Tow­ing tricks

If you’ve never had to do it, here’s how


Tow­ing one boat with an­other was a reg­u­lar sight in the past. The lead nar­row­boat with a thump­ing diesel mo­tor for propul­sion and the silent butty be­hind. Be­tween them, they would carry many thou­sands of tons of goods from one place to an­other. It still hap­pens to­day but on a much lower scale.

It isn’t this form of tow­ing that we are go­ing to ad­dress here. We are talk­ing about tow­ing an­other boat be­cause of me­chan­i­cal break­down or to help a boat off an ob­sta­cle. Be­fore you don your shin­ing ar­mour and leap to some­one’s aid, there are one or two things you might want to con­sider.


This isn’t some­thing that should be done lightly. Boats that tow reg­u­larly are set up for it with strong tow­ing points and with butties that have en­larged rud­ders to help un­pow­ered steer­ing. They are most likely steered by ex­pe­ri­enced op­er­a­tors too. How­ever, if you need to do it to help a stricken ves­sel, you are prob­a­bly go­ing to con­sider us­ing your nor­mal moor­ing lines.


Rope has a fi­nite load car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity, the ‘break­ing strain’, and all ropes have a value in weight terms af­ter which they might break. The man­u­fac­turer’s quoted break­ing strain re­lates to the ma­te­rial used in making the rope, its di­am­e­ter, its type of makeup, e.g. braid on braid, three-strand etc.

For ex­am­ple, a three-strand, polypropy­lene rope of 14mm di­am­e­ter would have a break­ing strain of around 2,000kg. How­ever, that is when it breaks and you don’t want that to hap­pen. The fig­ure you really need is the safe work­ing load (SWL), and that could be as low as 173kg for the same rope. The only way you will know for sure is to get the man­u­fac­turer’s spec for the rope and per­haps even go as far as hav­ing a cer­tifi­cate to prove it.

Now I know what you will be say­ing: “I have towed an­other boat with one of my 14mm moor­ing lines and the boat weighed 15 tonnes.” Yes and that’s be­cause you weren’t lifting the boat in the air but pulling it through the wa­ter so the rope doesn’t ex­pe­ri­ence the same load.

Re­mem­ber, the fig­ures quoted by the rope-maker don’t take ac­count of the age or con­di­tion of the rope, and knots or splices in it will also af­fect the strength.

The point is that you prob­a­bly don’t know the SWL of your moor­ing lines and when you pull an­other boat there is no sim­ple way of quickly cal­cu­lat­ing the load be­ing put on the rope. This be­comes even more un­pre­dictable if you try to ‘snatch’ the towed ves­sel off an ob­struc­tion such as a sand­bank.


Snatch­ing is where you start with a slack line and hit the power to get your boat mov­ing at some speed be­fore the line pulls tight. It’s a very dan­ger­ous ma­noeu­vre be­cause it puts un­pre­dictable strain on the tow rope and what­ever the rope is con­nected to. Stern dol­lies and T-studs, for ex­am­ple, are for moor­ing lines. Even an an­chor shouldn’t really be con­nected to them let alone a 15-tonne

boat be­ing snatched off an ob­sta­cle.

The least that is go­ing to hap­pen is that your boat stops sud­denly but your body keeps go­ing and you bounce off the cabin. At worst, the rope may snap or the bow T-stud of the towed boat be­comes de­tached from the hull and hits you. Ei­ther way, you will really wish you were some­where else and it might just be the hos­pi­tal.

If you really must tow then start with a tight line and use a steady pull to get the boat mov­ing slowly, keep as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble away from the tow rope and also keep an eye on your now es­sen­tial power plant.


The horse­power of the en­gine in­stalled in your boat was se­lected by the boat builder to power the likely weight of your own boat with you on board and not with an­other 15 tonnes drag­ging be­hind it. It will most likely get the towed boat mov­ing, (even one horse can do that), but keep an eye on the en­gine tem­per­a­ture while you are do­ing it. If you aren’t care­ful, there will be two stricken boats on the wa­ter. Don’t just keep an eye on the en­gine though, also keep an eye on where you are go­ing.


In or­der for your bow to steer to star­board the stern must go to port, ably as­sisted by the move­ment of your rud­der. How­ever, if there is a heavy weight try­ing to pull your stern the other way, you may find your steer­ing is com­pro­mised and the bow goes in a place you don’t want it to. Hello bridge hole! And then of course, the towed boat also has to steer.


As stated above, butties have en­larged rud­ders which are ex­tremely use­ful to steer an un­pow­ered boat that doesn’t have the ben­e­fit of prop wash. Even then, steer­ing a butty suc­cess­fully takes a bit of prac­tise.

The stricken ves­sel you are tow­ing might be steered by a rel­a­tive novice and will al­most cer­tainly have a stan­dard rud­der and this is nowhere near as good. The tow­ing ves­sel might get around the cor­ner, but the towed ves­sel may just get dragged through the un­der­growth and po­ten­tially cause dam­age to the bank and the boat.

‘The tow­ing ves­sel might get around the cor­ner, but the towed ves­sel may just get dragged through the un­der­growth’


For sure, the owner of the boat in dis­tress will be very grate­ful for the tow but might not be quite as happy when you drag the side of his boat along the side of a bridge hole tak­ing all that brand new paint off. He/she may be so an­noyed; he/she may want to make a claim on your in­sur­ance. Are you in­sured to tow an­other ves­sel? Are you in­sured to be towed by an unau­tho­rised re­cov­ery boat? You might want to check.


While you are do­ing your ‘risk as­sess­ment’ you might also want to con­sider what you are go­ing to do to slow down, how you are go­ing to give sig­nals to the towed boat, (and them to you), what will you do when you meet an­other boat and your plan for other ob­sta­cles such as locks, lift/swing bridges and tun­nels. The lat­ter will ask you to check if the towed boat has the abil­ity to il­lu­mi­nate a tun­nel light.


Many of the haz­ards re­lat­ing to ma­noeu­vring can be helped by the length of rope you use.

Most of the time, a short line is the best and prefer­able in the form of a proper tow rope. Us­ing two ropes works even bet­ter where both are con­nected to the towed ves­sel’s bow T-stud and the other ends are con­nected to each of your stern dol­lies.

What­ever you use, make sure you can re­move the tow­ing line quickly in an emer­gency. Even a round turn and two half hitches takes a while to undo and might put your hands just where they don’t need to be when you are try­ing to slow down the other boat.


On wider wa­ter­ways you might also con­sider not tow­ing at all but breasting up along­side the stricken ves­sel.

Not only is it much eas­ier to steer the com­bi­na­tion but, pro­vid­ing you tie off at the bow and the stern, you also have ‘brakes’.


Only do it if you really have to and if you do then do it for a short dis­tance. Use the best, thick­est rope avail­able. Keep it slow and steady. Ask your­self: what hap­pens if the tow rope snaps? Con­sider the route you will take and plan ahead, maybe even have a tow­path walker to warn oth­ers of your ap­proach. Check your in­sur­ance. Keep a watch on your own en­gine.


Watch­ing ex­pe­ri­enced boaters op­er­at­ing an his­toric pair es­pe­cially through locks is truly won­der­ful and they make it look easy. But they didn’t get to be that good with­out hav­ing the right kit and also lots and lots of prac­tise.

Think very care­fully be­fore tak­ing on the role of res­cuer. One ca­su­alty can quickly be­come two and a well-mean­ing tow can end up in dis­as­ter if you don’t know what you are do­ing.

Best set up, note the ropes cross over

Proper rope for a long tow length

Be wary of long tow ropes

... keep it short

But if you don’t need it long...

Most of the time a short line is best

Proper tow­ing ropes, left and cen­tre

Long ropes can be a haz­ard

Tow­ing boat steer­ing with a short rope

Shorter is much bet­ter

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