Making like a tugboat. towing on the hip

To the editor: When we experienced problems motoring our 34-foot Tartan sloop in the narrow waterways of Florida, we used a tugboat technique to keep our boat under control.

The problem involved an engine that would run at normal cruising rpm, but our speed would drop to only a few knots. I determined it was not the engine but the transmission that was at fault.

We did not have time to fix the transmission while at our storage yard, Glades Boat Storage just west of Lake Okeechobee, about 50 miles west of Fort Myerson on the Caloosahatchee River. So when we set out to the east across Florida, bound for the Atlantic, we decided that, given our propulsion problems, our inflatable would be our towboat.

It’s difficult for a two-person mom-and-pop crew to tow a 34-foot sailboat with an inflatable dinghy in line ahead (with a line from the bow of the boat to the stern of the dinghy) for many reasons, not the least of which is that one person has to be in the inflatable towboat, and the second person has to steer the sailboat. Communications between towboat and sloop would be next to impossible even with a VHF hand-held radio. I also was afraid we would pull the transom out of the inflatable dinghy. Plus, stopping the boat would not be fun – 18,000 lbs of sailboat moving ahead could crush the dinghy. Locking through a river would be particularly exciting.

Instead, we brought our 9.5-foot inflatable (inflatable floor and inflatable keel) dinghy alongside and installed the 5-hp outboard motor. We tied the dinghy to the starboard quarter since we believed the 8-foot rise of Ortona Lock required a portside tie up in the lock, and we didn’t want to crush the dinghy between the boat and the lock wall. We had no idea how fast we could move an 18,000-lb boat using a 60-lb dinghy and a 5-hp outboard motor.

We didn’t need anyone in the dinghy, so I tied a line from the red emergency stop-cord to the helm on the sloop, so I could stop the motor by pulling the line. The motor was locked straight ahead. The dinghy was fendered off and tied to the boat fore and aft with a spring line from the dinghy bow-ring aft to a cockpit sheet winch. The dinghy motor was started, and I advanced the 5-hp motor throttle to mid-range cruising rpm. We raised the anchor, and I engaged the dinghy motor in forward and climbed back aboard as my wife, Kathy, took the helm.

We left the boat’s diesel engine running and engaged in forward just in case it decided to help move us ahead; it didn’t. As soon as the dinghy took the strain, I equalized the strain on the towing lines to keep the dinghy pointed ahead, and we began to move. Not fast, but at least in the right direction, at an average of 2.6 knots against a light, 5-knot easterly wind. Best of all, we could steer using the boat’s helm; the dinghy motor just purred as though everything were normal.

We had 3 gallons of outboard motor fuel in a spare jerry can on deck and nearly a full tank of fuel in the outboard. I had no idea how much outboard fuel it would take to push/tow the boat 20 miles ahead. We made 15 miles with the dinghy and turned in at Shell Creek, one of our favorite stops on the river to wait for settled weather, maybe even a favorable westerly wind.

With renewed confidence, I called Ortona Lock, five miles upriver from our anchorage, and told them we planned to lock through with a disabled sailboat in the morning. The dock tender said they would be ready and confirmed that eastbound vessels tied portside to the lock wall. I also talked with the Westerbeke distributor, and he said the problem with the transmission was probably that the internal clutches were slipping. Just to be safe, while we swung easily at anchor in Shell Creek, I untied the dinghy, motored to the nearby marina and topped off the spare gas can.

At 2.6 knots, we allowed two hours to make the five statute miles to Ortona Lock. We arrived in plenty of time and had to anchor and wait. Circling and waiting for the lock to open would have been difficult since the turning circle, with the dinghy providing the power, was nearly as large as the river was wide. Friends on the sailing vessel Serafina caught up with us and offered to tow us; we respectfully declined. The lock-keeper suggested we get underway 10 minutes before the scheduled 1000 opening and that we would be first in the 8-foot-rise lock.


We arrived at the lock entrance just as the green light lit up. We entered the lock at dead-slow speed, since we had no way of stopping the boat except by securing the lock lines to the boat. I climbed into the dinghy and shifted the outboard motor to neutral. As we drifted ahead slowly, Kathy took the helm and gently kissed the lock wall. Reverse on the dinghy motor would have meant changing the tow lines and would never have slowed us in time.

The other boats were tied to the other side of the lock. All the while, I had a vision of us spending the day cross-wise in the lock trying to maneuver, with the dinghy doing all the work. The lock raised all the boats 8 feet to the level of Lake Okeechobee. Serafina exited first and stood by outside the lock in case we needed help. I shifted the dinghy motor to forward and Kathy steered us out of the lock slowly. Our respect for tug drivers with tows on the hip grew. We proceeded, uneventfully, up the river to the yard at 2.6 knots. For the entire 20-mile trip, we used about 3 gallons of gas in the outboard.

Dick de Grasse is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, a commodore in the Seven Seas Cruising Association, and a member of the Ocean Cruising Club. He holds a USCG Masters license for auxiliary sail. He and Kathy live in Islesboro, Maine, when not voyaging.

By Ocean Navigator