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‘Towing risks damage, so plan the process carefully’

Ken Endean advises ‘Consider, Communicate and Connect’ when towing, particularly when under sail, and reflects on lessons learned from six incidents

A yacht towing another boat
A very tricky tow: the motor-sailer assisting the black cutter. Credit: Mary Endean

Learning curve: ‘Towing risks damage, so plan the process carefully’

The 14ft dinghy was in a nasty trap.

With the other sailing school boats, its crew had sailed across Plymouth Sound, around Devil’s Point and up-river past the naval dockyard, but on the return passage they misjudged the ebb tide and were drawn against the bows of two moored lighters.

A diagram showing how to tow a dinghy

The lighters incident, with the sailing school launch moving into position to tow the dinghy out of trouble. Credit: Maxine Heath

Luckily, they managed to grab the heavy Admiralty mooring buoy to prevent themselves being sucked between the hulls, where the mooring chains and churning current could have capsized the dinghy and pulled them under.

I was on the sailing school launch with Jack, the senior instructor, for a kind of floating interview as I had applied for a summer job.

When he asked: ‘Can you throw a rope?’ this looked like being the key assessment test.

Jack throttled back to just stem the tide, beginning a cautious ferry glide to a point upstream of the dinghy.

We warned the trainees that one of them must keep hold of the buoy, leaving the other to deal with our rope, even if it was fumbled or missed.

I took my time in coiling the warp; my throw apparently earned me employment for the next two summers, and one trainee secured the line before returning aft to his tiller.

Then Jack carefully towed them clear of the steel jaws and into open water.

Sailing education traditionally includes set-piece exercises, such as reefing, anchoring, picking up a buoy, entering a pontoon berth and man- overboard drill, but towing a boat out of trouble is probably neglected by many training courses.

Establishing a tow may be compared with a man-overboard drill but there’s an important difference: when a person is in cold water, haste is vital, but towing is more complicated and may risk damage to the rescuer, so it is important to plan the process carefully, and ensure that everyone involved understands their role and the risks involved.

Towing lessons for instructors

If a mnemonic is useful, I suggest: ‘Consider, Communicate and Connect’, and my next towing experience demonstrated the importance of all three ‘Cs’, as I messed up the ‘Connect’.

The sailing school fleet had made a coastal trip from Plymouth Sound to the River Yealm’s Cellar Beach and was returning around the Mewstone when the Hornet dinghy lost a rudder pintle.

I was instructing in one of the school’s Airborne Lifeboats, vessels that had been conceived by Uffa Fox in the Second World War for dropping by parachute to ditched aircrew.

After the war, many were converted for leisure sailing and made powerful dayboats, having Uffa’s typical planing hulls drawn out to 23ft with canoe sterns.

With an instructor and three pupils they performed on a par with Flying Fifteens.

Many of our customers were intending to buy small cruisers so each Airborne carried an anchor, warps, fenders, a pump and other cruising gear.

A chart showing Plymouth Sound

Around Plymouth Sound. Credit: Maxine Heath

I hailed the Hornet to offer a tow but with swell reflecting from the cliffs the closing manoeuvre was tricky.

The pupils managed the sheets while I retained the helm but I was unsure if any of them could throw a rope properly, so I decided to do that myself.

Big mistake.

‘Communicate’ went OK as I primed the Hornet crew to pass the warp around the mast and then sit aft to keep the bow up, but with my attention on the Hornet I forgot that the Airborne was rigged with a standing backstay.

The coil of rope flew from my hand for about a metre, hit the wire and fell, tangled, into the water.

We were head-reaching past the Hornet, the launch was coming to take charge and I could only apologise to my crew for a dismal exhibition.

Later in the week they helped me to make amends.

In bright sun and a fitful off-shore wind the school’s boats were exercising between Plymouth Hoe and Drake’s Island.

A diagram showing One Airborne towing another out of the main channel

One Airborne towing another out of the main channel. Credit: Maxine Heath

Bob, the youngest instructor and a racing ace, was having a good day, reclining elegantly in his shades, lying full length on the leeward deck as his crew of two young women sailed his Airborne, reaching across the Sound.

A solid gust curved down over Plymouth Hoe, spread out on the water like a large black fist and flattened the Airborne into the surface, with Bob somewhere underneath.

‘All he said was “glug”’, claimed one of his pupils, later.

Help was at hand and some Royal Marines, who had been practising in an assault craft, zoomed over to right the Airborne and then, being sailors at heart, carried off the young women for hot showers.

When we arrived, Bob was standing in a waterlogged hull with tangled gear and surrounded by a small flotilla of craft, including a Grand Banks motor yacht and all equally unsuitable for salvaging a swamped boat.

To add urgency, we were in the main channel and an RN frigate was emerging from behind Devil’s Point, coming downstream.

I outlined a plan and then my trainees showed their mettle.

Communication was impressive.

Harry, a PE instructor from an inner-city school, stood on the bow and issued crisp instructions to the would-be rescuers who were in our way, who all backed off smartly.

Making a connection went just as well; Geoff had been offered a crew place on a JOG racer, so he concentrated on sail handling.

As we luffed up to come alongside Bob, our mainsail slid down and was furled in seconds.

The third pupil was Beryl, a bouncy character who would probably have rescued any Royal Marines in distress.

This post-war picture captures the sleek shape of a converted Airborne Lifeboat

This post-war picture captures the sleek shape of a converted Airborne Lifeboat

She rigged the fenders and then, with a gleam in her eye, laid hands on our big bucket.

Beryl’s bucket, aided by two portable pumps, lifted Bob’s boat to a more buoyant level and then we had to move quickly, as the frigate was bearing down on us.

We filled the jib and slipped ahead, with the other Airborne on the end of a warp.

As the apparent wind came forward, Geoff re-hoisted the main and we headed for home, although there was an unexpected complication.

Airbornes, with their flat, scow-like hulls, had some eccentric handling characteristics and when one was towing another from its elongated stern the tail definitely wagged the dog.

At low speeds, in the lulls between gusts, the rudder had only a feeble effect and to make major course corrections we had to raise or lower the leading boat’s centreplate, in order to adjust its leeway in relation to the tow.

Choppy seas risk damage

A few years later, another two incidents involved towing under sail after Mary and I had acquired our first boat, Demerara, an Alacrity 18.

That design looks tiny alongside most modern yachts but in 1971 it was a serious cruiser with delightful behaviour under sail.

As we rarely needed the outboard motor, it was in a locker when we spotted a plywood dory adrift in Spithead, so we simply sailed alongside and reached for the painter, then secured it astern and towed the dory into Cowes, where it was later reclaimed by a happy owner.

The second incident was more complicated.

A diagram showing Steering by centreplate

Steering by centreplate. Credit: Maxine Heath

A 16ft catamaran had been dismasted when its forestay uncoupled, and its single-handed owner requested a tow into the Newtown River so that he could beach and re-rig.

Wind-against-tide created a steep chop and the narrow hulls were lying beam-on to the waves, so going alongside would risk damage.

We sailed past as slowly as possible, threw a warp, and the cat sailor scrambled over the trampoline to fasten the line around the forward crossbeam.

As he was finishing the knot, the warp came taut and the cat jerked forward, sliding away at an angle from our heading and threatening to overtake on our lee side.

He returned to the tiller bar just in time to correct the steering but it was clear that I should have given more consideration to the time required, perhaps by preparing a second warp to extend the first one.

Rough water

A few years later, we were returning across the Channel in a Hurley 22 with our two small children when we came upon a motor-sailer towing a black gaff cutter that had lost its rudder.

The westerly wind was strengthening, with plenty of breaking crests, and the straight-stemmed cutter was sheering away from the direction of tow.

Then we noticed that the motor-sailer had a rope trailing over the side.

In the wild conditions, it was unsafe to approach very closely, although we did our best, hailing and gesturing to warn the skipper.

Continues below…

However, he had his hands full, so our efforts were ineffective.

In those days we were not carrying a radio, so we decided that, with the kids on board, we could only head for England.

It was a fast, wet reach and we saw the Poole lifeboat speeding south in clouds of spray.

After anchoring at Studland I rowed ashore and called the Coastguard from the village phone box.

Both vessels were eventually towed in – the motor-sailer with a rope around its prop.

Soon afterwards we bought a VHF radio for better communication.

Partly lost in translation

I’ll finish with an international incident.

Off France’s Biscay coast, south of La Rochelle, our current boat, the Sabre 27 London Apprentice, was beating out towards Ile d’Oleron in a fresh NW breeze when we came across three Frenchmen in a large inflatable with a duff engine, who ‘thumbed’ a tow to the island.

Sailors in this region take great pride in handling cruisers under canvas, so we decided to show that Brits could do the same.

Remembering the catamaran incident, we passed close to them and threw a complete coil of rope, with the instruction: ‘Attachez et retournez’.

A yacht towing a dinghy in France

Towing the French inflatable into calm water. Credit: Ken Endean

They would have used different words but we had no time for consulting dictionaries and they got the message, as one chap hung over the bow to secure the warp to the inflatable’s strong points.

On our second approach, the end of the warp was thrown back to us, Mary made it fast and we were on our way westward.

However, to counter the tide, we soon needed to make a tack to the north.

We shortened the tow, then slackened it as our boat tacked, so that the sails could fill before the load came on again.

A chart showing the route taken by a yacht towing a dinghy off La rochelle

Towing the French inflatable. Credit: Maxine Heath

But on the inflatable there was consternation: they apparently thought we intended to take them to La Rochelle.

We were towing the only Frenchmen on the Atlantic coast who didn’t understand sailing.

My Franglais was inadequate and they were only reassured when we tacked again.

A tow isn’t finished until the casualty is safe but much of the island’s foreshore is obstructed by shellfish-farming structures, so we worked around Fort Boyard’s shoals and towards Pointe des Saumonards, where we could sail in close to the steep beach.

Our new friends completed the passage with a single paddle and some very clear communication: a loud chorus of ‘Vive l’Angleterre’.

Lessons Learned

Keep things simple:

I have never had to tow a heavy craft, or on really rough water, so my experience is obviously limited, although towing under sail may have highlighted issues that would be less obvious in a flat-water training exercise under power.

Round Britain

Ken Endean is an inshore pilotage enthusiast who has made a close study of coastal sea conditions around the British Isles

In three of the incidents – with the Airborne, catamaran and black cutter – the towed boat threatened to take charge by sheering off-line.

Towing advice sometimes includes rigging bridles on both boats, in order to spread the loads on deck fittings, but this may be unhelpful on the towing boat.

A conventional tug has its towing hook well forward, so that the rudder can easily swing the stern from side to side.

A stern bridle (or an elongated stern, as on the Airborne) will tend to have the opposite effect by moving the tow rope’s pivot point aft.

Even if it is rigged to slide across a bridle, friction may cause the ropes to bind.

Lifeboats usually tow directly from a stern fairlead and I reckon that’s the best option for yachts: keep things simple.

Names have been changed

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