Why are so many boaters having bad days with the towing and salvage companies?
By Ben Ellison — April 2003
In our January issue, my article “Bad Day at Hillsboro” described how a boater who damaged his running gear on a South Florida reef got help from his towing company—help he presumed was completely covered by his membership—and then was shocked when the one-hour tow was treated as a salvage claim, which his insurance company quickly settled for $30,000. We’ve received a tremendous number of letters and e-mails about this story, many of which suggest that the incident illustrates a widespread problem in our boating community.
It would be hard to overstate the level of anger some skippers have toward the towing services. Here’s a typical comment, as capitalized by the writer:
DO NOT EVER CALL FOR OR EVEN TALK TO [so and so towing company in such and such harbor]; THEY ARE CROOKS!
This writer is apparently quite willing to have his full name, and that of the specific towing company, published in a national magazine; that’s how strongly he feels. But our purpose here is to discuss the general issues of towing and salvage, and in doing so we’re going to dispense with the real names of individuals and companies.
Almost needless to say, many of the angry writers spoke of experiences similar to the Hillsboro incident. A New Englander described how a tower tried to drag his 40-foot cruiser off a river bar by its anchor windlass, despite his protests. After ripping a hole in his deck, the tower successfully tried the skipper’s original suggestion—a strap around the stern. The tower supposedly promised to repair the damage but instead sent a bill for $18,000. After three years the resulting suit and countersuit are still in litigation.
A Great Lakes boater says he was almost within sight of his yacht club—definitely within VHF and cellular range of voluntary help from friends—but didn’t think twice about calling his towing service to get pulled off a sand bar. The towing skipper could easily have radioed his salvage intentions but left it to the young mate he put aboard the grounded boat, who “mumbled something about salvage and not to worry because my insurance company would take care of it.” But this boater has refused to submit the resulting bill to his insurer or pay it himself. He did let us print it here (see page 94) so that you can see some of the details that may come up in litigation. Was it sand or a dangerous shoal? Was the weather “relatively calm with a chance of thunderstorms,” as the boater claims, or were there “severe storm warnings” posted, as stated on the invoice? These are the details that distinguish the “imminent peril” that would justify salvage from a “soft grounding” situation that is supposedly covered by a towing membership.
This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.