How To Tow A Boat? (On & Off The Water)

Imagine getting ready to return home from a boating vacation and your boat becomes severely disabled! As scary as that sounds, this scenario only needs good preparation and guidance to resolve it. Most boaters spend time worrying about the boat’s condition and forget the process to tow a boat safely. If you’re a beginner, start with the right way to tow a boat. 

To tow a boat properly, here are the steps:

  1. Start with spreading the towline that’s a minimum of 8 times the length of the boat. 
  2. Establish a bridle and target the disabled boat. 
  3. Start with a slow movement and then increase the pace. 
  4. Communicate using a VHF radio throughout the towing process. 
  5. Adjust the length of the towline based on the requirement. 
  6. Tow the boat in need to a dock and consider the wind direction. 
  7. Upon reaching the dock, adjust the tow line to stabilize the boat. 

Towing a boat needs a proper choice of equipment, human resources, and strategies. If you’re prepping your boat for a tow, here’s a complete guide to help. 

Step-by-Step Guide To Tow A Boat

There is no worse feeling than being stuck in the middle of the lake with no power. Boats have issues and sometimes it’s at the most inconvenient time. This is when you need to keep a towing service handy or towing equipment on your boat. You should also probably communicate with other boaters around you. Let them know you are in distress. 

To ensure you tow a boat appropriately, here’s a step-by-step approach. 

Spreading The Towline

The first step to towing a boat is to make use of a towline. In general, the towline needs to be at least 8 times the length of the boat to avoid excessive pressure and allow for space between the two boats. You do not want the two boats banging into each other.

The length of the towline influences the potential to adjust whenever needed and also achieve shock absorbency. 

Establishing A Bridle

In some situations, you may want to utilize a bridle for more centralized towing and pressure points.

A bridle is a V-shaped rope that takes two points, one on each side of the boat, and connects them to one point. This allows for a better more controlled tow. It’s also used in water sports a lot for keeping the ski line directly behind the middle of the stern. See the image below. 

With a strong line in place, you can set up a bridle and attach a bowline. Before you use it to tow it further, check if it permits free movement. 

Beginner tip: The best spot to set up a bridle is on the two cleats around the anchor line point of the bow.

Starting Slow Movements

When you find the boat in distress, do not just hook up and go. Take safety precautions and make sure everything is secure before proceeding forward nicely and slowly.

When you prepare to tow the boat, keep an eye on water currents, wind speed, temperature, and any potential environmental change. Start with slow movements and confirm if everything is good consistently throughout the journey.  

Communicating Regularly 

The most crucial aspect of towing a boat is to establish a continuous line of communication. Even when you throttle up towards the dock, keep an eye on where the boat is and ensure there isn’t any likelihood of a bigger problem. 

Most boaters have a phone to communicate with others. However, from my experience, I’d recommend a VHF radio as well, as it supports emergency communication and has a signal even if no cellular towers are in the area.

To find out more about radios check out my other article here. It even recommends a few.

Adjusting Towline Length

When you’re towing the boat with another boat on the water, you need to adjust the length of the towline as needed and when required depending on the water current. 

Anchor lines are generally about 100 feet, but sometimes, you need to increase/decrease the length while towing. Furthermore, you need a safe distance between the two boats at all times.

Towing To The Dock 

We’re almost approaching the destination now. If you’ve towed the disabled boat this far, then it’s time for you to plan out the arrival at the dock or shoreline. This is when you need to shorten the towline and also slow the vessel. 

A shorter tow line at this time will make it much easier to guide the broken boat into the dock and not lose it.

Stabilizing The Boat 

Once the disabled boat is out of the middle of the water and is docked in a safe location, position it and ensure it’s attached safely. Sometimes, docking it or forgetting to stabilize it can cause damage to you and the boat. 

Decline to tow a boat if:

  • The weather is rough. 
  • You need to pull a boat that’s heavier and wider than yours. 
  • You’re unaware of local boating/towing laws. Otherwise, the owner of the disabled boat might charge you a huge sum for any damage. 
  • You lack experience in towing boats. 

Tip: Always keep Good Samaritan Laws from US Coast Guard handy to avoid disagreements and potential issues during the process.

Best Vehicle To Tow A Boat

Now that we have covered how to tow a boat on the water, it’s time to think about towing the boat out of the water and onto land. 

Off the water, standard SUVs can tow up to 25-foot boats depending on the overall weight and tow capacity of the vehicle.

Don’t be amazed to know that the 2023 Subaru Outback and Dodge Durango can tow up to 3,500 lbs and 7,400 lbs, respectively. 

However, to know the exact capacity, it’s recommended to check the vehicle manual. 

Never try to tow more than your vehicle is allowed. It will not go well I guarantee it. 

How Big of a Boat Can I Tow?

You can tow boats that have a beam width of 8’6” or less. However, boats above 45 feet need the intervention of a rig and commercial trailer. The size of a boat that can be towed depends on factors like boat weight, trailer weight, local regulations, and towing capacity of the chosen vehicle. 

American Boating Association has established US State towing laws to help boaters choose relevant towing services. Adhering to these laws will help in eliminating damage to the boat and also in understanding what’s legal in that location. 

Final Thoughts

Towing a disabled boat needs a strategic decision. It doesn’t always need another boat to tow it to the destination. Sometimes, it may need a trailer or even the intervention of professional towing companies. 

Depending upon the emergency level of the disabled boat, choose a plan of action and approach professionals if necessary. However, don’t panic at any stage in this process, as it can hamper communication and cause chaos. Instead, remain calm and work together with other boaters. The boating community is great and everyone I have met always offers a helping hand. Cheers!


Boatlifehq owner and author/editor of this article.

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