Bad Day at Hillsboro: One man’s expensive lesson in towing and salvage

Martin Manin is the first to admit that the boating accident he had last winter in South Florida was his fault, and he remains grateful that Sea Tow came to his aid in mere minutes. But he’s so bitter about how that tow was handled financially that he’s willing to share his nautical embarrassments with the world if it helps some of us to learn about the darker side of the boat towing business.

It was around noon last March 31 when Manin headed his 46-foot Sea Ray, Sony Boy III, out through Hillsboro Inlet. He and his family–young grandchildren included–were en route from Fort Lauderdale to Lake Worth, and it was such a lovely Sunday for boating that he decided to take a leg outside. The skies were clear, winds had been less than ten knots from the southeast for more than 36 hours, and predicted seas were one to two feet. What Manin did not anticipate was the nearly full-moon ebb tide current that could both square those small seas and set him slightly sideways toward the inlet’s notorious south reef.

Just outside the breakwaters, when Sony Boy III started slamming as current met waves, Manin got nervous, considered turning around, and throttled way back. In that moment of indecision, he let his boat drift out of the channel, then felt a crunch, indicating contact with bottom, and both engines shut down. Manin issued an anxious distress call on VHF channel 16. However, moments later, by his recollection, further wave action floated Sony Boy III into the calmer waters inshore of the reef, and he was able to restart both engines. Shortly thereafter, TowBoatU.S., Sea Tow, and a local sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene.

When Manin told Sea Tow that he would try to take the boat in under her own power, Capt. John Estey, who was at the helm of the Sea Tow boat, advised him that running with damaged props and/or shafts could cause serious transmission damage or worse. Manin accepted this inarguably sound guidance and says he then tried to show Estey his Sea Tow membership card. According to Manin, the captain said, “I’ll get your card later,” passed him a line, and towed him approximately one and a half miles to a public dock.

Next, Sea Tow Fort Lauderdale owner Tim Morgan arrived and did an underwater inspection of Sony Boy III. Manin says Morgan told him that his boat had suffered an estimated $10,000 worth of rudder, prop, shaft, and hull damage (close to the actual $14,000 repair). When Manin again tried to offer his Sea Tow card, Morgan reportedly explained that this case was a salvage operation not covered by his membership. According to Manin, who admits to still being stressed about the incident, Morgan then said that his fee, paid by Manin’s hull insurer, would be a percentage of the repair cost and asked Manin to sign a standard salvage agreement, which he did.

Later, Manin was shocked, first when he learned that Morgan had filed an $82,500 salvage claim and second when his insurance company settled the matter with a $30,000 payment just a few days later. He believes that Sea Tow Fort Lauderdale misled him in several ways, and he’s concerned that the large fee may significantly affect his marine insurance premium and to a lesser degree the premiums of the whole yachting community. So he’s gone on the warpath, publicizing how he was “scammed by unscrupulous, unethical individuals who portray themselves as a company that renders a service to the boating community.”

Needless to say, Morgan has an entirely different view of the incident. Calling Manin’s charges “ridiculous,” he says that Estey actually towed Sony Boy III off the reef and thus saved the vessel from “imminent peril”—the legal term critical to what he claims is an “obvious” salvage case. As for the fee, Morgan says that he simply explained to Manin how salvage rewards are calculated on the value of the boat and the amount of danger it was in and says he “bristles” when boaters turn from gratitude for a rescue to resentment over the bill.

After extensive investigation, I could write a long essay on the complicated business of towing and salvage, but I still can’t nail down exactly what happened on that Sunday at Hillsboro. While I heard Manin’s adamant claim that he was floating free and out of danger, convincingly corroborated by the TowBoatU.S. captain on scene, the deputy sheriff’s report says, “the listed vessel was on the reef, going up and down with the wave action.” Manin’s and Estey’s versions of what was said before the tow have a similar “he said, she said” quality. Nonetheless, the incident illuminates some larger truths that every boater should be aware of.

Nearly every contractor or franchisee providing services for the big towing companies is also an independent salvor. That makes sense, as similar equipment and skills are required for both businesses, and the regular flow of service tows can nicely balance the unpredictable ups and downs of salvage. However, the duality can be confusing. There’s Manin, membership card in hand, fairly reasonably presuming that—having lucked through a close call—his bright yellow service provider with “Free Towing for Members” on the side is simply providing service. And then there are the Sea Tow captains, having heard the distress call and knowing the local dangers, fairly reasonably presuming that this was a potentially lucrative salvage situation instead of a “nonemergency” tow covered by their franchise obligation.

The towing industry is certainly aware of this confusion, and Sea Tow, TowBoatU.S., and Vessel Assist all have detailed information about the difference between service towing and salvage on their Web sites. The latter two organizations go a step further by requiring their contract captains to inform a member when the circumstances are perilous enough to warrant salvage. Morgan questions this policy, saying that this information is hard to impart and potentially counterproductive, especially in the noise and bustle of a boat just aground with waves and wakes threatening further damage. What if Manin–as he fervently wishes–had been informed of the salvage claim and had decided to go in on his own? Might he have incurred worse damage or perhaps had his insurance claim rejected for refusing help? Or did the salvage reward motivate Estey and Morgan to be deliberately vague?

And what about $30,000 for about an hour’s work? The insurance professionals I interviewed confirmed the gray aspects of salvage, saying that pay-outs to legally astute salvors can be pretty “generous,” but also note how many valuable hulls they’ve saved. They advise becoming informed about salvage contracts or calling before salvage commences, if possible.

Morgan took me for a spin in his robust twin-diesel jet towboat (specially built to work Hillsboro Inlet after he lost a prop boat in a desperate salvage attempt there), regaling me with the costs and hassles of operating a six-boat, 20-man towing and salvage operation. He also told me that some other operators, even ones in his own parent Sea Tow organization, are actually the “pirates” some boaters more skeptical than Manin presume them to be, an accusation I heard often during my research.

Looking back on that Sunday at Hillsboro, we shouldn’t forget that two towboats were on scene in minutes. That’s excellent service, regardless of their intentions. Now, to avoid the sort of painful surprises that Manin suffered, we should understand that these captains wear two hats and that sometimes those hats may not appear to be white.

Ben Ellison has been a delivery captain and navigation instructor for nearly 30 years and was recently editor of Reed’s Nautical Almanacs.