Anyone who spends a lot of time on the water should know how to tow a boat properly. Whether you’re regularly towing an inflatable tender, or you encounter a situation in which you are towing larger boats, understanding the proper techniques for towing is essential.
An improper tow can lead to unsafe conditions, and you may damage your boat or cause an accident. Protect your valuable investments and learn the right way — you’ll be happy you did.
In this article, we’ll go over the proper way to tow rigid-inflatable tenders, how to tow inflatable boats and some tips and tricks to help you.
Consequences of an Improper Tow
You don’t want to operate an unsafe tow — you could wind up damaging your boat, your tender or even your passengers. Because of the massive force and strain created when you tow a vessel, if something like a line or a D-ring fails, it can be very dangerous or costly. An improper tow setup can even lead to losing your dinghy. Take your time and plan ahead — you’ll be happy you did.
How to Tow a Tender
Firstly, you should always tow from the point of centralized tension on the back of the mother boat. Some boats have a central cleat on the stern you can tow from, but others may not. If your boat doesn’t have a cleat at the middle of the stern, you’ll have to make a bridle like the one we’re about to describe and attach it to your port and starboard stern cleats.
A good rule of thumb in RIB boat towing is to always attach your tow line to the D-rings on the port and starboard sides of the inflatable boat. If possible, it’s a good idea to add a third line to the central D-ring for added support and stabilization, but the main force of the tow should rest on the outer starboard and port rings. Towing the boat from the outer rings keeps it much more stable than just using the bow D-ring, and will lead to a smoother tow with less chance of taking on water.
Rigging a tow line setup to two attachment points on the sides of the boat is commonly called making a bridle. Improper rigging of tow lines will destabilize your vessel and could even lead to it capsizing.
The best method for towing an inflatable boat is a three-point bridle. If your boat only has a D-ring on the port and starboard side, a two-point bridle will work, but a three-point distributes the strain of the tow most effectively and will cause the least wear on your dinghy.
The first step in making a towing bridle is to tie a bowline at the end of your main tow rope — unless you already have a tow rope with a spliced loop in the end. We’ll go over how to tie a bowline later in this article. Next, take a section of line, run it through the loop created by the bowline you just tied in your main tow rope and attach the rope to the port and starboard D-rings with bowline knots. If you stopped at this point, you would have a two-point bridle setup.
If your dinghy has the central D-ring on the bow, attach a third section of line to your main tow line and the central D-ring with bowline knots. That will complete the third point for your bridle setup.
Since you created a loop with the bowline at the end of your main towing line, your bridle will have some room for movement, and the strain of the tow will distribute evenly between the two attachment points. If you managed to make a three-point bridle, the bow attachment will add extra stability to your tow and help keep the bow of your dinghy from veering off too much.
To keep your tow line out of the water when tension goes slack, some people like to add a float to their tow line. Slide the float on your main tow line before you tie the bowline for your bridle — it helps keep the lines from sinking too deep and potentially getting caught in your propeller. Another way to keep your line away from your propeller is to use polypropylene line, which is naturally buoyant, but be careful — it doesn’t hold knots as well as nylon.
Tips and Best Practices for Towing With Inflatable Boats
One of the most common errors when towing smaller vessels is not using a bridle. Most people will only attach only one tow line directly to the central D-ring, which destabilizes the boat under tow and could lead to it taking on water.
Another common error to avoid is making a bridle and then tying it to your main tow line. If you have securely tied your bridle onto the main tow line and it cannot move, there will be uneven tension on the boat as it moves back and forth, and it will become very unstable. Instead, pass the bridle through the loop of the tow line to allow it free back-and-forth movement when you’re in tow — that allows the tension to distribute between the two main tow points evenly and will keep your boat stable.
Keep in mind, anything you leave on the deck of your inflatable could potentially end up overboard. It’s always best to stow all equipment if you can — that way, you won’t lose it, and it won’t be sliding around on the deck. When gear is free to move around, it shifts the weight on the boat and will cause an unbalanced tow.
Always make sure to tow your inflatable with an even distribution of weight on the tow lines. If all the tension stays on one side of the boat, the attachment points will be under a lot of stress and will wear much faster.
Whenever you’re towing, you want to make sure your dinghy is within the V-shaped wake your boat makes. Your boat smooths out the wind waves and chop, so the dinghy has a better and more predictable ride.
How far back should you tow your inflatable? It all depends on where and how fast you’re towing. A good rule of thumb in open water is to have your dinghy two waves back. The waves act as natural shock absorbers as your tow line dips into them and gives you a smoother tow.
If you’re towing in a large swell, you want to match your dinghy’s rise and fall with your boat’s. If you’re in the trough between waves, you want your dinghy in the trough too — this prevents uneven tension on the tow and keeps your inflatable from lurching and going slack.
How fast can you tow a dinghy? A typical speed for towing in open water is eight knots — if you want to go faster, you’ll need to let out extra towing line, and vice versa. It’s always better to tow at slower speeds if possible — increasing your speed too much will put additional strain on your inflatable, and any stability issues or water shipping will amplify.
If you’re towing inside a harbor, you’ll need to bring your dinghy close to your boat to avoid causing problems with other vessels. Other boaters often don’t see another boat is in tow and could drive between you and your inflatable. Also, if you need to turn quickly or slow down, you don’t want too much distance or slack line between you and your dinghy.
Always remove your outboard and other bulky items from your dinghy when possible if you plan on towing in open water. If you leave your motor on the transom during a tow, it adds extra weight and strain on your bridle. Also, if your inflatable happens to flip, you could lose your motor, or it could become waterlogged and ruined.
If your outboard isn’t detachable, be sure to raise it out of the water to reduce drag and strain on the mounting. It’s also a good idea to add a security cable in case the mount breaks — at least then you won’t lose your motor.
A Few More Quick Tips
- Bring extra towing line — it’s cheap and could save you in case something breaks, or you need more.
- Always carry a knife in case you need to cut a line in an emergency.
- If operating in limited visibility or entering a harbor with frequent commercial traffic, use a VHF radio to alert other boats you’re towing another vessel, and where and when you’ll be coming through.
How to Tie a Bowline Knot
A bowline knot might be the most useful knot in boating — it has so many applications, and you’ll find yourself using it on land too. Bowlines are excellent because they can attach a single line to almost anything, self-tighten under strain and are easy to untie.
To tie a bowline, hold a section of line in your hand with the free end hanging down and away from you. Bring a portion of the hanging line on top of the line in your hand so it forms a shape like the number 6. Then, take the free end of the 6 and bring it up through the loop you created. Take the line around the back of the 6, then back down through the loop.
For an easy way to remember how to tie a bowline, you can tell yourself a little story: The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes around the tree and back down through the hole. The hole is the loop of the 6, and the tree is the top line of the 6.
Towing a Larger Boat With an Inflatable Tender
Sometimes, it may be necessary to tow your mother boat with your tender. Whether it’s because of a mechanical failure or you need to use your dinghy to move your larger boat, it’s a good idea to know how.
If you’re uncomfortable towing and docking your vessel, we don’t recommend trying it if you don’t have to. Instead, call a professional towing assistance company to return you safely to your dock. You don’t want to risk getting out of control in a harbor and damaging other boats or people. Also, keep in mind the methods below depend on the size and power of your tender.
If you can’t contact a professional right away, you may tow your boat through open water and then contact authorities when you get closer to your destination.
To improve your skills in case of a situation where help isn’t available, practice some of the following methods in open water.
Also known as towing “on the hip,” side towing is a useful method when you’re covering short distances in calm to moderate conditions. To side tow, you’ll want to tie up to the boat on the side away from where you’ll be bringing it to a dock, so think about how you’ll bring the boat in beforehand. You’ll want to tie up to the boat you’re towing as far aft as possible while still being able to see where you’re going — that will give you the most control over the larger boat.
Side towing can be more difficult for long sailboats because their outline doesn’t allow for an aft tie-up. Also, boats with catamaran hulls don’t respond well to side tows.
Always test the handling of your towing setup before trying to dock or maneuver. Get a feeling for how the boats handle together and how much distance you’ll need to bring them to a stop when you put the boat in neutral.
Pushing From Astern
This method works well for covering longer distances in moderate conditions when you need to have good control — like in a harbor or around other vessels. In some situations, crew members use tenders to control very large boats with this kind of setup.
Pushing from astern works well for most types of boats, but some sailboats with a reverse or scoop transom may be difficult to control.
Towing a boat astern is the best method for rougher conditions and long tows. Contrary to what some might think, this method requires the most skill and attention — it can be hazardous if not done correctly.
A safe tow is all about planning ahead. Think about what could go wrong and test everything before you put it into action. Establish signals with your helmsman before you begin your tow, as communication won’t be as easy after you get underway — a handheld radio is also a good idea.
Take your time, and practice maneuvering in open water before getting into tighter areas. Again, if you are uncomfortable, ask for professional assistance in an emergency.
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Fluid Watercraft is a commercial rigid inflatable boat building company with headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. With decades of experience in manufacturing, their expert team of designers and engineers build large premium RIBs for law enforcement, commercial, and military use.
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