A clunk from the engine. An empty fuel tank. A scraping sound on the hull. It might be a small thing that lets you know a fun day on the water has turned into a big headache. You’re stranded.
But with a bit of preparation and plenty of calm, being caught on your boat can be a mere delay, rather than a minor emergency. Here’s how to avoid becoming stranded in the first place—and what to do if you get stuck.
The most common reason boaters end up needing a tow is a mechanical breakdown; these make up 50 percent of the calls to towing service TowBoatUS, says Charles Fort, associate editor for BoatUS Magazine. Happily, there’s a straightforward solution: keeping your boat in tip-top shape. To prevent breakdowns, have a mechanic check your boat every season before you hit the water, and check your battery regularly.
Fort also recommends keeping a few spare parts (such as belts and hoses) on board and learning to do some simple repairs to your engine. “If you have a little bit of boating knowledge, you’re more likely to get yourself out of a jam,” he says. Take a course in basic boat repair and check out online resources, such as those from BoatUS.
Running out of fuel is another major cause of being stranded, says Fort—so make sure you head out with a full tank of gas. That’s especially true, he says, for new or inexperienced boaters, who might not understand how much fuel their boat consumes. “Follow the one-third rule,” Fort advises. “One third of your tank is for the way out, one third for the way back, and one third is reserve.”
Finally, know where you are and what hazards might lie beneath the water—running aground causes many boaters to get stuck, says Fort. Print out nautical charts and tide tables before you leave the dock, as relying on electronic devices such as cell phones and tablets can backfire if service drops, he says.
To be ready for a tough situation, it helps to think ahead. Before you outfit your boat for the season, and before a long day on the water, “do a mental walk-through of what you’ll do if your engine won’t start or something else happens,” says Fort. That way, if an emergency does occur, you’ll already know what you should do—and what gear you need.
Essential gear includes a life jacket for every person on board—as well as extra layers, sun protection and plenty of water. “Always bring more water than you think you could possibly use,” says Fort. For suggested safety gear to carry on your vessel, including visual distress signals and sound-producing devices, check out our safety-gear guide.
Communication tools are another essential item for every boat trip. Fort advises bringing more than just a fully charged cell phone, as phones can lose service even a short distance off shore and can easily run out of battery juice. Every boat should carry a VHF (Very High Frequency) marine radio, says Fort. “The advantage,” he says, “is that anybody with a VHF radio can hear you, including the Coast Guard, and they listen in. Someone five or six miles away can hear you.”
Keep in mind, however, that the Coast Guard does not normally tow stranded boaters, so you’ll need your own exit strategy if your engine goes kaput. Not to worry—GEICO now offers boat insurance customers 24/7 towing services from TowBoatUS. The marine professionals at TowBoatUS, the nation’s largest fleet, will tow your vessel to a safe harbor, provide you with gas (if you run out) and even assist in the event of a soft grounding.
If, despite your best preparations, you do end up marooned, “the first thing you have to do is not panic,” says Fort. “Take a breath and take stock of the situation.”
After assessing your circumstances, and if you’re not able to make it back to the dock under your own power, call for help from an emergency contact or a towing service such as TowBoatUS. Also, if you upgrade your GEICO Boat policy, you can contact TowBoatUS by a voice call, by using their app from your smartphone, or by calling over the VHF radio.
Using the radio carries the advantage of other boaters listening in—boaters who may respond to your appeal. “Boaters are really a community. If somebody thinks you’re in trouble, chances are another fellow boater will come see if they can help you,” says Fort.
Next article: Enjoy the summer on your boat for less money out of pocket. Here’s how to boat without breaking the bank.
By Julie Anne Russell
Boat and PWC coverages are written through GEICO Marine Insurance Company. The TowBoatU.S. Towing Coverage Endorsement is offered by GEICO Marine Insurance Company, with towing services provided by the BoatU.S. Towing Program. Towing coverage only applies to the insured watercraft. This endorsement is not available in all locations and is subject to certain restrictions. Towing coverage is subject to availability and service may be restricted based on the location of the insured watercraft or trailer. Please speak to an agent to discuss details of towing services, limits, exclusions and coverage availability.