Tow tow tow your boat

If you haven’t yet been involved in either being towed or towing someone, then you are either very lucky or your time is about to come!

Being towed is not cool. Aside from the obvious humiliation, Wildwood does not like being towed, she slews around all over the place in a most uncomfortable fashion. As part of my Ocean Yachtmaster study, I need to swot up on some towing techniques, and so if you want to try and at least look slightly cool while towing or being towed – read on for some tips…

Before you decide you need a tow or if you are going to tow someone else, you might want to consider your options, particularly around the issues of salvage which you can conveniently read about in this blog post.

With that bit sorted, now it’s time to get some towing action under way.

Select a line – you preferably want a very long line with some stretch – polyester and polypropylene are best. Nylon is super stretchy and this means more recoil danger should the line or deck fitting break. Towlines should have eyes spliced in the ends as opposed to being knotted – knots aren’t as strong as splices.

Passing a line from one boat to another can be a bit of an issue. The easiest way around this is to either use a weighted heaving line to throw from one boat to another. It’s easier to to this by throwing the line downwind… If your line is of the floating variety and you aren’t good at throwing, then you could float it down wind to the other boat too. Be careful to not get the line around the propeller of the rescue vessel or you could both end up having to be rescued.

Once you have passed the line then it’s time to get fastening. The tow boat should try and fasten the tow from amidships – this helps with steerage, however for yachts with backstays, that isn’t quite so easy, so the best option is to attach a bridle from the rear winches and cleats to spread the load.

If possible move all weight to the back of the vessel being towed.

If you are the one being towed the you will also want to spread the load, with another bridle set up. Bring the lines back through cleats and perhaps to the winches to spread the load.

Snatch and chafe – these are the issues. Snatch relates to the rope going taught and either breaking or ripping a deck fitting out of of your boat. Chafe is what happens to your lines just before they break as the rip themselves in to smithereens by rubbing up against any rough thing in the boat.

You don’t want either of those things to happen during your towing procedure. So to avoid snatch you should use a very long line, preferably one which is stretchy and the spring stops the snatching action. You can also put an anchor or a weight in the middle of the line to weight it down and prevent the snatching action. This could be a chain or a special weight. This is called a catenary effect.

But with something tied on to the middle of the tow line you will also need to keep an eye on the chafe that could potentially wear on your line. You can try to prevent this by affixing a hose or heavy cloth over any potential chafing points.

Be aware that if this stretchy line does break, then the line will recoil at speed, possibly bringing the deck fitting it was attached to with it. You will also want to have a knife nearby to enable you to cut the line should you need to.

Now its time to start towing. Take up the slack and strain on the rope slowly to avoid the snatch and proceed at a sensible speed. Keep an eye on the line for any chafe and establish communications between the two vessels. The vessel being towed might need to try and steer towards the stern of the towing vessel. Dragging a drogue can help if the boat is yawing from side to side. Never try and tow a boat faster than its hull speed. A safe tow speed in calm conditions for a 35′ yacht is 6.5 knots.

You might need to extend or shorten the length of the tow to get the boats in sync with the waves. Take care that the tow boat doesn’t get swamped with waves if the other boat is acting as a brake and there is a following sea. Also take care that the boat being towed doesn’t start surfing down the fronts of waves and potentially overtaking the tow boat. Deploy a drogue!

If conditions are calm, then it can sometimes be easier to town alongside. Simply raft the two boats up together secured fore and aft and springs, and have lots of fenders out. The towing boat should have her stern projecting beyond that of the casualty boat. This helps with manoeuvrability.

You will also want to display the correct lights and shapes to advise other vessels that you are towing.


The tow boat should show:

  • Two masthead lights in a vertical line.
  • When the length of tow exceeds 200 metres (measured from the stern of the towing vessel to the after end of the tow) 3 masthead lights in a vertical line must be carried.
  • Side lights.
  • Stern light.
  • A towing light (yellow) in a vertical line above the stern light

The vessel being towed should exhibit

  • Side lights
  • Stern light


When the length of tow exceeds 200 metres, a black diamond shape where it can best be seen on both towing and towed vessel (if practical).

Where from any sufficient cause it is impracticable for a vessel or object being towed to exhibit the lights or shapes prescribed, all possible measures must be taken to illuminate the tow or at least to indicate its presence.

If the towing operation is such that it severely restricts the towing vessel and its tow in their ability to deviate from their course, in addition to the lights and shapes already described the towing vessel may exhibit the lights and shapes for a vessel that is ‘Restricted in Ability to Manoeuvre’ (RAM).

  • Three all-round lights in a vertical line where they can best be seen the highest and lowest being red and the middle one white.
  • Three black shapes in a vertical line where they can best be seen the highest and lowest being balls and the middle one a diamond.


Towing a dinghy is much easier than towing another boat! 

Have you ever towed anyone or been towed? How did it go? I love real life scenarios. Give me your tips!


13 thoughts on “Tow tow tow your boat

  1. great post. I have both been towed in my dingy and have towed several people in both dingys and boats. I agree, dingys are so much easier to tow.


  2. We’ve been towed more times than I care to remember with our former boat Spray. But fortunately, we’ve always been able to sail to a near-by port and call the harbour master for a short tow into port and we’ve always used the method you described for calm conditions (towing alongside). I hope we never have to do anything more complicated than that ! (Embarrassing enough as it is…).


  3. Oh man, do we have a tow story… The short version is that we broke down 85ft above sea level in the middle of the Panama Canal and the bureaucrats don’t let you sail… 9 days later an incredibly generous couple on a catamaran towed us to the Pacific. Next time I think we’ll try Cape Horn…


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