July 2013

Out to Sea

Cape Cod Life  /  July 2013 / ,

Writer: Rob Conery

Sea Tow Cape and Islands provides crucial support to mariners in distress.

Sea Tow Cape and Islands provides crucial support to mariners in distress

The sea has no memory. Mariners from time immemorial have taken their chances when venturing upon her broad apron. As the old saying goes, the sea floor is lined with the bones of optimists. What could go wrong?

What hasn’t? Engine failure, a broken rudder, a parted steering cable, sailboats de-masted, hitting rocks, leaky sea cocks, drunk crew members, collisions, fires—you name it, it will and has happened here in Cape and Island waters.

Into this breach steps Sea Tow Cape and Islands. From a waterfront location in Cataumet, the company—a franchise of the national Sea Tow service that is owned by Captain Curt Jessup—can launch speedy, well-equipped craft to assist mariners in need; it’s kind of like a sea-going AAA club. Sea Tow has three locations based out of yacht yards, five boats, and five licensed captains at the ready around the clock to assist mariners on the Cape and Islands. Between their boats—the Red Brook, Nobska, Dartmouth, and Falmouth—and their licensed captains, who in addition to Jessup include Chris Godino, Caleb Hess, Tom Saunders, and Greg Manchester, Sea Tow is the best-equipped and best-manned operation of its kind in the Cape Cod and Islands area.

Like all first responders, Sea Tow is always on call and readiness is paramount. “Every day is different,” says Jessup, fresh back from a call. “There’s no textbook on how to do this.”

Sea Tow Cape and Islands provides crucial support to mariners in distress

Sea Tow’s Gold Card membership costs only $169 per annum, and members get free towing, fuel drops, battery jump-starts, prop disentanglements, and dock-to-dock tows. In addition to providing coverage on boats owned by a member, Sea Tow provides services for members who are captains of other boats, no matter if the boat is a charter, a rental boat, a for-hire boat, or a vessel borrowed from a friend. Whether a casual pastime, a serious hobby, or a full-time career, those who are regularly at sea know that trouble can come at any time.

And trouble does come. Jessup says typically Sea Tow responds to 250 to 300 calls per year, most during the busy boating season and in the shoulder seasons that bracket it. The most common issue is fuel, either lack thereof—a boat out of fuel can’t simply pull over to the side of the road and wait, like a car—or mechanical problems resulting from the controversial new ethanol additives, mandatory in marine engines for the past several years.

While considered a renewable energy, ethanol also contains alcohol, which is naturally hydrophilic (meaning it attracts water) and is itself a corrosive.

Sea Tow Cape and Islands provides crucial support to mariners in distress

Jessup says that for his captains, knowledge of tides, winds, and waves are compulsory—the kind of hard-won knowledge gleaned only from years of experience on a particular body of water and knowing how that area responds to different wind and weather conditions. “The weather is the biggest challenge we face,” he says. “It’s an ongoing challenge and you can’t change it. No two sets of conditions are the same.”

That said, the job can be a blast. “You get to work on the water, run boats fast, and help people,” says Jessup.

Sea Tow members are covered everywhere, from the local harbor out to the outer islands. “Maine to the Virgin Islands,” as Jessup puts it. Weather and wave conditions affect everything, but even if Sea Tow can’t make the run, the member is covered for the first $5,000 of the tow, whether Sea Tow or another operator comes to their aid.

Jessup’s Sea Tow location in Falmouth was carefully chosen: It is situated close to Woods Hole Pass, a notorious navigation hazard. An entire ocean basically gets squeezed through this narrow channel formed between southwest Falmouth the Elizabeth Island archipelago. Tides surge and currents swirl in an area full of big jagged rocks.

In August 2011, a 108-foot luxury charter yacht collided with Great Ledge off Woods Hole. A four-foot hole was ripped in the hull, through which cold seawater began to surge, flooding her. Not only was the ship going down: It was also obstructing a major navigational channel and the boat had 3,000 gallons of diesel on board. Sea Tow got the call, and every resource was brought to bear. Jessup describes the scene when they arrived. “You go down below, you’ve got water in the bilge to your knees, and it’s still rising,” he says. “But you’ve got to get in there.”

Sea Tow Cape and Islands provides crucial support to mariners in distress

Soon the company had seven gas pumps running full bore, pumping water out, and they were able to get the bow of the boat beached at Nobska so it didn’t sink to the bottom. It took all day, but they were able to patch the hole and the boat limped into dry dock for repairs.

Jessup has seen any number of things go wrong, from engine fires to simply running out of fuel, but if he had just one piece of advice for mariners, it would be to always travel with anchors the right size for your for your vessel. A boat adrift is in danger, but a good anchor can at least keep you off the rocks until help arrives, he says. The accepted ratio is to have seven-to-nine feet of rode (anchor line) per foot of depth to allow the anchor to properly dig in. Jessup frequently sees boaters with insufficient line to do the job properly.

No rescue operation, however extensively prepared, can substitute for good seamanship, proper training, and the use of safety and navigational equipment. But knowing you have Sea Tow on call if things go wrong provides a little peace of mind for mariners around the Cape and the Islands.

For more information, visit seatow.com or call 508-564-9555.

Rob Conery is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod Life.

Rob Conery

Rob Conery writes a weekly fishing column for Cape Cod Times. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, he splits time between a hobo camp in western Maine and his native Cape Cod where he has spent 45 consecutive summers walking distance to Lewis Bay. He has written many articles for Cape Cod LIFE including a recent piece on Cape Cod and Islands divers, and his novel Winterland is available on Strawberry Books.