On Deck


SAIL - - Features - By Tom Hale


The right way to tow a large boat with a much smaller dinghy

My friends Ge­orge and Ann have a lovely 50-year-old 44ft Hood/Maas steel sloop called Allez. When she was launched last spring, the old Perkins en­gine would not start, but they needed to get her to their marina on the other side of the har­bor. That af­ter­noon, I met Ann on the dock. She ex­plained the predica­ment and asked if I would launch my dinghy and give Allez a tow. Ge­orge is a wily old man: Ann is a re­fined, cour­te­ous, South­ern Belle whose re­quest would be hard to refuse. He needed a tow and knew how to get one. Some­how, I had to move their 18-ton boat, with my 10ft 6in dinghy and its 9.9hp out­board.

If you’ve ever tried to tow a big boat be­hind a dinghy, you prob­a­bly found it was not as easy as you thought it would be. A bri­dle must be rigged on the dinghy, and this puts the tow­ing point be­hind the en­gine, which can make it very dif­fi­cult to turn. You also have no brakes, but must coast the boat to a stop, all the while try­ing to keep the bri­dle and tow rope out of the pro­pel­ler. For­tu­nately, a so­lu­tion to these prob­lems ex­ists in the form of a side tow, a tech­nique that gives you much more con­trol, thereby mak­ing it eas­ier to ma­neu­ver.

Gen­er­ally, it does not mat­ter whether the dinghy is to port or star­board. The choice de­pends on where you’re de­part­ing from and where you’re go­ing. In other words, you should place the dinghy where it will be the least in the way when cast­ing off lines and ty­ing up again when you’re fin­ished. For ma­neu­ver­ing Allez, I put the dinghy on the port side, since it would be eas­ier to get out of the first marina, and I planned to put her in her new slip bow-first with the pier to star­board.


For an along­side tow, you do not make the dinghy fast amid­ships. In­stead, it should be se­cured well aft, on the hip of the boat be­ing towed. This, in turn, puts the dinghy pro­pel­ler well aft of the cen­ter of lat­eral plane—the cen­ter of ro­ta­tion for the towed boat—and will let you steer the load much more eas­ily.

Note that with the dinghy pro­pel­ler off to the side of the towed boat, the dinghy will want to turn the boat in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, both in for­ward and re­verse. For this rea­son, you should also tie the dinghy with the bow point­ing slightly into the towed boat’s cen­ter­line. This will make it easer to steer by coun­ter­act­ing the drag of the boat along­side.

Some­thing else to be aware of: with your sail­boat en­gine, when you go into re­verse and add throt­tle, the pro­pel­ler bites the wa­ter and quite ef­fec­tively slows the boat. With an out­board, how­ever, you have to be care­ful; when it goes into re­verse, the pro­pel­ler is bit­ing into its own ex­haust gas and can eas­ily ven­ti­late, or draw air into the pro­pel­ler, which prac­ti­cally elim­i­nates the re­verse thrust.

When set­ting up to tow on the hip, it is es­sen­tial that all lines be as tight as prac­ti­cal so that there is no move­ment be­tween the boat and the dinghy. First, set up the for­ward spring line from the dinghy’s bow eye or the out­board D ring far­thest from the other boat’s top­sides. (The lat­ter will pro­vide an even more se­cure an­gle.) As you are do­ing so be aware it is not nec­es­sary for the lines to go to a cleat on the towed boat. You can also use a life­line stan­chion base, jib sheet winches or genoa sheet blocks as tow­ing points.

Next, set up the aft spring. When I towed Allez, this line was also se­cured at the bow eye and then passed around a strong point on the boat. To ten­sion the line, I used a trucker’s hitch. This gives you a 2:1 me­chan­i­cal ad­van­tage to set the two springs very tight.

Fi­nally, af­ter fully ten­sion­ing the aft spring, set up a stern line and pull it tight. At this point the dinghy should be se­cure and un­able to move ei­ther for­ward or aft. It should also not be able to swing to­ward or away from the towed boat. Once they are se­curely tied to­gether like this, I call the com­bi­na­tion of the two boats, the “rig.”


Now comes the fun part! Allez had to back out of a slip, turn 90 de­grees to star­board in the fair­way, go three boatlengths, turn 90 de­grees to port, go 200ft and then turn to star­board into an­other fair­way be­fore we would be out in the har­bor. Not supris­ingly, when ma­neu­ver­ing like this, a per­son at the helm of the boat be­ing towed can be a big help. If, on the other hand, you are sin­gle­handed, ma­neu­ver­ing a rig can take a bit of prac­tice. It is also vi­tal that you se­cure the helm amid­ships. For­tu­nately, Ge­orge was there with a cou­ple of friends, which meant he could help steer.

Af­ter we dropped the dock lines, the dinghy (to port) started to pull and she backed right out of the slip. Again, re­mem­ber that when in re­verse the towed boat will want to back to­ward the side op­po­site the dinghy, some­thing that in some cases you can use to your ad­van­tage.

Af­ter Allez was clear of the slip, I put the dinghy into for­ward gear, kept the out­board tiller on cen­ter­line and gave the out­board a quick shot of power. This stopped the stern­way and spun the boat to star­board, so that we soon had the boat aimed down the mid­dle of the fair­way.

For our first turn to port, I could have turned the out­board into a port turn and ac­cel­er­ated. How­ever, this would have meant fight­ing the load of the boat be­ing towed to star­board. There­fore, it proved much more ef­fec­tive to turn the towed boat to port by ap­ply­ing a bit of re­verse to the out­board. The towed boat’s way then caused her to turn to port as her stern kicked to star­board.

When we got to the fi­nal turn and had to ma­neu­ver the rig to star­board, I turned the out­board thrust to star­board and ac­cel­er­ated, know- ing that the drag of Allez’s 36,000lb meant the rig would turn with very lit­tle in­crease of speed. With just a lit­tle prac­tice you too will find you can weave your rig through the marina. With the dinghy on the port hip, it was my plan to bring the boat star­board-side-to at the dock. We there­fore ap­proached the dock at a crawl. Know­ing that as I re­versed to slow the rig down the stern would kick to star­board while the bow turned to port (the op­po­site of for­ward thrust), I lined things up so that we’d ap­proach at a fairly steep an­gle on the star­board bow. Ide­ally, as the rig piv­oted, it would stop with Allez par­al­lel to the dock face.

Un­for­tu­nately, as we were en­ter­ing the fi­nal fair­way in the marina, Ge­orge an­nounced that he wanted me to back the boat into a slip so that the fin­ger would be on his port side. That meant I would now not only have to spin Allez around a full 270 de­grees to port, but the dinghy could end up trapped be­tween a large steel boat and a dock.

Think­ing fast, and with a quick word of ex­pla­na­tion to Ge­orge, I re­versed hard, backed to star­board, and Allez slowly re­sponded. Even­tu­ally, she also had just enough stern­way to back into the slip on her own as the crew cast me off, and I es­caped astern.

The along­side tow may not be an op­er­a­tion you will reg­u­larly use, but it is a handy skill to have. It is worth prac­tic­ing the ma­neu­ver be­fore you ac­tu­ally need it—with your boat’s en­gine run­ning. That gives you a re­li­able bail-out op­tion. s

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