Turf to Surf Towboat U.S.: When is it a tow? Salvage? Extortion?

We ran aground three times in the middle of the channel in the ICW between Cumberland Island and St. Augustine, Florida, so we were pretty frazzled when we finally arrived to the entrance of St. Augustine’s inlet. Each time Hideaway slammed to a stop on a sand bank, I had visions of our keel ripping clean off the boat, leaving us with a sinking home, an aborted trip and two angry, swimming cats.

And we weren’t at all reassured by the channel entrance markers as we approached St. Augustine, either. They seemed to lead in all different directions and conflicted with the markers on our charts, causing us to circle for 15 minutes in front of one particular green buoy until we could figure out which side to pass it on.

Eventually we worked out if we hugged red buoy #2 on the way in, we were likely to have enough water under our keel, though we still had to get over a 7-foot barrier without running aground before we were safely in the channel (which is not much room for a boat that draws 5′ 6″). So we proceeded slowly, with our eyes glued to the depth gauge.

That’s when we heard the call over Channel 16 – it was Jessica from Serendipity. She was hailing TowBoat US for help, saying she couldn’t see the next channel marker after red buoy #2 and didn’t know how to proceed.
Ryan and I spun around to look, expecting to see Serendipity directly behind us. But we realized that there must have been another red #2 out on the ocean, where they were. So we listened intently as TowBoat US explained to Jessica that red #4 was missing and she should approach green buoy #5A directly from red #2 and take a left, as illustrated in the satellite picture below:

We were too far away to reach Serendipity on the radio to find out more about their situation, so we continued on to St. Augustine with the volume on our VHF turned up. And I had just picked up our mooring ball in St. Augustine when we heard, “Coast Guard, Coast Guard, this is Serendipity. We’ve run aground. I repeat we’ve run aground.”

I quickly tied up the boat and hurried down below with Ryan, then sat with my knees folded up to my chest next to the VHF, listening for any sign that our friends and their boat were okay.

Amazingly, Jessica sounded perfectly calm as she answered the Coast Guard’s questions:

“How many on board?” -Two.

“Is everyone wearing life jackets?” -Yes.

“Are you taking on water?” -No.

I felt completely helpless as words like “run aground”, “slamming”, “breakers”, “ten-foot waves” and “drifting” flew out across the radio waves.

Then the calls went out from the Coast Guard to Search and Rescue announcing a “distress call” and asking boats to look out for “sailing vessel Serendipity” which was now “adrift.” I said to Ryan, “I don’t understand. If they’re adrift, then they’re not aground. Which one is it? What’s going on?!”

After almost an hour, when we finally heard TowBoat US on the radio telling the Coast Guard that they’d secured Serendipity and were on their way in, we exhaled. And then we heard Jessica’s voice on the radio asking how many lines were needed. She might as well have been asking the captain what he wanted on his sandwich, she sounded so calm and collected.

Then the towboat captain said, “I understand your engine failed, is that correct?”

Ryan gave me a look that said “I don’t like where this is going” and then nodded when Jessica replied, “Negative. Our engine did not fail. Our jib sheet got wrapped around the prop.”

“Good answer,” Ryan said, and explained that he wasn’t sure how it worked, but he’d heard that if you lost your engine at sea, TowBoat US could claim an exorbitant “salvage fee”, even if you are a TowBoat US member.

I stared at Ryan incredulously, figuring he had to be making this up. “What kind of company makes money rescuing boats and then holds your boat for ransom when you call them to help?!” I shouted.

It seemed too crazy to be true, so I had to research this one for myself. And sure enough, what I found was some very alarming language on TowBoat US Fort Lauderdale’s website referring to the question “When is it a salvage?“

Here are some quotes:

“A marine salvage takes place when we rescue your boat whether it is aground, on a reef, beached, stranded at sea, flooding, sinking or in any other number of situations.”
“What’s the difference between towing and salvage? …Generally speaking, the courts have explained that towage is merely speeding up a vessel’s voyage without reference to any circumstances of danger.”

But if all I was looking for with my Towboat US membership was “merely speeding up my vessel’s journey,” I’d argue my money would be better spent on a bigger propeller. Then I could at least speed up all my journeys rather than just when I call my towboat company.

And because of this murky gray area with maritime law, Boat US Towing Services, on their site, advise members to have insurance against salvage, saying “The best protection against a salvage bill is adequate insurance. Boaters should make sure the policy provides for salvage up to the full value of the boat, not a percentage of its value, and that there is no deductible for salvage costs.”

Boat US distinguishes between towing and salvage on their site, saying “Towing assistance, like the pre-paid service available to BoatUS members, provides help for breakdowns and light groundings.” But what is considered “light” and “heavy” with respect to groundings is not clarified.

But they also put the responsibility on boaters to know the difference between a tow and a salvage before requesting assistance, stating, “Since the same marine assistance company often provides both towing and salvage services, it is essential that the boat owner reach an understanding with the marine assistance provider before action is taken… BoatUS Towing Service Providers are required to inform the captain of a boat before beginning any work if the procedure is salvage, not towing. If this isn’t possible due to wind and sea conditions, the towing company should tell the captain as soon as possible. However, boaters should not assume they will always be told. Boaters should always ask whether the job is towing or salvage before they accept a tow.”