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© 2007 Douglas Gould

When I had my own company, and interviewed a prospective captain, applicants would
relate their past experience towing a variety of boats; often boasting about all the miles
they had towed. But I was in Marina Del Rey, where all six thousand boats are in
individual slips; practically every slip with a floating finger on either side, and a
concrete pile at the end of each finger. So, I would explain to my applicant that anybody
can tow a 50’ yacht for fifty miles on a hawser – it’s the last twelve inches that separates
the pros from the hacks. We averaged about 1 dock-dock tow per day, all year long; add
another 500 offshore cases, most of which terminated at a dock. If you consider that each
dock-dock tow involves a maneuver both out of and then into a slip or work dock, you see
that my company was maneuvering over 1000 boats per year into tight quarters. Lets see,
I had the company for over nine years…

Towing on the hip is something that we all have to do, but I have noticed that some
captains are more reluctant than others to do it. I was surprised this spring to see one of
our industry’s more experienced operators attempt to “slingshot” a 54’ full keel sailboat
into a slip. Things got a little tense when it became apparent that the sailboat was heading
towards the wrong slip. Suddenly, the towboat captain was struggling to manage towline,
shift, throttle and helm: basically a four handed job with two hands.

It is my belief that, unless there is an overwhelming reason not to finish a tow on the hip,
every tow that terminates at a dock, slip or mooring should be completed with the
casualty securely hipped up. Attempting to tow a disabled boat on a very short hawser
and then let go at precisely the right
moment requires timing that is too
easily foiled by tide, wind and poor
communications. The “slingshot”
maneuver where you rely on the
skipper of the casualty to steer his
boat the final few yards as it barely
makes headway is a dubious plan at
best, and I shake my head when I see a
towboat trying to check the forward
momentum of a large yacht by pulling
backwards on a towline attached to the
yacht’s bow.

The reluctance to hip up probably

originates from an operator’s past
problems with maneuvering, visibility
and the time it takes to untie. While I
understand these frustrations, most are
easily addressed with a little practice
and planning. One requirement for
successful hip towing will be your mindset; until you believe that being hipped up is the
best way to safely maneuver a boat in tight quarters and into a dock, I don’t think you
will ever really make the commitment to learn to do it well.

As to the time it might take, it is really only a few minutes at most, and if the slingshot
maneuver doesn’t work exactly on the first try, the time to re-group for a second pass will
take more time than just hipping up in the first place would have. From a risk
management standpoint, the two minutes it takes to hip up is time well invested.

I developed a few rules for myself that I passed along to my captains-in-training, and
perhaps you might find these useful guidelines for your captains. As with all rules, you
will discover exceptions.

Rule #1: Always plan to be on the “inside” of the final turn. Before I hip up, I make sure I
understand exactly where we will be going. In particular, I want to know what (if any) the
final turn will be. The final turn is the very last turn that the casualty makes as she enters
her slip. If you’re heading to a T head or side tie type of dock, there is no “final turn”,
and obviously you will want to be tied to the side away from the dock. Not only will you
have much better visibility on the inside of the turn, (see diagram #1) but using reverse to
slow down will help to execute the turn at the same time. Single inboard towboats
generally don’t have the luxury of hipping on either side, so my solution was to back up
the last fairway so I ended up on the inside of the final maneuver.

Rule #2: When towing boats equal to or larger than the towboat, always hip up with a
“toe in” attitude. Toe in means that the centerline of your towboat points towards the bow
of the casualty, (see diagram #2) rather than parallel with the casualty’s keel. Without toe
in, you are attempting to steer as if you
had a twin screw with one engine out,
because your power plant’s thrust is still
in line with the casualty’s keel. Directing
your thrust across the keel with toe allows
you to maneuver the entire raft-up more

Rule #3: You can’t be too far aft. The

further aft you are, the more leverage your
rudder and prop(s) will have.

Rule #4: Avoid terminating lines

anywhere except on your towboat, i.e.
don’t knot off on the causality’s cleats. I
might take a few turns on a customer’s
cleats with a line that leads back to my
deck, but the knots are all on my cleats.
Here is the logic behind this rule: when it
comes time to untie, you want to do it
fast, and your customer will be busy getting off his boat with his docklines. You don’t
want to be climbing between the two boats and over railings at that critical moment, so
plan for the ability to untie everything from your boat, even if I have to toss my lines on
his deck and then retrieve them when the job is done (while I do my paperwork). Also, I
do not want to give my customer any opportunity to untie something that I don’t want
untied, nor rely on him to untie a line quickly.

Rule #5: Use as few lines as possible. A great set up for most hip tows is to begin with a
forward spring line from your boat, and run that to his stern cleat. This is your
opportunity to set his transom way forward on your boat. Next, toss him a looped end of
a bow line (give him a loop so he can get it off quickly without untying any knots. Pull
your bow in and forward tight and cleat off on your bow bitt or cleat. Now go back and
take the rest of the stern line from his stern cleat back to your boat. A light tap in forward
will bring your stern in towards his, and if you’re quick, you will end up with a nice tight
hip tow that will only require you to untie one knotted cleat. When its time to untie, start
with your stern cleat and then unwrap his stern cleat. Now you’ve made enough slack
forward that a deckhand on the casualty can just take your loop off and drop it in the
water; or, you can untie from your bow while the mariner steps off his boat onto the
dock. (see diagram #3)

Rule #6: Get the lines tight. This insures that the
entire raft-up moves as one giant boat. If your lines
are sloppy, it becomes very hard to make small
adjustments while you are finessing the casualty into
a tight spot.

Being able to maneuver a large yacht while hipped

up to your smaller towboat will impress your
customers if you do it well, and with a little practice
and planning it is not hard to become proficient at it.