Wednesday, December 26, 2007

TWIC for Christmas

Wow, that was fast! I had my TWIC enrollment appointment on 12/12/07, and I got an email that my TWIC was ready for pick-up on 12/21/07. Nine days! So, I was down there today, and picked up my TWIC, which didn't take very long - about 20 minutes. You once again have to bring some ID, and then they activate the card, which programs all your data on to a little chip that is embedded in the card itself. During the activation, you choose a seven to nine digit number as your PIN, and that also gets programmed onto the card. And they give you a very fancy hard plastic case so your TWIC doesn't get damaged when you are wearing it. The case and neck lanyard alone must be worth about $10.

So, the card can be used for secure entry in a variety of ways: you might swipe the card like a credit card, and then have to enter your PIN into a keypad. OR, you might just have to show the card to a live security guard, OR, some locations might have a machine that reads the chip on the card, in which case your finger print would scanned and matched to the biometric data on the card, OR, some other combination and permutations of all the above.

I wonder if I'll ever actually use this thing, other than as an ID when I'm passing through airport security...

I got my renewed USCG license in the mail on 12/21/07; also nine days. So, kudos to the Dept of Homeland Security for speedy service.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

UPDATE: Tandem tow anyone?

Remember this blog I posted back in August about the two boats needing assistance, and the story that one boat got left behind and a family spent the night in the water? Here is a quote from the original story:

Shortly before 4 p.m. Aug. 18, a commercial salvage company had been assisting two vessels that had reportedly run out of gas. Upon towing in one of the vessels, when the salvage company returned to tow the other vessel in they were unable to relocate the vessel and then notified the Coast Guard..... The crew of the Falcon located a 25-foot vessel with one person aboard and dropped food, water and a VHF marine radio. Upon establishing communication with the individual through the use of that radio, the person informed the Coast Guard that his vessel began taking on water the last evening and four persons abandoned the vessel around midnight.

Well, the above quoted article didn't quite have the story correct. The actual scenario was far more complicated than that. Here is a more accurate description of the events, from Soundings Magazine November 2007 [read the entire article here]:

The drama began to unfold late Saturday afternoon, Aug. 18, says Capt. Don Cramer, of BoatU.S. Marco Island. That’s when the Coast Guard alerted him to a disabled boat whose skipper had called them for help. The boat’s engine had died and the skipper couldn’t get it started again. Cramer says he couldn’t raise the boat by VHF radio — he believes the skipper was carrying a handheld VHF — so the Coast Guard relayed the boat’s GPS coordinates. Cramer dispatched a towboat about 5 p.m. As the towboat headed out to the vessel’s reported position the Coast Guard advised Cramer of a second disabled boat, which had run out of gas two miles south of the first.

Cramer believes the two boats had gone out fishing together, probably at a communications tower off Cape Romano, because they were in cell phone contact with each other. The skipper of the first boat called the Coast Guard and told them the other boat was in trouble, too. However, the position the skipper gave the Coast Guard now was about 20 miles from the earlier one he had provided. Cramer told his tow captain to make a swing south because the second boat — a 25-footer — had children aboard, and should be rescued first if possible. The tow captain couldn’t find the 25-footer, but he did find the first one and took it under tow.
Then Cramer went out to look for the second boat. Meanwhile, conditions had begun to deteriorate. Winds were....

So, my suggestion that this might have been a chance to conduct a tandem tow was based on completely erroneous information. The true story turned out to be far more complicated and filled with communication breakdowns, nightfall and deteriorating weather. I highly recommend reading the Soundings article.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Easy TWIC'ins

As I promised in my previous post, here is a quick report on progress to get my TWIC. I began by using the Internet to 'Pre-Enroll', and to make an appointment at the closest TWIC enrollment center. All of this is done in conjunction with renewing my USCG Masters license.

The TWIC center was easy to find, in part because the Internet offers a "map it" link when making an appointment. I arrived a few minutes early, and was given a simple questionnaire to fill out; basically some Yes/No check boxes about past criminal activity.

After a brief wait, I was escourted to a table with a nice lady who began by collecting the $132.50 fee. Payment with credit card is encouraged. NO CASH is accepted. The receipt says you just paid Lockheed Martin. So, now we know who the sub-contractor is.

Now, here is where the Pre-Enrollment comes in. When you finished pre-enrolling online, you were instructed to print out a single page that has your name and a large bar code printed on it. You bring that page to the TWIC center with you. They scan your page, and all of information about you that you entered on the internet is now right there. Your name, address, SSN, date of birth, etc, just zip right up on the screen. This saves time, as the nice lady doesn't have to type all this in again; she just shows you the info on a computer screen, and you confirm that it is correct.

Now, you get electronically fingerprinted. No more messy ink pads. They take a lot of prints, but it only takes a few minutes to do.

Finally, you sit for a quick digital photo (presumably this photo will appear on your actual TWIC card). No smiling allowed. No really, you are not allowed to smile for the TWIC photo. If you don't like the first photo, ask them to take another. I blinked on my first try, and she took a second one.

That it. the whole process at the enrollment center only took 10 minutes. Perhaps this is because its all run by a private company and not government employess.

One reminder to you, these folks are very serious about your identity and proof of citizenship. A current US Passport is the only document you need here, but if you don't have one of those, be sure you check the list of acceptable documents.

So, now I wait a few weeks while the TSA and DHS calculate the likelyhood that I intend to blow something up, and then they call me and I have to go back in person to pick up my TWIC. That is the one unavoidable objection to this entire process; you have to make two trips to the TWIC center. For me, its a two hour drive each way. For some of you, it will probably be worse.

Once I finished there, I went over to the USCG Regional Exam Center to file my license renewal application. They had to do three things: take my money ($95.00), take my fingerprints, and check that I had filled out my paperwork properly. Total time at REC: about 1.5 hours.

At both stops, I inquired about how this process might be streamlined for professional mariners. And if there were plans to perhaps join the expiration dates of TWICs and licenses.....mostly I received blank stares and polite shurgs in reply.

DEADLINE NOTE: The deadline for getting TWIC'ed is Sept 25, 2008.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Be TWICs and between.

Well, the TWICs are coming, and theres nothing you can do to stop 'em. TWIC stands for Transportion Worker Idenification Credential. Everyone with a USCG License will have to get one. The actual deadline is a little unclear to me, but my ticket is up for renewal this spring, so I have started the process of getting TWICed. (rhymes with kicked)

Here is a link to the TWIC home page on the internet:

The first order of business is to Pre-Enroll on the internet. This is not manditory, but highly recommended. I went through the pre-enrollment process, and it is very easy. Basically, you complete a few forms on-line that collect your basic data like date of birth, SSN, address, etc.

Then, when you are ready, you make an appointment at your local TWIC center, (which one figures in military speak would be TWICCEN). Making the appointment on-line was also very easy, but only after you have created an 'account' and done the pre-enrollment. I couldn't find my local TWICCEN on the public web pages, but once I logged in to 'my account', the link to the closest centers was very easy, and making the appointment was as simple as one click of the mouse.

So, next week I go to the center and actually go through the application process. I'll keep you posted on developments. In the mean time, take 20 minutes and browse the web link I posted above. The FAQs are very infomative.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

3 stories, 1 thread Google news search came up with three very different news articles today, but as I perused them, I began to wonder how these situations are connected in some way. First off is the story of a 70' SkipperLiner that floundered along the Gulf Coast. (link to story) Basically, a brand new boat sinks because of waves hitting her broadside and the air vents are way too close to the waterline, and the bilge pumps in this brand new boat can't keep with that, and the delivery captain doesn't point the boat into the waves, and on and on....meanwhile, I assume that this boat is insured, and the underwriter is probably going to suffer a huge loss after only collecting one or two premium installments (it was a new boat, so a new policy).

Next up is a story (link to story) about a really nice little sailboat that was uninsured and ran up into some shallow water, and her owner appears to be walking away from the whole thing. Officials are contemplating fines, and even though the boat has fuel and oil onboard, the Coast Guard is quoted as saying "The case is closed...." Meanwhile, a salvor already has some time invested, now with very little hope of getting paid, and the shores of Milwaukee risk spoilage from the wreckage.

Finally, the last article (link to story) is about a company that is just finishing up removing 73 derelicts from Florida's waters, getting paid with public funds. And I wonder, how many of those derelicts were insured? Did the insurance companies pay off a claim for loss? The story indicates that most of these boats were lost as a result of 2004 & 2005 hurricanes, so HIN #s or registration numbers could possibly lead to finding the owners? I think of 73 derelict boats as the same as an oil spill from a huge tanker. Its a public hazard that was created by private interests, and the taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for clean-up. When the oil industry has a spill, the funds to clean it up come from them and their pollution underwriters (more here). Why should recreational boats be any different?

All three stories in one day. The common thread is somewhat tortured I guess, but somewhere in all this is a theme that is destined to become more familiar as time goes on. When a boat is uninsured and worthless, who should pay to dispose of it? When a boat is insured and worthless, who should pay to dispose of it? Why do insurance companies continue to write policies for boats like that SkipperLiner, or at the very least demand some competent operation, so that those boats don't become part of the second or third story? Unlike automobiles, whose parts can be harvested from even total wrecks and therefore almost always retain some economic value, sunken & derelict boats are almost instantly worthless, and certainly not worth the effort to raise them.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Proof the K factor works

Remember this blog back in July where I posted a chart and the formula for calculating submerged weight? The chart shows a simple mulitplier, called the "K Factor". Well, Ham Gale and I had a perfect opportunity to prove out the theory back in October up in Annapolis. A Soling sank in about 30 feet of water. According to this spec sheet

the Soling displaces 2277 lbs. Because Soling's are usually dry sailed (stored on a trailer), they are equipped with four short cables that remain attached to the keel bolts, and the entire boat is designed to be lifted by these cables (how handy for us salvage divers, huh?). So, I was able to access the lifting cables down there in 30 feet of cloudy Chesapeake Bay, and attach a single 2000lb lift bag. Both Ham and I were pretty confident that the 2000# bag would bring the 2277# boat to the surface.

Guess what? Here it is, after the initial lift, hanging by one single 2000# lift bag, just barely submerged. Notice that the lift bag is well out of the water, which means that at this point it is generating significantly less than 2000# of lift. Solings do not have any internal floatation, other than two small compartments (one fore, one aft under the decks) that are supposed to be kept closed. The reason this boat sank is that the skipper had failed to close the forward one. They are not really water tight compartments; but it would take a while for water to seep in there in the event of a capsize. When we hauled the boat at the crane, we found both compartments totally flooded.
Lets do the math. Unfortunately, I don't find a seperate listing of how much ballast they carry, but lets say its 1/3 of the total, which means that the keel weighs about 750# The K Factor for lead is .91, so 750# of lead submerged will only need 682# of lift. Lets say the mast, boom & rigging weighs 200#. In the picture, you'll notice that virtually all the mast and rig is out of the water, so we'll leave its weight at 200#, because we're going to lift it completely out of the water.
Now, the remaining fiberglass hull would weigh 1327# dry. Multiply the K Factor for fiberglass of .33, and the hull only needs about 440# of lift.
Lets add it together: 440 for the hull, 682 for the lead keel, and 200 for the rig = 1322# of lift calculated to bring this mass to the surface. Look once again at the picture; doesn't it look like about one third of the bag is out of the water? That leaves two thirds of a 2000# bag creating lift. Lets see, two thirds of 2000 is 1320!
IT WORKS! (thanks to Capt Cory Deere of TowBoat/US Annapolis for the nice picture. And thanks Ham for the nice day's work!)

Monday, November 12, 2007

File under "Challenging Tows"

Here is a picture of the USCGC DEPENDABLE towing the Nantucket Shoal Buoy, which was blown off station by storm NOEL...imagine the difficulty just getting the towline hooked up between a large steel buoy and a 210' Cutter? How fast can you tow a buoy? The crew of the DEPENDABLE did an excellent job of improvising in a situation that is probably not covered in the ops manual.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Run-a-way again in FLA

Yet another story about boaters and a run-away boat.

Hats off to the SeaTow captain who did the rescue. Now, if can only find out how the Sherriff stopped the runaway....

Monday, October 22, 2007

Book Review: Public Safety Diving

A friend of mine recently gave me a book as a gift, "Public Safety Diving" by Walt Butch Hendrick & Andrea Zaferes. While this book was written for government agencies like fire/rescue and law enforcement, it offers some excellent advice that pertains to those of us engaged in wreck removal and salvage diving. The sections on equipment, back-up divers, and effective search techniques are especially useful and enlightening. Scroll down to order from

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mangled MARBs

So there I am, cruising (perhaps I should say "toodling"?) down the coast of New Jersey, and I'm bored, so I follow a call for assistance over to channel 22. As I listen to the confusion only the CG seems capable of adding to a simple non-emergency assistance case, I nearly fell off the helm chain when I heard CG Atlantic City ask for the mariner's BOAT/US membership number!

Perhaps the CG would like to mail out the renewal notices from now on? This was not just a matter of getting lost in the MARB flow chart; the word "membership" does not exist in the policy, and I for one think we should insist that it remain that way. The USCG is not your dispatcher, they shouldn't offer to be your dispatcher, and you shouldn't ask them to be your dispatcher. With the exception of some rare cases with very difficult communications, the CG should not be requesting membership information from disabled boaters.

As long as we're on the subject, here is another peeve of mine: "Do you have commercial salvage?" I hear that question from the Coast Guard to disabled mariners far too often. Invariably, the question is asked at some point during what should be a nice, clean-cut MARB proceedure. Is is just me, or are the CG radio operators getting really sloppy?

First of all, "Do you have commercial salvage" isn't even grammatically correct. One could have a contract with a commercial salvor, and one could have a membership with a commercial assitance organization, but salvage is a verb (the word commercial is just a modifier), its not something you could own or 'have', which would be a noun.

The problem is that even if I cut them some grammatical slack (less than my 4th grade english teacher would have), a MARB has nothing whatsoever to do with membership. The criteria is pretty simple: emergency or NON-emergency. The MSAP decision flow chart is completely void of any mention of cost, financial arrangements, memberships, etc; and correctly so. Once the CG has determined that they are not responding, they should ask the following:

"Is there a friend, marina or commercial assistance provider you would like us to contact on your behalf?" (see USCG SAR Mission Coordinator Maritime Assistance Decision Flow Chart).

The industry has worked hard to differentiate between salvage and non-emergency towing and assistance. Indeed, the memberships expressly exclude salvage services. The question "do you have commercial salvage" not only obliterates that difference, but the term salvage is one that today's recreational boater has been taught is a threatening idea that should be avoided at all costs. And now, when all they need is a simple jump start, here is the US Coast Gaurd suggesting that they need salvage?

Next time you hear "Do you have commercial salvage?", make a very friendly call to the watch commander and remind them to try and follow the MSAP more closely.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Good Sam Claim

This story in the Ludington Daily News should be worth following. It seems a good Samaritan is seeking a 20% award for towing an unattended and adrift sailboat to safety.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Held to a "Higher Standard"

Have you seen this story about a pleasure boat that was run over by a tug & barge? Once again, I have to begin with a disclaimer that I don't know any more about this situation than what I have read in the media.

There are a few things here that I think are worthy of comment. The first is that the CG has decided that they will not "take any action against" the owner of the pleasure boat, who was anchored within a marked navigation channel. According to the story, the tug & barge had enough room to avoid hitting the pleasure boat. Okay, I buy that. The tug & barge crew will have trouble defending their actions.

Here is the part that bothers me: by not taking action against the pleasure boat, isn't the CG sending a message that its okay for pleasure boats to anchor in marked channels? Keeping the big guys and little guys separated should be a huge concern for the CG, and in my opinion, the CG should expect the little guys to do their part.

I have to assume that this case will result in some huge wrongful death lawsuit against the tug company. If the CG officially takes a stand and says the pleasure boat was partially at fault, will that diminish the chances of a huge settlement to the family of the deceased? That would paint the CG with a very un-flattering brush, making them seem cruel and un-sympathetic.

Which brings me to the second point.

"They're not professional mariners," he added. "We hold the licensed mariner to a higher standard; they are operating a commercial vessel."

Suppose the opposite was true? Would the CG be taking action against the pleasure boater if they found out he holds a 100T license? Not a chance. The reason they are not taking action is that somebody died, and the CG feels its their job to find a guilty party. So don't tell me this is about holding people to higher standards.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Runaway boats

Dave Drenick of Vessel Assist Dana Point raises a good question after viewing this video on YouTube:

Perhaps you have already heard the story; a 20' outboard center console has tossed its only occupant out into the Connecticut River, and the boat is making circles on its own. I guess the day shape for "Underway, not under command" would be appropriate. Anyway, a number of differing agencies spent a good deal of time and effort to stop this boat.

At some point, a small SeaTow boat manages to get a line on the runaway, possibly onto a stearn cleat. The SeaTow boat promptly gets rolled over, dumping two more people into the river. How do you explain that to the insurance company?

Eventually, someone fouls the runaway's prop with a line, and the drama comes to an end.

Now, this story is not meant to condemn SeaTow; indeed, they were there trying to help, and the poor decisions the crew made were probably the result of having tried just about everything else to bring the circling menace to a stop. So, back to Dave's question.

What is the best strategy for dealing with a runaway boat? The traditional tactic of laying a line in the path of the runaway has proven to be a dubious solution, especially for outboards, whose skeg seems to push the line under the prop. This tactic has one thing in its favor: assuming you are prepared to cut the line you drag, there is little danger of getting tripped or injury to the assistance crew.

Some other ideas: get inside the circle, come alongside and hit the shift/throttle lever with a boat hook. Get inside the circle and transfer a person across to the runaway (presumably this technique would be used with those of us driving inflatables). Instead of trying to place a line in the path of the runaway, how about a large plastic trash bag, or a plastic blue tarp? If it fails to foul the prop, it might block the intake and cause the motor to overheat at least. Finally, why not just let the thing run out of gas, assuming its not threatening anyone? Set up a safety perimeter to keep traffic away, and let it cirle for hours?

Of course, using the kill switch lanyard would prevent any need to respond to runaways....

Your ideas and proven techniques are welcome.

Friday, September 14, 2007

BOAT/US Captain Directory Service

In case you missed the press release, BOAT/US is implementing a captain's referral service. The main focus appears to be on delivery captains. One thing sparked my interest though:

We will be offering a new Delivery Captains Directory Service to make it easier to find reliable people with the knowledge and skill to relocate your boat to a new port, brush up on your boat operating skills or move your boat in advance of a hurricane. This service will be open to everyone, Members and non-Members.

I believe that BUS Insurance offers up to $1000 to help offset the costs of hauling an insured boat before a hurricane arrives. (this is not part of the towing membership coverage, but only offered to insurance customers)

It occurs to me that BUS already has a huge stable of licensed captains: all the TowBOAT/US captains across the country. I don't know how many there are, but I would guess perhaps five or six hundred? So, the question is: will the BOAT/US bureaucracy put the names and numbers of all the local TowBOAT/US towers into the Captains Directory data base?

For more information, go here:

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


At least, out here in New England it is. I trust everyone has had a busy summer. Things were slow to get started out here, and it seemed that we sort of just limped through July. Then August hit! BAM. Before the boat fire (see last post), I had a wind storm with 40kts in the middle of the night; that put 4 boats on the beach and one on the bottom.

On Labor Day, we had some brisk 25-30 kts, and we had this 44'er dismasted:

So, I'm not complaining, but rather explaining my lack of posts lately. I hope you too have been so busy that you didn't notice....I'll be back at the keyboard more as fall approaches.
Anyone have some exciting photos they want to share?

Friday, August 31, 2007

Warm Breezes at Block Island

Things got a tad warm out here on Monday morning. Here I am pulling the pin on another extinguisher. The first one put out the mainsail cover and some of the was a 20 minute battle, but we eventually got it out.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tandem tow anyone?

CG Cutter Dependable's Crew Rescues 5 in Fla. Cape May County Herald:

Shortly before 4 p.m. Aug. 18, a commercial salvage company had been assisting two vessels that had reportedly run out of gas. Upon towing in one of the vessels, when the salvage company returned to tow the other vessel in they were unable to relocate the vessel and then notified the Coast Guard..... The crew of the Falcon located a 25-foot vessel with one person aboard and dropped food, water and a VHF marine radio. Upon establishing communication with the individual through the use of that radio, the person informed the Coast Guard that his vessel began taking on water the last evening and four persons abandoned the vessel around midnight.

I don't know any details about this case other than what is written in this article, but from what is reported, this sounds like a tandem tow might have been a good solution. This could have had very tragic results. Anyone out there know the details?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Tandem Towing

In Southern California, where twenty-five and thrity mile tows are pretty common, we used to do "tandem" tows when things got really busy. Its not very hard to set up, and can save valuable resourses when the jobs are getting stacked up.
I had a chance to grab a small boat this past weekend and bring two boats inside our breakwall where another towboat took the smaller one off my hands. The picture shows the two boats in tow from my single towboat.
There is a trick to doing this right. Always put the larger boat farther back, and have him steer to one side, then take the smaller boat in close, with just a little helm to the opposite side. The idea is for the smaller boat to just have some tension on his rudder to keep him outside your wake.
With this set up, make very slow, wide turns. Turns towards the side with the big boat are easier.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Gov't getting involved with derelict disposals

Saw this today:

How to Solve the Growing National Problem of Abandoned Boats

... the state governor signed a law allowing the sinking boats to be removed by
DNREC officials. Now if a boat is abandoned or adrift for more than 30 days, the
state can take possession and remove the obstacle. (Source: Delmarvanow.)

Yet more signs that derelict disposal is becoming an alternate income source for guys like us. But, who is persuing it? If we don't, will the state just have their agencies actually do the work?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Florida pays to dispose of derelict boats

Two different press releases today about removing derelict boats from Florida waters:

County hauls derelict boats Serving Brevard County and Florida’s Space Coast

Capt. Kevin Miller of Absolute Marine Towing and salvage is under contract for $275,000 to remove nearly 70 boats from the Indian and Banana rivers, along with the Barge Canal. His work for the county will take him from the Sebastian River to Titusville.

UpdateFlorida: Project to clear waterways

Brevard County recently awarded the $275,000 job to Melbourne-based Absolute Marine Towing and Salvage Inc., which will start the project in late June or early July, pending approval from commissioners.

A $200,000 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission grant and FEMA reimbursements will cover the contract cost. The county is expected to contribute about $30,000 in matching funds, including the cost of monitoring the project.

Ranging from a 131/2-foot sailboat to a 72-foot yacht, the boats were declared "derelict vessels" after owners couldn't be identified or found
If the boats range from 13.5' to 72', would it be safe to say that the average is 40'? Lets see, 70 boats divided by $275,000 comes to $3928 per boat; an average of almost $100/foot. If you have some derelict disposal work in your area, now you have a general price range that your state and federal authorities might consider fair. I used to charge $100/ft to strip old derelicts and have them trucked to the county dump.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Boat America Corporation sold to Berkshire Hathaway

Boat America Corporation sold to Berkshire Hathaway

I'm not sure there is anything to add to this news. But, I do claim my blog is "news, notes and commentary about the towing and salvage industry", so I would be remiss if I didn't at least note this as a news item.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Vetch & Release

The two major national membership comanies, BOAT/US and Sea Tow, have engaged in a little "tit for tat" this month. Am I the only one who hears a banjo and a guitar playing as I read these "dueling press releases"?

It all began with this release on July 11, which began with this statement:

Contrary to what you may be hearing from US Department of Homeland Security officials lately, recreational boating has never been safer.

Sea Tow wasted no time in rushing to release their own statement on July 16, spanking BOAT/US for

imply(ing) that recreational boating safety is good enough.

Two days later, an indignant BOAT/US couldn't resist the urge to engage in some name calling by calling Sea Tow a newcomer and an unsophisticated self-promoter...

Sea Tow Services, a towing services franchise company based in New York and a newcomer to the debate on boating safety, has shamefully distorted an on-going campaign by the 650,000-member Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS) which takes issue with a US Department of Homeland Security effort to link boating safety to homeland security.

BoatUS has been at the forefront of the nation’s boating safety effort for decades and while we welcome everyone’s participation, public policy making is a complex undertaking requiring a certain level of sophistication and self-serving statements of the kind made by Sea Tow which totally distort the facts should be dismissed for what they are, blatant self-promotion, said Schwartz.


BOAT/US is correct if they are saying that forcing boaters to carry a federal ID card will do nothing to improve the skill levels of today's recreational boat operators, but so far BOAT/US has struggled to put that simple concept into writing.

I think Sea Tow took the correct position on that issue in their statement, but there are ways to make a point without picking a fight. Instead, Sea Tow couldn't resist using language like irrelevant...misleading...egregious. Those are fightin' words.

Now, everyone has egg on their face. Good job guys.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Heavy Lifting

How much does that 10,000 pound keel weigh? Divers know that the answer begs another question: "submerged or dry?" Regardless of how much something weighs on dry land, once it is submerged, it is displacing water, and because water gets denser as it gets deeper, a displacement of water by any object, no matter how heavy, creates a force towards the surface.
Of course, metals, and all materials denser than water will still sink when submerged, but the interesting question for salvors is: how much force (or lift) will it take to get this material back to the surface? The answer may surprise you.

Say you have a wood sailboat on the bottom with a big hole in it. The boat's total dry weight is #20,000s (not displacement, but actual dry weight). Assume the boat has a #10,000 lead keel. So, you have to lift 10,000#s of lead and 10,000#s of Mahogany. How much lift do you need? We know the mahogany wants to come to the surface on its own, but how much lifting force can you expect the wood to add to the operation? Will the lead need #10,000s of lift?

If you know the specific gravity of a material, you can do some calculations to figure out how "heavy" that material is when submerged in FRESH water, which has a specific gravity of 1. A number of organizations publish a table, Factors for Converting Various Boat Materials from Dry to Submerged Weight, that makes figuring this out really easy. The one below is from ABYC, but may not be very readable. [click here for a readable version]

The raw calculations aren't all that complicated, but using this table and the "K Factor" is darn near foolproof. All you need to do is find the material on the table, and multiply the total dry weight of that material times the K Factor from the third column of the table to find the submerged weight. Be careful with the minus numbers of "buoyant" materials. Stuff that has a specific gravity less than water will have a negative K factor, meaning that your result will be a negative number, aka lift.

Apply this easy math to our sailboat problem. Honduras Mahogany has a K factor of minus (-0.78), so #10,000 of submerged mahogany will weigh 10,000 x (-0.78), which equals -7,800: minus 7,800, so the result is #7,800 of lift!

Now do the same for the lead keel: the K factor for lead is 0.91, so 10,000 x 0.91 = 9,100 pounds for the keel. Add the two submerged weights together: #9,100 of lead and a minus #7,800 of wood leaves only #1,300 of stuff to lift. If you add just #1,301 pound of lift to this boat, up she comes!

Obviously, the numbers aren't so easy in the real world. Boats aren't made of just two materials. They have cabinetry, wiring, pluming, machinery...but knowing how much lift you will need just to raise the hull material is really important; why waste time rigging #10,000 of lift when half that might do the job? My example sailboat doesn't exist, with half the weight of the boat in the keel, but the calculations are all the same.

A close look at the table reveals some very useful data. Fiberglass Laminate has a K factor! So does gasoline and Ferrocement. Suddenly, raising a #50,000 Ferrocement (K factor .58) sailboat with #9,000 of steel ballast (K factor .88) and 400 gallons of gasoline (K factor -0.37) in an aluminum tank might be possible with lift bags instead of a crane barge.

Feel free to print the table out and use it. The table is based on FRESH water. As salt water is a little denser than fresh, submerged objects in salt water will actually need just a tad less lifting force than they would in fresh. The difference is a pretty small number, and using the K factor in salt water will work just fine.

Monday, July 16, 2007

24' Diesel RIB on Ebay

If you're looking for an extra towboat, this 24' RIB caught my eye. Built to Mil-specs, a 24' RIB with a Cummins 6BT is pretty rare. Hurry, auction ends soon...

Friday, July 6, 2007

Barnacle-busting technology

This story was first brought to my attention by Dave Delano (TowBoat/US San Franscico Bay/Delta).

Barnacle-busting paint makes ships' voyages greener World The Observer

Not only does this sound like a promising new bottom treatment, but I want to know how get some of the company's stock....

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Softly I Ground, Inch by Inch....

In keeping with the law of unintended consequences, the expression Soft Aground has entered the lexicon of general maritime phraseology. I'm not sure who first coined the term Soft Aground, or when it was first used. Perhaps that phrase has been around for ages, used as a way of saying "I'm aground, but remain otherwise undamaged." But I don't think the term ever had any clearly defined meaning until the towing and assistance industry came along.

BOAT/US membership will cover a "soft ungrounding", which generally means an otherwise undamaged vessel that only needs one towboat, one towline, and very little likely hood for further damage to all the boats, personnel, and environment involved.

SeaTow members will get a free "ungrounding assistance" if 5 conditions are met, one of which is that the grounded vessel must "is surrounded by water on all sides". Of all the conditions and criteria I ever heard or read about what constitutes a soft aground, that one should be included in every one's definition.

A few weeks ago, I heard a USCG SAR controller ask a mariner "are you hard or soft aground?" on channel 16. I have searched the USCG Communications Watchstander Qualifications Guide, and I can't find the words "soft aground" anywhere. Why is a SAR Watchstander even asking that? A guy calls Mayday and reports he is aground, you ask if he is taking on water, in the surf, breaking up on rocks, just stuck in soft mud, what is the tide doing, and damage to vessel.....but "are you hard or soft aground?". What actions would the USCG take if the answer is "soft aground"? How are those actions different than a hard aground response?

Which brings me to today's story: a GoodSam was reporting to the CG a sail boat aground in the Great Salt Pond. The GoodSam said the vessel looked like it was "very soft aground"....when I got over there 5 minutes later, I find a 27' sailboat laying over on her side, with about one foot of water under her full keel. I asked the GoodSam, "You call that soft aground?", and he replied,
"It looks like pretty soft sand. There are no big rocks on that beach..."

So now the CG is taking this radio report from 12 miles away. Assuming they speak to the owner (who is on the mainland also) first, are they going to tell him his boat is "Soft Aground"? And if he contacts me for service, am I guilty of bait & switch because I tell him its NOT soft aground after the United States Coast Guard told him it was?

Slowly I Turn....

Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Nice little wreck removal story

Found this story in a local New England newspaper:

Boat brought up from ocean floor -, Newburyport, MA

I doubt it will make any national coverage, but I thought you might like to see a nice little article about raising a burned up boat. No hype. I don't know the details other than what I read here.

How come Mike Goodridge always gets the good publicity?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Proposed CT law to fine boaters interfering in emergencies

I found this interesting article in The Advocate, from Connecticut.

The bill, which Gov. M. Jodi Rell is expected to sign, would impose a maximum $200 fine on boaters who fail to yield or slow down near emergency
vessels with flashing lights and blaring sirens, or pass within 200 feet of a
stationary law enforcement vessel using its lights and sirens fast enough to
create a wake. [read the rest here]

This is a state bill, and technically, I would guess that it doesn't apply to privately owned commercial assistance vessels. However, the idea that boaters have to slow down near a boat with flashing lights will certainly be beneficial to us (or at least the towers in CT waters of Long Island Sound).

I think this is a legislative realization that today's modern boater just doesn't want to slow down. Obviously, wake responsiblity laws have been around for years, but those laws are pretty much impossible to enforce. If this law passes, I hope other states take notice and impose similar penalties.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Frequent Flyers

Frequent flyers is the name we give to boaters who keep breaking down; repeat customers. I remember one guy in Marina Del Rey who had so many services that I had his boat registration numbers memorized. Frequent flyers are not a huge issue for the industry, but a guy who needs 3 jump starts in 4weeks is really abusing the membership, and I think it should be addressed within the framework of the membership policies.

Perhaps it is time that the membership networks consider updating their service policies. I think that a boater who needs a second, or maybe a third service within a certain time frame, should be charged a "co-pay"; say $50 for a jump start.

I have had this discussion before, and the most common objection I hear is that it "would be too complicated. We need to keep these memberships simple," to which I reply: NONSENSE! Adding an extra service fee for abusing a towing membership is not complicated at all.

Furthermore, the current membership policies are not all that simple. There are the membership products, which have different coverages for distance depending on where the membership was purchased. Boat/US has about 5 levels of coverage already. SeaTow offers at least 5 different membership programs. Then there are the partially covered services, sometimes called "elective" service, like dock-dock tows, or rules about different coverage within the first 30 days of membership activation. And don't get me started about what a "coverage area" is....

Then, we have non-member rates, member's discount rates, commercial rates, and extra fees for nighttime operation and SCA. There are charges to supply a deck hand, a diver, pumps or 'soft aground'. Gee, this is all so simple, right?

Gold Card, Lake Card, Corporate Card, Professional Mariner, Premier, Platinum, Bay, SS90, Skipper, Captain's Card, the famous $50 card, the $500 limit, the Unlimited Card...every one of these memberships will have different coverage limits and rules.

So, where is all the simplicity that a co-pay policy will complicate? I mean, what is the big deal with adding a policy for "repeat service within 90 days (or one year or whatever) requires a $50 co-pay paid at the time of service"? And, how hard a sell will this be: "Roger skipper, our records show this is your third service this year, so we are sending a boat as usual, but we will have to charge you a small co-pay of $50 to offset the costs of repeat service. Okay?" Like this guy is gonna make a stink and burn his membership card in protest? I don't think so.

I also argue that the concept of a co-pay is universally understood. Anyone who has ever had health insurance understands this concept. Don't boaters go to dentists? I'm guessing that the dentist has already prepared them for the sticker shock of a $25 or $50 co-pay for a $300-400 dollar office visit. Is a 2 hour tow any different?

For a boater that doesn't use the service much, this concept will be welcome because they will see it as an effort to keep the cost of membership renewal under control. A co-pay policy might also limit the member churning, as abusive members are dropped by one network and join another, only to be passed back a few years later.

Rather than looking for ways to get frequent flyers off the roles, the membership networks should be looking for ways to make those guys into profit centers.

Friday, June 8, 2007

A Tale of Two Saleries (w/appologies to Dickens)

A young man works at Radio Shack, and discovers that he has a knack for sales. To further his career, he enrolls in a one week, 40 hour Real Estate sales course, and immediately after receiving his real estate sales license, he lands a job with a prominent real estate broker. The majority of his work is talking on the phone during normal business hours. One day, he answers a call from a buyer, and the next day meets the buyer to show a house. The buyer loves the house and purchases it without delay. The overall effort on the broker and salesman's part boils down to this: taking a photo, placing an ad, answering the phone, and drawing up some legal contracts. The broker's office earns a large commission, based on a percentage of the house's market value, a portion of which is paid to the salesman. The house is never in danger of losing any of its value due to any absence or lack of effort on the part of the salesman. The salesman is considered a hard working, honest and savvy business man.

The young man's brother works at the marina, and discovers that he loves boats. After documenting two years of service on board boats, he takes a 40 hour class and passes a test, and immediately receives a captain's license and goes to work for a towing & salvage company. The majority of his work is assisting disabled vessels, sometimes at night or in bad weather and always away from the safety of terra firma. One day, he responds to a call from a boater with a dead motor. The captain tows this yacht away from danger, before she goes on the rocks or is damaged in any way. The overall effort on the salvor and captain's part boils down to this: answering a radio call, taking a photo, throwing a tow line, and drawing up some legal contracts. The salvor earns a large salvage award based on the market value of the yacht, a portion of which is paid to the captain. The yacht could have suffered thousands of dollars in damage had the captain not been there. The captain is vilified as a pirate...

The guy who owns the yacht is the real estate broker.


Monday, June 4, 2007

No Rules? Somebody say 1, 2, 3....GO!

Remember the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when one of the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang attempts to take over in Butch's absence? When Butch returns, they decide to fight for who will be boss, and before fighting, Butch asks to review the rules. The bad guy says "Rules!? There are no rules in fighting!", so Butch asks someone to start the fight, and Sundance quickly says "One, two, three; GO!" and Butch takes this huge guy down with one very well place kick to the crotch...

Well, we have our Rules, and before you get into a court fight over them, you should be aware of one important thing: there are no rules. We just call them the Rules of the Road because the word rule is the most efficient way to say "you better do this, or else." But, they are not rules in the traditional sense that you would think of, like the rules of math or gravity. The Rules of the Road are the guidelines for recommended conduct, and they are by definition open to the interpretation of each individual who is bound by them, who is then open to be admonished by others for his failure to correctly interpret.

Rule 2(a) pretty much spells it out: "Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the master thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case." My interpretation of that rule is: ITS EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF.

Here is a quote from what is my favorite page at the USCG website:

The International Navigation Rules do not confer upon any vessel the right of way; however, certain vessels in sight of each other are responsible to keep out of the way of others...Navigation Rules should be regarded as a code of conduct and not a bill of rights. They do not bestow rights or privileges, but impose the duty to either give-way or stand-on, dependent on the circumstances...Finally, all this said, the ordinary practice of seamen requires precaution under all conditions and circumstances and not strict adherence to the rules or any other practice. Although strict adherence may not always be prudent, the Rules are very precise in stating that nothing shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect (Rule 2). Neglect, among other things, could be not maintaining a proper look-out (Rule 5), use of improper speed (Rule 6), not taking the appropriate actions to determine and avoid collision (Rules 7 & Rule 8) or completely ignoring your responsibilities under the Rules

So, over the course of this coming season, when we are all out there using and depending on those rules, I will post some thoughts and insight about the Rules of the Road and how they pertain to us little towboat guys.

Homework for this week: does the word "scanty" appear in the rules? If so, in what context?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Good times and bad, demand remains for service

2007 called awful year for boat market: Seen a bunch of headlines like this one lately?

As the spring progresses, it seems like I see increasing predictions that the marine industry is just barely afloat. Sales are down, numbers are down, traffic is down (except for the press releases that declare just the opposite.) But how sensitive is the marine assistance industry to the whims of the overall boat market?

I'm not convinced that our industry is at the mercy of new boat sales. New boaters often enter the world of recreational boating with a purchase of a used boat; sort of as a way to test the waters and see if they line it. What this means is that a majority of new boat sales are made to buyers who are already boaters- they are just getting a different boat.

If I'm correct, then new boat sales aren't really a direct indication that more people are entering the boat market, and therefore a drop in new boat sales doesn't necessarily mean less boating activity. It only means that there are fewer new boats out on the water, which is a good thing if you are primarily in the hourly towing business (verses the annual membership business).

What drives the need for assistance? Inexperienced boaters and poorly maintained boats. As the economy gets a little tight, a boater may decide to defer some maintenance, or take a shorter trip, but if he could afford to go boating two years ago, I don't see that the overall situation has made it unlikely that he can't go boating today.

A little less money on maintenance should result in more breakdowns, which keeps the towboats busy. While this may put some additional pressure on franchise membership towers like SeaTow, more boats breaking down should also help convince more boaters to join or renew their memberships, which is to the benefit of the entire industry.

I spoke to a few towers this past week, and everyone seems to holding their breath waiting to see if the dire predictions are true. But so far, most towers report that "our case load is right in line with the past few years."

The demand for assistance remains, even as the new boat markets suffer.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Wreck removal continues to gain traction

Regular reader Dave Delano of Vessel Assist San Francisco Bay brought this to my attention:

Salvors Welcome New Nairobi Wreck Removal Convention

Times have changed and the main motivation for wreck removal today is often concern for the environment, rather than any threat to safety of navigation. We now have a new international instrument which recognises both priorities, in
full measure.

So far, this doesn't pertain to small vessels, but it will probably become some kind of model for the future of wreck removal in the USA.

Monday, May 21, 2007



PORTLAND, OREGON – An Oregon charter fishing boat captain was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment today in federal court in Portland. Richard J. Oba, of Winchester Bay, was the owner and captain of the Sydney Mae II, a 38 foot boat Oba used to conduct fishing charters. On September 19, 2005, Oba steered the boat into dangerous waters after being warned to stay away by the U. S. Coast Guard. The boat was struck by large wave and sunk off the Umpqua River Bar, killing three passengers. Oba had pled guilty to three counts of Seaman’s Manslaughter, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1115.

I don't know about you, but this scares me a little. Not that this captain was in the right (he probably wasn't), but I really don't like the idea that the USCG can play Monday Morning Quarterback, and put a guy in jail on a "I told ya so!" clause. IF that one wave hadn't come along, this would not be a headline.

Here is what I wonder: is the reverse true? If the USCG says its ok to go, and something goes wrong, can I sue?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Longest and Shortest commute to work

When I owned Vessel Assist Del Rey, I kept my live-aboard trawler (Water Torture) right across the dock from my primary towboat Reliant. I used to joke that I had the shortest commute to work of anyone living in Los Angeles - eight feet from home to work.

Now, I live in South Carolina, and work in Rhode Island, which makes for a much longer commute - about 800 miles. Fortunately, I only have to make one round trip each year. For the past four years, I made the trip on the ICW aboard the Water Torture, so not only was it a long distance, but it must qualify as one of the slowest commutes on record - about a month to get to work, about a month to get home. This year, I drove up so it only took a few days.

With all this commuting, I haven't had time to finish my next post...I'll have it up in a few more days.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Do I Hear $300,000?

Charlie from Lake Ozark BUS sends this interesting eBay link....

One thing that I found intersting was this quote:

We are not selling towing membership and we are not affiliated in any way with the nationwide SEA-TOW or TowBoat US

This is even printed in block letters to get the reader's attention. Do the folks at Neptune towing feel that affilitation with a nationwide network would somehow detract from the value of their towing and salvage business?

Sunday, May 6, 2007


NASBLA...sounds like Naz-Blah. However, if you are wondering about new regulations, NASBLA is a name you should become familiar with. The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators Here is small snip from their very extensive website:

Since 1992, NASBLA has had a Model Act for Charter Boat Safety that can be applied to any vessels carrying passengers for hire. This act is intended to provide for the regulation, inspection, and licensing of charter boats; protect the safety and welfare of persons using them; authorize the administering department to prescribe standards and promulgate rules; provide for the seizure and condemnation of certain vessels; and impose duties on certain insurance carriers. In 2006, the model act’s provisions were reviewed and updated and adopted by the NASBLA membership on Sept. 27, 2006. At the same time, NASBLA adoped a set of model administrative rules to accompany the Model Act for Charter Boat Safety. In October, NASBLA co-sponsored with the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Coast Guard a training seminar for state officials: Passenger Vessel Safety on Sole State Waters. The technical program focused on "A Model Passenger Vessel Safety Program For State Regulators" by looking at policies and practices gained from more than 50 years of experience in regulating small passenger vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard and voluntary safety organizations, such as the Passenger Vessel Association.

This sounds like a great way for C-PORT to pursue the issue of local agency competition. Somewhere deep in the archives of C-PORT is a document called "Marine Police Standing Operating Proceedure". Lets update that document and push NASBLA to adopt it as the "Model Act" for standard operating proceedures in state and local authorities. Any volunteers to head up that battle? Guys in Southern California should be all over this idea...

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Public Safety Lights

Most towers use a Public Safety Light (PSL) on their towboats. The most common is probably a rotating light with red and amber bulbs that spin around inside a clear bowl. I've had a few debates with folks about the rules and legalities of these light, and the alternatives, like strobe lights. One individual insisted that a PSL must be rotating, so that it can't be confused with with a flashing navaid light, like a flashing red buoy. So, here is the actual 33 CFR 88.12 as cut and pasted from here

§ 88.12 Public Safety Activities(a) Vessels engaged in government sanctioned public safety activities, and commercial vessels performing similar functions, may display an alternately flashing red and yellow light signal. This identification light signal must be located so that it does not interfere with the visibility of the vessel's navigation lights. The identification light signal may be used only as an identification signal and conveys no special privilege. Vessels using the identification light signal during public safety activities must abide by the Inland Navigation Rules, and must not presume that the light or the exigency gives them precedence or right of way. (b) Public safety activities include but are not limited to patrolling marine parades, regattas, or special water celebrations; traffic control; salvage; firefighting; medical assistance; assisting disabled vessels; and search and rescue.

"Alternately flashing red and yellow"; could a rotating light be construed as alternating flashing? Sure, why not. Also, most of the PSLs I've seen are red and amber, not red and yellow, because as I understand it, yellow PAR bulbs are hard to find.

I have also seen plenty of flashing lights, even strobe lights on some towboats. Are these other lights in violation of the Rules? What the actual rules say about lights that aren't required is pretty vague: (Rule 20b)

The Rules concerning lights shall be complied with from sunset to sunrise, and during such times no other lights shall be exhibited, except such lights which cannot be mistaken for the lights specified in these Rules or do not impair their visibility or distinctive character, or interfere with the keeping of a proper look-out.

So, a couple of thoughts here. First of all, as I interpret the above paragraph, if it is daylight and unrestricted visibility, then the rules say you can pretty much show any damn lights you want. During such times when the rules shall be complied with, you can't display any lights that could be mistaken for other specified lights. So, a red and amber rotating light should be perfectly legal. And, so should an alternating pair of red/amber flashing LED strobe type lights. Or red and yellow if you can find them.

Just remind your operators that the PSL provides their zero-nada-nothing in terms of right of way (there is no "right of way", actually. I'll post more on that soon).

How many of us forget to turn the darn thing off? I solved that one on my towboats by installing a $2.00 flashing 12volt LED (fits in a 1/4" hole) in a prominent spot on the dash board, usually right next to the tachometer. Wire the LED into the same circut as the PSL.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Where's the Bar?

No, not that bar. I'm talking about the proverbial bar, that lofty goal we strive to attain. When someone says "BigToe has really raised the bar for the rest of the industry," we understand that statement means that the rest of us now have a new benchmark against which we measure ourselves.

So, who sets the bar for your company? Is it the customers? If you are simply meeting the needs of your customers, then you are letting them set your service goals. Your company is doomed to never exceed your customers expectations, because your measuring stick is only as high as the customer can imagine. If you are to really dazzle them, you have to demonstrate that you hold your company to higher standards than even they do. You set the bar.

For many of you, I suspect the bar is set by what is in your network contract. Standards for boat appearance, response times, hours of availability. Just play by the rules and try to make a buck. But those rules are like the minumum Coast Guard Standards for PFDs - the levels we don't dare go below. Would you trust your life to those $4 "lifejackets" at Wal-Mart that are "USCG Approved"? The same is true for ACAPT standards. Those standards are not some lofty goal one struggles to achieve, they are the starting point on which to build.

Or, do you measure your success by comparing yourself to your local competition? Do you breathe a sigh of relief when he slacks off, because now you can relax? Do you feel that as long as your service is just as good as his, you are competing? Like the kids say nowadays: NOT! If all you can do is imitate the competition, then you might as well sell your boats and go work for that guy. If you are going define your standards in comparison to his, then your service will never truly exceed his. The point of a competition is to win, not merely keep up.

In a competitive service business like marine assistance, company owners have to keep raising their own bar, relentlessly striving to improve their services as measured against their last job, not as measured against their competitor's last failure.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Calls for more regulation for commercial fishermen

A few weeks ago, I commented about the Ethan Allen, and that congressional changes can result from single tragedies, and in particular, my fear that our industry is only one tragedy away from having some changes imposed. Here is a recent story in the on-going saga of the fishing vessel Lady of Grace which was raised on Wednesday [read story here] A link from the South Coast Today's website led me to this related story: SouthCoast fishing advocate asks Congress to improve safety

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., whose district includes New Bedford, called for more federal money for voluntary safety training programs, expanded dockside inspections by the Coast Guard and stricter safety standards for smaller fishing vessels, such as mandatory stability tests

Please do not misconstrue my posting this here. I'm not pointing out that regulation is always a bad thing, or suggesting that more regulation of commercial fishing isn't needed (it probably is). But there is no denying the connection between the tragic events and Rep. Frank's call for more standards. This is why we need to support the efforts of C-PORT to improve and increase our own standards. Our goal should be not to avoid the regulations, but to avoid the tragedies.

On a side note: The South Coast Today has done a truly remarkable job in covering this entire story with fairness and in depth.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

NBOA Alive and well

With so much of our industry focused on membership towing programs that support branded towboats, I thought it would be good to remind everyone that one company is still around that has no towboats. The National Boat Owners Association (NBOA) continues to offer towing memberships under a "reimbursement for fees" type membership.

Reimbursement for fees (a term I made up and herein after will be known as R4F) memberships act like an actual insurance policy. NBOA members have to pay for assistance services out of pocket, and then NBOA will reimburse their member up to the limits of the policy, with certain restrictions.

NBOA members are to pay the tower at the time of service and NBOA will reimburse the member for covered towing services provided.

NBOA offers "Full coverage" for towing and assistance for $65/year, which sounds like a bargain compared to the SeaTow or Boat/US. There is a tiny catch, though. To become a member, you have to prove that you have boat insurance with a minimum of $200 of towing coverage:
All members are required to present proof of marine insurance that includes towing coverage of not less than $200per incident. Upon receipt of dues payment and proof of insurance, NBOA will activate towing coverage benefit.

I point this detail out not to accuse NBOA of using some sinister fine print loophole, which they are not: in numerous places on the website, NBOA makes it perfectly clear that their towing membership only covers costs beyond what the marine insurance covers. Indeed, anyone applying for NBOA membership would have to be "underway and not under command" to misconstrue this provision of the membership. I pointed this out just to remind everyone that there are other business models out there, and they each may have advantages and disadvantages.

If you are a service provider, you may want to familiarize yourself with the NBOA Terms & Conditions. (Its actually pretty well written and easy to understand) I don't know how many members they have, but you might be lucky enough to service one, at the full, non-member retail rate for your area of course...

Final note: I couldn't help but noticing one piece of fine print at the bottom of the home page:


So, perhaps not so much a boat owners association as they are a boat insurance company?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

More Indies trying New England market.

Yet another independent tower has entered the already tight towing market on Long Island Sound. (for my geographically challenged friends, that's a large body of water between Long Island, NY, and Connecticut.) American Boating Services is some kind of partnership between two separate companies operating from harbors in Connecticut. They are offering memberships for as little as $75 for boats up to 28', but the membership is only valid during a 6 months boating season. Their out of area coverage seems a little vague:

If you find yourself outside the coverage area and disabled, PLEASE CALL and we will try to work something out for you.
Hers is what really bothers me. They have a Salvage vs Towing page, and in part it says:
Salvage is every boater’s worst nightmare. There is a clear distinction between towing and salvage, and every boater should know the difference. We understand that at a time like that you do not want vultures hanging around. After 25 years of experience with salvage operations, we are well qualified to help make your situation less painful. Our prices are less than any of our competitors, and cost is a very big factor. You and your insurance company will be relieved to know that we do not follow the industry standard of charging 10% of the insured value of the boat. Our philosophy is that the consumer should pay for what he/she is getting.
Why would a company who is actively promoting themselves as salvors want to begin their presentation by comparing the task to every boater's worst nightmare? I would think that the worst nightmare is having a vessel in distress and no one around to help. How can these guys hope to succeed in an industry that they condemn so fiercely? The above quote seems to boil down to this: "We're good guys simply because we charge less." Well, if you were really every boater's best buddy, you should just do the job for free. Whle we're on the subject of nightmares, exactly what is an ABS member supposed to do if they break down outside the coverage area?

Where does this "industry standard of charging 10%" come from? That kind of statement demonstrates a complete lack of any experience or even a rudimentary understanding of how marine salvage works. In all their 60 years of combined experience these guys haven't bothered to read Salcon 89, or heard of The Blackwall case?

It's bad enough when the boating press prints this kind of nonsense, but I think it really sucks when supposed professionals in our own industry stoop to reciting the salvors as vultures BS simply as a means of marketing themselves. And that is all this is folks - an attempt at self promotion with mud slinging and name calling.

Somewhere out there, I can hear the cries; "geeze Doug, chill out!". But here's the thing - if these guys had said on their public website something like "we're cheaper because we work faster, or more efficiently. Our salvage prices are lower because we always charge by the hour", I would say fine, and wish them luck. But printing bogus information and name calling is not the mark of a professional organization, and I think they deserve to be called on the carpet for it.

Heavy lifting

Capt. Charlie Meyer, TowBoatU.S. Lake of the Ozarks, provides this dramatic photo of the power of lift bags. This Case bulldozer reportedly weighs almost 20,000 lbs. Contact Charlie at for more info and links to this story in the local press. (click on photo for larger version)

(Any risk managers out there care to comment on the kid standing in the water?)

Thanks for these great photos, Charlie. Nice job.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Alert! Fishermen use Boats!

File this in the "ya don't say?" category. Or, if you prefer single syllables, file under 'duh!'

RBFF study reaffirms link between boating and fishing

(sorry, I couldn't resist....)

Insurance Profits soar in 2006

"Don't let your insurance company tell you that the rates are rising to make up for losses insurance companies are having." Okay, it's not that simple. But insurance companies actually enjoyed a great year in 2006, in part due to the weather, and in part due to stricter business practices. C-PORT members have done their part by adopting better risk management proceedures and reducing losses in our industry.

Here is an detailed press release from ISO, a leading insurance risk and data base company.


JERSEY CITY, N.J., April 18, 2007 — Driven by a sharp decline in catastrophe losses from hurricanes and other natural disasters in 2006, the U.S. property/casualty industry posted a $31.2 billion net gain on underwriting for the year. The net gain on underwriting in 2006 stands in stark contrast to the $5.6 billion net loss on underwriting in 2005. The industry’s positive underwriting results contributed to an increase in its net income after taxes to $63.7 billion in 2006 from $44.2 billion in 2005. Reflecting the increase in net income after taxes, the industry’s rate of return on average policyholders’ surplus (net worth) rose to 4 percent in 2006 from 10.8 percent in 2005, according to ISO and the Property casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI).

Not the most exciting reading, but there is some very interesting numbers. For instance, " ...declines in investment yields have eaten into insurers’ ability to use investment income to support underwriting operations...", which is a reminder that insurance companies make money primarily by investing, not by collecting premiums and paying claims. The stock market can affect the insurance industry more than a hurricane.

Insurers’ overall profitability as measured by their statutory rate of return on average surplus — net income after taxes divided by average surplus during the year the income was earned — climbed to 14 percent in 2006 from 10.8 percent in 2005. The rate of return for 2006 was the highest since 1986...

One final point; spend a minute looking at the entire article. You don't have to read it all, but look at what is there: a detailed presentation of financial data about the insurance industry as a whole. Comparisons, percentages, profits and losses--and with short explainations of how those numbers effect the big picture. Have you figured out how much your net profit rose last year over the year before? What is your average return on investments?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ship operator loses Jones Act challenge

Thanks to Dave Delano from VAAA San Francisco for bringing this item to our attention: (from

Seaman’s Work Extends Beyond Insurance Coverage

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the marine coverage endorsement on the business insurance purchased by a ship operator did not provide coverage for the on-shore work being performed by a seaman when he was injured. Thus, while the ship operator was liable, under the Jones Act, to the seaman for his injuries, it was unable to recoup those monies from the business insurance company, since the policy only covered work performed on the ship. Source: HK Law

I know a few towing companies who are not carrying separate workers comp insurance. This could have large repercussions in our industry....stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007 Lady of Grace salvage awaits break in weather Lady of Grace salvage awaits break in weather

Donjon Marine will be conducting salvage operations on the Lady of Grace in Nantucket Sound, from 56' of water. Raising a 150 ton, 75 foot dragger from those depths is challenge to be sure. If you click on the link above, the South Coast Today website has some detailed coverage of the the sinking, search & rescue, recovery and related events surrounding the tragedy. Lots of interesting reading.

Monday, April 16, 2007

New Independent tries RI market

A new independent tower (i.e. not affiliated with any national membership network) has shown up in Rhode Island. BayWatchRI has at least one boat all painted and in the water (photo). Veterans of the north east might recognize this boat: it was the original SafeSea boat, built by Silverships and powered with a single jet. update: this is an old photo, and I've learned that the boat is no longer this color scheme. Perhaps somebody will forward me an updated picture.

So many questions arise; first of all, what will SeaTow have to say about this color scheme? I guess we know the answer to that....Does black and yellow infringe SeaTow's trademark? I wonder what the real Baywatch (the Los Angeles County Lifeguards pictured here in white boat) will have to say about the name? What will David Hasselhoff (the producer of the TV show Baywatch) have to say? I wonder how wise it is to splash the word rescue on the boat?

Their website claims "all new Eastern towboats". In light of the photo of the old SafeSea boat, perhaps what they meant was "all our new boats are built by Eastern", which at least leaves the option to explain that the old Silverships boat isn't one of their new boats, and wasn't built by Eastern.

Okay, graphics and trademark issues can be dealt with, but what about the challenges that face an independent tower trying to break into an established market like Rhode Island, one of the few places in the country that already supports three membership networks (Safe/Sea, SeaTow and TowBoat/US). It's hard to imagine that there are many potential members left over. It's even harder to imagine that Safe/Sea and SeaTow are going to just going to roll over and let an unproven upstart have easy pickin's at the few non-member jobs that do come up.

So, a new company has so many battles to fight: lack of name recognition on the part of customers and the rest of the local boating community; starting a discounted membership program while facing rising fuel and insurance costs; starting a marine based business during an historically large downturn in the marine industry; breaking into an old, established membership market already serviced by eight or nine brand name towboats.

Ultimately, I'm a fan of capitalism, and as BayWatchRI attempts to meet the challenges I've mentioned, their efforts will place renewed competitive pressures on the established companies. In a service industry, those pressures usually boil down to price and efficient service, which in the end should benefit the customers, right?

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Tragedies and Changes

A story in this month's Soundings (April 2007, page 17) updates the court battles surrounding the tragic sinking of the tour boat Ethan Allen, which capsized on a New York state lake in 2005. The company that owned the Ethan Allen, and the captain who was on board that day, have both pleaded guilty and will be paying a fine of $250 each.

(Although I can't link this most recent article, click here for an archive of past Sounding coverage of this story.)

The story goes into some detail about current attitudes towards what does seem to be a small fine against the backdrop of 20 drownings. But what I want to point out here is not measured in dollar amounts, but how quickly calls for law makers to get involved and make corrections, both to the supposed criminal misconduct, and to the regulations that govern boat inspection.

By all accounts, it seems that what contributed to the capsizing was some wake from a passing boat. Why is no one shouting for more enforcement of wake damage laws? Everything in this controversy seems to focus on the charter company and the captain who was driving. Had there been no wake for him to avoid (actually, he turned to take it on the bow), there would be no story at all; no capsize, no drownings, no fines, no guilty party.

Many of you have heard me say that I fear our industry is just one tragedy shy of having huge changes imposed, perhaps mandated by Congress rather than regulatory agencies like the USCG.

Follow the story of the Ethan Allen closely for a good example of what I'm talking about.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Call for Photos

Fellow Towers,
I am looking for some good photos of towboats towing on the hip or alongside. I'm especially interested in pictures showing a hip tow of a powerboat.

Send them to me by email. Thanks

RealClearPolitics - Articles - The Gasoline 'Crisis'

At the risk of offending someone with a political subject, I never the less thought that this Op-ed piece from George Will is worth a read:

RealClearPolitics The Gasoline 'Crisis' du Jour

One concept that he touches on that I always forget is the fact that while everyone (OK, not everyone, but those with the podiums) screams to the heavens about the huge oil profits for the oil industry, it is our state governments who take a bigger share of each gas dollar spent.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

IF you can't beat 'em, let 'em beg for your return

Here's a great little story that sums up recent events out in California's Catalina Island. Robert Sherrill actually has the City of Avalon helping to pay the costs of re-building his marine repair barge to comply with their own requirements.,1,7408011,full.story?coll=la-headlines-california

Whats this got to do with marine towing & salvage? Robert Sherrill, and his father, had a towboat business long before the first towing membership was ever sold. Robert owned Vessel Assist Catalina for many years. The Vessel Assist boats still tie up at the repair barge.

Robert re-built the RELIANT (when he owned her) more than a few times before she finally ended up in semi-retirement as my primary towboat up in Marina Del Rey. Its a safe bet that this little boat has logged more towing hours than just about any marine assistance boat in the country.

I have fond memories of calling Robert on the phone with some mechanical problem that I couldn't solve, and he would know what was wrong before I could finish describing the symptoms. I also remember the time I brought RELIANT over to Avalon because the Cummins blew a rear main seal, and it was under warrantee. At 8am, Robert showed up at the yard and I went to buy us some coffee. I got back at 8:40, and the Cummins was sitting on the shop floor. Robert was working by himself. We launched the boat at about 3pm that same afternoon.

I'm glad to hear that Robert is doing well. As you can see from the story, he is a very tough negotiator.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Boating Industy News

Just what you wanted, more stuff in your email inbox. But, I find the short, weekly Boating Industry News updates sent to me are very easy to scan for pertinent articles that I want to read. Subcribing to the update service is free. Many of the "updates" are just press releases, but press releases are a good way to keep up with what the national networks are up to. Frequent press releases by an organization can also indicate a healthy interest in brand promotion.

Click here to subscribe to Boating Industry News Email Newsletter

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Satisfaction has a price

Trading big trucks for a tow boat requires moving to a different flow

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ted Carr, 55, gave up trucking in 2003 to buy his own marine towing and salvage business....In addition to running the risk of abandoning an established career and starting a new business, Carr has had to adapt and sometimes sacrifice. [emphasis mine] He moved from Newberg to Sauvie Island to be near waterways. He has to be ready to respond 24 hours a day every day. He doesn't have as much time to go fishing. "That's probably the one thing I don't like," he said. "I can't take off and go fishing at the coast the way I used to."

Perks: "I enjoy helping people. There's a lot of satisfaction to taking someone's ruined day and making it better for them." Drawbacks: It's hard for Carr to take a vacation for more than a day or two because he is on call year-round. Pay: About $50,000 a year....What he charges: Vessel owners, who have prepaid an annual fee to a national service (similar to, but not affiliated with, AAA for cars), pay nothing for each tow. Others pay $165 an hour. Background: After graduating from high school in Long Beach, Calif., he held a number of jobs, including factory and gas-station work. Carr started driving a truck at age 21 and spent more than 30 years doing so. Family: Married to Nona, who helps in the business; three children.

Personally, I don't know Ted Carr. But I post this to illustrate a point: what is it about this industry that requires a man to give up his time off for fishing and vacations? Owning a towing business should be an enjoyable profession, not an exile to the dock...

Monday, March 26, 2007

North Lake Tahoe Bonanza - News

Climbing onto my Soapbox:

The Washoe County Sheriff's Office's search & rescue team has a few new toys: a sidescan sonar and an ROV, the sonar costing $40,000 and the ROV costing $32,000. This story raised so many issues and questions that I can only mention the glaring ones. (viewing the article may require you to register an email address)

First of all, the source of the money that purchased these items. The story mentions that the sheriff's office sold some old pieces of equipment and received donations from charities to fund the purchase of the sonar, and boasted that the system was purchased "without spending any taxpayer money." So, it wasn't taxpayers that donated to the charities in the first place? And I suppose that the "old equipment" wasn't originally paid for by taxpayers? And when the sheriff sells "old equipment", doesn't that money belong to the taxpayers?

Why was this even mentioned in the article? Is the sheriff's office just a little too anxious to preempt charges of spending the taxpayers money without cause?

The ROV was paid for with Homeland Security funds. Oh well then, at least the source of that total waste of money wasn't local taxpayers, but the taxpayers of the whole country.

OK, I'm off my soapbox. I'm better now....

So, here is another thing I see in this story: a new income source for towers. Rob Butler spoke about his new ROV in Clearwater this past January. This kind of super-specialized equipment has some potential for higher returns than a towboat if you are in the right market. Any large shipping port with a regular traffic of cargo ships, barges and warships will certainly need the services of ROVs for inspections. Sidescan sonar is an excellent technology for locating stuff on the bottom, but perhaps not as in demand or as versitile as an ROV.

ROV work is a natural extension of towing & salvage: you already have the means to transport an ROV with a small, well equipped boat operated by a licensed captain. You probably have space to store an ROV, and the maintanence skills to keep it running. I wonder what a used one goes for?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Tow Trucks

Last month I put up a post about ambulance rates. Now comes the other side of the coin: tow trucks. Comparing tow trucks and towboats from a business standpoint becomes rather complicated, because the list of differences is at least as long as the list of similarities. (Perhaps even more so than comparing ambulances.) So, one needs to make a very narrow comparison, rather than a broad one, to derive meaning from the exercise.

To begin, tow trucks are rated in categories dependant on the truck's capacity to handle different loads. While you may be free to tow a 50' sportfisher with an 18' plywood skiff and 40hp outboard bolted on the transom (been there - done that), tow trucks are not. Tow trucks are usually categorized into three basic classes: light, medium, and heavy - sort of like the three ACAPT classes of Utility, Coastal and Offshore. Unlike our industry, the mature and deeply regulated tow truck industry long ago recognized that different kinds of equipment should be charged out at vastly differing rates. So, to make some comparisons, we need to know what kind of tow truck we are talking about. Most of the towboat fleet is ACAPT Cosatal, which means the boat is capable of towing a disabled vessel in the 50' range. If you examine the tow truck classes, a Coastal towboat would be roughly comparable a the capabilities of a standard duty flatbed tow truck; ie. it can move 2-3 times it's own gross weight. The truck pictured above is what I'm talking about. see the ad here "2002 FORD F650, Tow Truck, Black, 2002 Ford F650 XLT, 7 spd, CAT 3126 210hp, 150k Miles, Century 20'2" Steel Carrier, 3 Toolboxes, Rem Rails, $32,000"

Say the seller accepts $30k. Ok, you've got thirty large tied up in a piece of towing equipment, powered with a 210hp CAT diesel. Now, we gotta make some money with the thing. Not cash flow, but profit.

Well, lets open a shop in Ft Worth, TX. According to the chart at left, we would get $135 for the first 30 minutes, then an additional $100/hr charged in 15 minute increments. So, bill your truck for 2 hours, and you earn $135 for the first half hour, then $150 for the remaining 90 minutes = $285. That averages about $143/hr. But what does it cost to operate the equipment?

Well, here is a screen shot from the career opportunity page at the University of Phoenix It's a safe bet that that they are probably presenting the best case scenario. Think you can find a full time, year 'round towboat captain for $25k/year? Good luck. I think it's fair to say that the tow truck driver needs very little training. Most states require a commercial driver's license. Unlike a towboat captain, the tow truck driver certainly doesn't need to document 720 days of field service before being allowed to apply for a CDL. So can we agree that a towboat captain is more highly trained, or at the very least, held to a higher licensing standard, than a tow truck driver? I make that point to imply that the captain deserves a higher salary than a tow truck jockey. As far as I can tell, tow truck driver's are not required to enroll in a random drug testing program.

I don't have the space to get into the insurance costs, but I'm willing to wager that it's less than offshore boat towing. The final point is that a tow truck in a busy metropolitan area will probably be much busier than the average towboat, i.e. more billable hours per year. The one above did 150,000 miles since new in 2002. Figure an average of 30 mph, that's 5000 hours. Figure 85% of those are billable = 4000 profitable hours, times $143/hr (average) Of course, that's if we only figure an hourly fee structure.

The flat rate structure means that you could do 3, or even 4 jobs in a single hour, at $135 each. So in reality, our tow truck could conceivably bill $540 in a single one hour period. Perhaps the real average for this analysis would be about $200/hr. over the life of the truck. $200/hr times 4000 hrs = $800,000 gross. Pay the driver top wages of $25k/yr for 5 years. Say $30k per year for fuel, insurance and maintenance....lets see...thats leaves $525,000 profit in 5 years on a $30,000 investment.

Ok, the $30,000 was for a used truck. But a new one would be about $60,000. That means it would cost $1000/month to amortize that asset over 60 months. Meanwhile, you're profiting $8750/month owning the thing. Try that with your towboat...