It was pitch dark when we left the docks at Morehead City, North Carolina, and began threading our way through the sound toward Beaufort Inlet, but it was less nerve-wracking than the previous morning when we'd had to deal with heavy fog as well. With eyes on the chart plotter and the navigational markers, we compared notes and moved slowly, three experienced mariners and a local expert.
Once we were satisfied with our bearings and course, we got up on plane, steering across the wake of a lumbering dredge, bearing on the flashing red lights to seaward. Just about the time we realized the glare of the wake we were bearing down on was actually a sandbar laid bare by tide, we were on it. We slid softly and completely up on the sand and lay over on the hull. The motors scarcely had time to race before we shut them down. Just that quickly, we were aground. No one was hurt, nothing was broken. We were, as they say, high and dry, and it looked like a good two or three hours before the tide would deliver enough water to get us on our way.
We assessed our situation. While we were glad we weren't sitting in a pile of wreckage spitting Chiclets, we didn't relish missing the daybreak tuna bite - nor did we look forward to the mortification of sitting there while the sun rose and a parade of boats cruised past. So we got on the radio and called a towboat.
Within 20 minutes a yellow rigid inflatable pulled up to the sandbar, tossed us a hawser, and as soon as we could tie a line to the bow, had us off the sand and back into deep water. It was amazingly simple and efficient. We even made it to the tuna grounds in time for the bite. The tough part was shelling out $530 for the experience! Had we had the foresight to join a pre-paid assistance service it wouldn't have cost us a thing.
It can happen to anyone. In fact, the same scene plays itself out tens of thousands of times annually. And the smart boaters are the ones who anticipate that things don't always go as they are supposed to and prepare for it.
There are three major players in the towing game. Vessel Assist Association of America, based in Costa Mesa, California, has been in business since 1983, and boasts about 50,000 members. Though it originated on the West Coast, Vessel Assist currently operates franchises nationwide, offering a range of service plans. These run from a basic plan of $19, which provides a $200 allowance for on-water services, to $135 for an annual membership, which covers service up to a 50-mile radius, among other benefits. West Marine is the retail affiliate of Vessel Assist.
Sea Tow, which has 200,000 members, is based in Southold, New York. Its stronghold has been the East Coast, but it too has expanded into a national market, and currently assists about 40,000 boaters a year. Sea Tow offers a single plan at $95 annually, with an available $45 upgrade, and generally covers vessels within a 25-mile radius from the tow boat location, which could easily turn into a tow of 50 miles. Sea Tow is affiliated with Boaters World Marine Center.
TowBoatU.S., a subsidiary of Boat-U.S., claims 530,000 members, including those who get minimal coverage through a membership with BoatU.S. TowBoatU.S. offers four different levels of coverage, ranging from $15 per year to $99 annually.
The Price of Protection
So who really needs this kind of protection, and does it really make sense to spend the dough? "The kind of boater who buys this protection is the person who plans ahead and takes responsibility for himself," says David LaMontagne, the president of Vessel Assist. "It is a guy who is responsible for other people on the water, usually his family. He's the type of boater who likes to be well prepared."
"It's crazy not to have it," says Sea Tow's CEO and founder Joe Frohnhoefer. "Things happen. With a car, you are going to get a flat tire or a dead battery sooner or later. It's the same on the water. And with towing running up $250 an hour, what are you going to do?"
According to Frohnhoefer, the number of members who actually end up calling for assistance in the course of a year varies with the boating area, from an average of 12 to 18 percent in seasonal boating areas up to 40 percent in South Florida.
Jerry Cardarelli, assistant vice-president and Director of Towing Services for TowBoatU.S., says the average assistance call bills out at $320. "Usually, this is an out-of-gas call, a call for a battery jump, prop entanglement or some other mechanical breakdown," he says. "On the other hand, the soft groundings we service average $500 per incident."
Another thing that makes these contracts such a smart deal is that with all the companies, the contract is good for a year, with no limit on the number of times you can use it. Just about any minor - yet expensive - inconvenience you are likely to suffer on the water is covered, whenever it happens. It's reassuring to know the backup is there.
Boats Come with Coverage
This is the rationale behind the coverage that many boat manufacturers provide to their buyers. Sea Tow, for example, has a 95-day program called Sea Care, aimed at new boaters. Boston Whaler, Grady-White, Wellcraft, Regulator, Pro-Sport and Donzi are just a few of the companies that include this plan with a new boat purchase.
So why does a top-notch boat company offer a breakdown assistance program to new buyers. "It gives our customers a lot of peace of mind," says Joey Weller, customer relations manager for Grady-White. "This service gives new boat owners some margin of safety as they learn what they are doing and gain experience. It gives them a measure of confidence and security. We want people to have great experiences on the water. This is a way we can help them do that."
While most problems you have on the water are covered by an assistance program, there are things that are beyond the realm of this coverage, such as hard grounding. Once a boat is in imminent peril, or damaged, it becomes an insurance issue and a case of salvage, which is a tricky aspect of maritime law with its own rules and codes. Towing companies want no part of accidents like this. In fact, they are so careful to remain on their own turf - towing and soft grounding and gas runs - that they don't even like to refer to calls for assistance as "claims," because that's insurance language.
One aspect worth investigating is whether your boat is covered if you loan it out. Some contracts cover the boat, some cover the buyer, and some cover either or both, in any combination. Each company has its own way of dealing with this, so make sure you know what you are buying. Fleet coverage for a single owner and multiple boats can also be arranged.
Assistance programs provide a valuable service, but they still can't cover common sense and basic skills. "Our programs are not intended to replace preventative maintenance on your boat, or be substitute for good seamanship," says LaMontagne.
All companies offer a boat-trailer upgrade for a minimal charge. Auto insurance commonly does not cover your trailer if you break down on the road. This is another detail worth checking into before you need the service.
An additional caveat: If you fail to sign up for an assistance program and find yourself negotiating with a tow driver to pull you out of trouble, don't bother to offer to join up on the spot in order to immediately begin enjoying your benefits. They hear it all the time and won't go for it. You have to buy the plan before you need it!
Any of the programs offered, if chosen wisely, could pay big dividends if you need help on the water. It's safe to say that not every company is going to have just what you need, no matter where you happen to be. Shop them, compare them. Where one company may claim five coverage areas, another may consider the same five a single coverage area. Make sure the assistance you are most likely to need is going to be available where you are likely to need it. It's a competitive business, and each company has its own strengths. In the end, it's you who has to decide which plan is the best hedge against a run of bad luck or screwing up. In my opinion, the only real mistake you can make is to forgo towing insurance entirely. I still think about how much bait and chum my $530 towing fee would have bought.