towing with your Tender
These three techniques help you safely move your boat when the engine, or the wind, doesn’t cooperate.
Although the modern marine engine has become very reliable, at some inopportune time, as with all mechanical devices, it may fail. Or you may find yourself in a position to help another sailor whose boat is disabled. Or you may find yourself becalmed in a less-than-ideal situation. Becoming proficient at the three primary towing configurations here will give you confidence that you can safely and efficiently handle these situations.
Much can be learned from professional seamen. Many of the finest boathandlers in the world are tugboat captains. The scale is different, but the techniques that they’ve developed for moving ships and barges are the same ones that cruising sailors use for towing and docking disabled boats.
Most sailboats today carry inflatable tenders with outboard motors of reasonable power to move the boat. A 10-foot inflatable tender with an 8-horsepower motor can easily maneuver a 50-foot boat in moderate conditions. In calm conditions, much less power will do the job. The first step is to have your tender, whether it’s a small inflatable or a hard dinghy, set up for the task. Inflatable tenders should be at their maximum recommended pressure. On our 11-foot inflatable RIB tender, we have 18 feet of 1/2-inch braided nylon for the bow line, several 12-foot lengths of 1/2-inch braided nylon that can be used as spring lines, a 5/8-inch braided nylon towing bridle with a stainless-steel snap on one end, and 100 feet of 5/8-inch braided nylon for the towline. The size and strength of the lines depend on the size and horsepower of the tender. Braided nylon makes a good choice because of its superior combination of strength, stretch, and chafe resistance. We also carry on board a sharp sheath knife should a line need to be cut in an emergency.
If the need arises (and it has), we can quickly hitch up and move a boat using any of these three configurations. When pushing or towing, always wear a life vest, preferably a work or sport style that’s comfortable and doesn’t inhibit movement.
The Side Tow, or On the Hip
The best method for short tows in calm to moderate conditions where you’ll be docking the boat and are unlikely to encounter large wakes from passing vessels is the side tow, known in the commercial world as “on the hip.” First decide which side of the boat you’ll put next to the dock, then hitch up on the other side. Set up fenders for the tender; secure them alongside as shown in Diagram 1. The tender should be as far aft as the boat’s shape allows.
Sailboats with long stern overhangs won’t allow you to hitch up as far aft, but if the tender’s motor is aft of the boat’s rudder, maneuverability will be adequate. Double-enders tow well on the hip as the tender is able to push nearer to the boat’s centerline. On the hip doesn’t work well with catamarans.
Lines should be snug and secured properly to cleats in such a way that they won’t bind. It’s very important to be able to release lines in a hurry if a large wake should approach or you need to rapidly reconfigure. If towing in limited visibility or where other boats may be operating, give a sécurité call on VHF 16 with your description, location, and intended course. The last thing you want to encounter is a big sport-fishing boat roaring by unaware of your situation. As you begin towing, be aware that because you’re off center, extreme leeway will develop. The helmsman will need to crab the boat to make good on your desired course. As a reasonable speed is attained, the boat’s underbody will get a better “grip” on the water, and holding course will become less difficult. Until close-in maneuvering is required, steering should be done with the boat. Oversteering with the tender will make holding a course difficult. If the tow is configured as in Diagram 1, rapid turns can easily be made to port. Turning to starboard will be much slower and have a large turning radius. If a rapid turn to starboard is required, put the tender in neutral or even in reverse, allowing the boat’s momentum to carry it through the turn. This ability to crab the boat will greatly facilitate coming dockside. The key is to plan ahead and to get a feeling for the boat’s forward momentum and your ability to control and stop it. Always “test the brakes” prior to docking. Approach the dock (see Diagram 2) at an angle of between 30 and 45 degrees, keeping the bow pointed at the midpoint of the space on the dock where you want to end up. You should maintain only enough speed for steerage. Just before the bow of the boat reaches the dock, put the tender in reverse. As the boat continues to slow and stop, the bow moves out and the stern pivots in. This is a very satisfying maneuver when done properly. If you have to back the boat into a slip, reconfigure as in Diagram 3. If docking in a strong current, always plan your approach and final maneuver so that you’re pushing into the current. It can be used to your advantage when crabbing into a tight spot.
Pushing from Astern
Pushing from astern is my preferred method for covering longer distances in moderate conditions when good control is required, as in a waterway or a harbor’s entrance channel. In Maine’s Penobscot Bay, many of the passenger schooners have no engines. The crew rely on their tenders, or yawlboats, to push them in and out of the harbor in calm conditions. They have become very skilled at handling these large and beautiful vessels in this manner.
Pushing the boat from astern, as in Diagram 4, is efficient because you’re pushing from the boat’s centerline, eliminating the need to crab. Depending on what type of stern your boat has, this method can be used in rougher conditions than the side tow. Some sailboats have extreme reverse or scoop transoms that make pushing awkward. Self-steering gear, boarding ladders, and stern-hung rudders can also preclude this method. It does work well for most boats, however.
As in all hitch-ups, ensure that lines are secured in a way that can easily and rapidly be unhitched or adjusted. The spring lines must be tight and well secured, as they carry a lot of strain when turning. The unexpected release of one of these lines when turning poses a danger to the tender operator, as the tender will quickly scoot to one side, possibly tripping and throwing the skipper overboard. Pushing should be steady, with the outboard centered. Most motors have steering dampers that can easily be adjusted. It’s worth setting it so that the motor doesn’t swing easily on its own.