Towboat US: When is it a tow? Salvage? Extortion?

in Intracoastal Waterway / Life at Sea
st augustine inlet satellite

“The thin veneer we call civilization can disappear where a shipwreck is concerned.” – Richard Loran, Shipwrecks of Great Britain and Ireland (quoted on Boat US’s web site, an affiliate of TowBoat US)

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:


st augustine inlet satellite

Entrance to St. Augustine from Atlantic – red #4 missing at time of writing.

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.”

So, basically, we pay for TowBoat US membership for those times when our boat might be in danger and we need help. And yet, according to the letter of the law, this is exactly the time we should be wary of calling Towboat US because if they succeed

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anthony Baker December 4, 2012, 8:54 am

    Thanks for this article. It really clarifies and makes you think about what you are really buying from Towboat US.

  • Brittany December 4, 2012, 10:24 am

    Yeah, I know that the salvage stuff at sea is weird. In fact, maritime law is incredibly murky and weird, which is why so many ‘crimes at sea’ go unresolved. But yeah, I remember reading about salvage and was like “Whoa, if someone rescues it, the ship and all it’s cargo is theirs?”. There are companies that do just this because there can be a LOT of money in it (in the ‘cargo’). Didn’t realize TowBoat US was one of them though…

  • Mid-Life Cruising! December 4, 2012, 10:57 am

    Wow, this is scary! We have TowBoat US and had no idea about this loophole. Thanks for sharing this important info, and hopefully none of us will have to challenge this.

    We’ve been enjoying reading about your journey South!

  • alchemy2010 December 4, 2012, 7:39 pm

    Glad that s/v Serendipity made it in safely and soundly. St. Augustine is tricky whether in the ICW or the channel with breakers on both sides heading out or in from the Atlantic. Last year, four days before we arrived a boat got slammed in the channel and lost it’s keel and ended up taking on water, and two people were swimming. We came in via the ICW from Vero Beach for one of our hops….we ran aground in the ICW channel well with in our markers but the shoaling is so darn bad there that you can’t trust the markers 100% percent. Made it to our mooring…caught wind of the news of the boat in the main channel four days before and decided to call Tow Boat for a play by play via the VHF radio when we left going out into the Atlantic there. Breakers on both sides and we had to hug one side of the channel because of the shoaling which changes all the time. I remember my adrenaline rush that morning….didn’t need two cups of coffee. ;0) If you decide to go out that channel to the Ocean don’t be shy about asking TowBoat for a blow by blow escort via the VHF or an actual escort…they will do it at no charge I believe in that channel. Once again…glad your friends are doing fine tonight and enjoy St. Augustine – it is a fun town especially at Christmas time!

    • Tasha December 4, 2012, 7:49 pm

      Yes. They are fine…there boat will be laid up for repairs for a while, though. The inlet to St. A is something else! Glad you were able to laugh about it!

      • alchemy2010 December 4, 2012, 10:02 pm

        At the time it was not funny at all….our draft is 6′ 3″ w/o cruising provisions….it was lower tide…I am just glad it was in the ICW portion and not the Ocean channel…I just had never run aground well with in markers…

  • alchemy2010 December 4, 2012, 7:41 pm

    p.s. Sorry about your groundings too…and glad you all are alright as well….our worst ever grounding was there….we hit and then I went down to just check the keel bolts cause I am a freak, and while I am on my hands and knees in my foulies we bump again and I literally slide down the salon floor three feet…it was actually kind of funny…took us half an hour to get ourselves launched again but we did. It was the most uncomfortable grounding though ever…

  • alchemy2010 December 4, 2012, 7:47 pm

    p.s.s. I can’t imagine having an equipment failure or anything of a technical nature go awry in that main channel…we will toast to s/v Serendipity tonight and Bravo to Jessica for staying so calm! (promise last post)

    • Tasha December 4, 2012, 7:51 pm

      Ha! I’ll let her know…the whole marina was impressed with her composure on the radio!

  • Ethan Maass December 6, 2012, 2:41 pm

    Just remember that there are dozens and dozens of highly reputable, highly trusted and highly capable marine towing and recovery (salvage) operations around the country who do their best to provide great service to boaters. Certainly, there will be instances where admiralty laws come into play and the salvor will seek to be compensated. But, those rare cases are usually a VERY small part of a towing operation’s business. Assisting boaters and keeping customers happy is a top priority for every assistance towing operator I know.

    • Tasha December 6, 2012, 3:08 pm

      You’re absolutely right, and I don’t discount that when in need, you shouldn’t second-guess calling for help.

      But as long as there are instances where a towboat company can exploit a reasonably simple rescue by claiming salvage, even if it is, as you say, rare, then customers are at risk and should know about those risks so they can ask the right questions when a company comes to their aid. After all, we can’t always know the moral fortitude of our local salvor… especially if you’re like us and you’re traveling all the time and don’t know people in the ports you’re sailing through.

      In my mind, it’s the responsibility of TowBoat US and SeaTow to prohibit, as a company line, the exploitation of both members and non-members in situations that aren’t anything more than a serious running aground where the boat isn’t lost or abandoned.

      Major salvages are a different story – I think admiralty law in these cases are weird, as they can turn individuals and companies into blood-thirsty sharks – but it’s less immoral than a towboat company exploiting a member who thought they were getting a tow and ended up being billed for the value of their boat.

  • Greg December 6, 2012, 6:43 pm
  • Capt. December 11, 2012, 2:27 pm

    I am the TowBoat U.S. captain from the night of the rescue in the St. Augustine Inlet.You were correct in stating that it took approximately an hour to attach my towing bridle to the Serendipity with search and rescue’s brave and gallant efforts. We were in 10-12ft breakers rushing from the northeast. We did not know at the time they were not members and yet still were the first responder on scene battling the same waves and conditions.

    The resulting “engine failure’ question was to determine why they were not under their own power being that they were no longer aground. To evaluate what it was going to take to get them to safety. That night as a captain, it made me even prouder of what Boat U.S. stands for and the tools that they provide to get the job done. In that situation search and rescue or the Coast Guard would have removed them from the vessel based on the peril involved. Resulting in the fact of, unless that anchor held through the night. They would have lost their vessel in those conditions. We provided a service that otherwise would not have been provided without our arrival in the saving of their property. After delivering the vessel to the mooring field for a well deserved good nights rest for the heroic couple.The following days after, as members of Boat U.S. We were able to provide them with a tow to the repair facility at no charge to our new members.

    I have done 4 ungroundings personally in this past week. All successful and at no charge for our members. It was an honor to meet this couple and to be apart of their sailing adventure.

    Last but not least. When called we are there! In 12ft+ seas up to 75 miles out from the coast and further in other areas! In stormy conditions we are there!The service level of Boat U.S. and it’s captains are priceless! Boat U.S. is the largest towing provider in the nation due to the services provided, the professionalism in getting the job done right and the number of members that Trust when called we will always be there!

    • Tasha December 11, 2012, 11:50 pm

      Hi Justin,

      Thanks for taking the time to write this response. From what I understand, you did an amazing job bringing Serendipity to safety. Everyone close to Matt and Jessica is very grateful for your courage and expertise in the situation.

      The purpose of this post is not to diminish the excellent job towboat captains do in bringing boats to safety. The purpose of this post is rather to question the transparency of TowBoat US/SeaTow policies regarding salvage.

      As a longtime TowBoat US member who has called in for towing on two occasions, I was surprised to learn that it is possible for a member to have their vessel claimed for salvage in certain situations which might be deemed dangerous… I never even knew this was possible.

      I’ve read through TowBoat US’s policy on what constitutes ‘salvage’ of a vessel, and it isn’t clear if there is a differentiation between the treatment of a member’s vessel vs. a non-member’s vessel. Could you give a more personal account of what for you does or doesn’t constitute salvage? And could you clarify whether a vessel is less likely to be deemed a salvage if a vessel or a vessel’s captain is a TowBoat US member?

      I appreciate the time you took to formulate a reply and I truly appreciate the work towboat captains do to help boaters. I’m just hoping to gain more clarity on the subject of whether I or other boaters could find themselves in a situation where they request a tow and are deemed a salvage, and how to prevent that misunderstanding.


      Tasha Hacker

      • Jessica December 12, 2012, 9:54 pm

        Matt and I would just like to thank you again so much for your services that night, you have no idea what you did for us and our boat. We can not even extend enough gratitude to tell you how thankful we are, we could not have asked for a better captain to come to our rescue.
        I do just want to quickly clear up one comment in the post so there is no misunderstanding in the tow of Serendipity. I know I mentioned it in one of the forums, but I there may have been bad or incorrect details of our storytelling that night after we came in. Our captain never once mentioned the word salvage to us. Just the price of the tow and setting us up with a membership so we could get a discount on that night’s bill and free tows going forward for the next year. When we did mention the word salvage later that night it was just a case of “thank goodness it wasn’t salvage”, and out of our mouths alone.
        Justin, thank you for getting us and our home out of there and to safety that night. Tasha and Ryan, thank you for being a shoulder to lean on that night, coming in to good friends made all the difference.

  • Adam Wheeler December 12, 2012, 5:22 pm

    Dear Ms. Hacker-

    Thanks for being a BoatUS member. I’d like to kindly respond to your questions and hopefully clear up any misunderstandings. The following information pertains to the BoatUS Towing Program. I would not want to speak for any other service providers.

    A lot of boaters have the same questions you do. BoatUS provides information on the topic in our publications and through our website in hopes of answering those questions. I’ll do my best to help provide some clarification here.

    Admiralty Law defines any voluntary rescue of a vessel at sea as salvage. What BoatU.S. has done for its Members is work with our fleet of TowBoatU.S. and Vessel Assist licensees to classify low order salvage as “towing” and provide for the cost of that service under our Towing Program.

    Examples of towing would be assistance provided as the result of mechanical breakdowns (engine failure, electrical issue, dead battery, etc..) and soft ungrounding. A soft ungrounding is a situation involving one towing vessel in which one towing line is needed on a calm day with little peril to successfully recover a boat. This type of assistance is properly provided for under the BoatUS Towing Program.

    However, there are a large range of higher end scenarios involving perilous situations and/or the need for special equipment that remain salvage. For example, if the weather is bad or the boat is sitting on a challenging surface that can damage the grounded vessel, this can be considered salvage even if the job is completed with one boat.

    When a TowBoatUS or Vessel Assist captain determines a job is salvage they are required by their licensing agreement with BoatUS to inform the boat owner in advance that they believe the case to be salvage and how they intend to bill the job. This provides the boat owner the option to seek other alternatives if they disagree with the captain. However, if seeking another option is not possible due to time being if the essence then the situation would be by definition a salvage.

    I thought Justin did a great job reviewing the challenges they faced when assisting “Serendipity”. The cost to have a qualified licensed captain standing by with a properly equipped and insured towing vessel is great. That cost in turn is passed on to the boat owner. That is why BoatU.S. strongly urges all boat owners to carry towing service and to properly insure their boats.

    For a further info on this topic there are some good questions and answers that may help clarify at

    Lastly, in your blog you mentioned that we “rescue” boats- I want to clarify that we do not provide rescue services for people whose lives are endangered. While our approved towing companies are always on the water and, as a result, often find themselves involved in rescue operations, their focus and area of expertise is the boat. When it comes to the rescuing of lives the USCG is the proper responder.

    I hope I’ve provided you with some clarification on this at least from the BoatU.S. side of things.

    Adam Wheeler
    Vice President
    BoatUS Towing Services

    • Tasha December 12, 2012, 11:26 pm

      Dear Mr. Wheeler,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to reply to the questions I posed to Justin and to help inform me, and other members like me, of BoatU.S.’s salvage policies with regard to your Towing Program.

      As you say, a lot of boaters have the same questions I do. Many people are surprised when they discover that towboat companies can claim salvage on a vessel run aground.

      In the process of reading the responses to this post here and on forums, I’ve started looking into the laws regarding salvage more thoroughly, and I’ve started to learn about the steep costs and risk involved in salvage operations.

      What I think boaters are often surprised at, though, is that the fees charged for salvage are dependent on the value of the boat salvaged.

      Perhaps you could help members like myself understand why this is the case? If you could clarify the answers to these questions, I think boaters would have a clearer idea of what they’re paying for with towing insurance, and what they aren’t paying for:

      1) I know admiralty law says you’re entitled to claim the “hull value” in a salvage situation, but as I understand it, the claim is not usually as high as that. What factors does TowBoat U.S. take into consideration when submitting a claim for salvage?

      2) As a sailboat owner, I know how expensive it is to run even a cruising vessel as small as ours. And I gather TowBoat U.S. is the largest operation of its kind in the U.S. Can you give an idea of the cost of running and keeping on-call towboat fleets and salvage vessels? It may be hard for boaters to grasp the resources TowBoat U.S. has, and it may help members understand how much their membership buys.

      3) Towing insurance only covers aid when a boat has aground if it is a “light running aground.” What are the factors taken into consideration when deciding the towboat aid was for a “hard running aground”?

      I think many boaters, like me, gladly pay for towing insurance through companies like TowBoatU.S. because we know the chances of needing these services are very high. But boaters don’t always know what isn’t covered by their towboat company policy.

      As you can see in this discussion thread here (which was started by a TowBoatU.S. employee in response to the blog post) — — boaters seem to be okay with the cut-and-dry salvage situations, but they don’t understand why the fee for a salvage isn’t transparent and fixed in the case of a hard running aground. What seems to disappoint people is when a boat is towed to safety and then their towboat company claims a fee which can be as high as the value of the boat until it is negotiated downwards to a still-exorbitant fee by the insurance company. In Martin Manin’s case with SeaTow, this was $30,000.

      This is the thing that seems, to many boaters, to be “wrong” even if it is “legal.” And when they are told it could happen, their immediate concern is that this provides an opportunity to exploit a vulnerable boater.

      Is there anything you can say to allay the fears that boaters could be taken advantage of in a situation when they call for help?

      I appreciate the time and effort you’ve made to respond to this post. I assure you my goal is to learn more about how salvage works so I can be better informed about my choices.

      Your feedback is greatly appreciated.


      Tasha Hacker