I’ve been on the water in one form or another for most of my life.  I’m now 54, so that’s a pretty long time, and I’ve seen alot of stuff over the years.

I remember one autumn day when I was in Junior High School (middle school, nowadays, tho I understand a BA is the new high school diploma and a Masters is the new undergrad degree, but that’s a different blog entirely!).  Our family had one of those bow rider boats powered by a tempermental I/O that would sometimes plane it off and sometimes not.  A school chum of mine and I talked my mother into giving us a ride to the boat from the north shore of Long Island to its berth in Amityville on the Great South Bay.  It was a small school holiday, not a weekend, and thus there was not much traffic on the bay that day.  We told my mother that we’d see her at whatever time it was that afternoon, and off we went.

We had a delightful time exploring and such, as kids are wont to do with the freedom of a boat when one doesn’t have a driver’s license.  Until we happened upon a guy who had broken down.  Need any help?  we ask.  Yeah, I could use a tow back to my dock.  No problem, as it was the same kind of favor our tempermental I/O had required us to seek in the past, and I tried to respond in the same cheery way with which we had been greeted when we were in the same situation.

So we give the guy a tow, he gives us a few bucks for gas (which was a nice touch), and homeward bound we go.  Needless to say, we were late to get back when my mother was to meet us at the dock.  “Where have you been?” with the stern look.  We helped a guy out.  Oh, good for you guys.  All in all, a nice day, a good memory, and likely not much of a story.  BUT….

Last week, while I should have been writing and otherwise promoting, I had some friends in from out of town and couldn’t resist taking them for a boat ride.  Or six. Weekday boat rides haven’t changed much over the years, the boat traffic is still way down.  And people break down in the middle of nowhere without ready help.

And so we happened upon a father and daughter stranded on a PWC waving us over as we headed south in a slow zone in the ICW.  Apparently they didn’t pay much attention to the slow-zone signs, as they told us they turned the craft over and the engine compartment filled with enough water that the engine wouldn’t start.  Could we give them a tow to the house about two miles north?

So much for the parallels to the 70’s.  I really couldn’t take a line from them, as that would expose me to all kinds of liability. I’m sure I did something wrong, but the daughter, who must have been somewhere around 13, was crying and shivering and all, so I invited her onto my boat while I stood by and waited for help (we were three women, two men, and a dog aboard).  I lent them a hand pump to bail out the engine compartment, which stabilized the craft, but the series of prior attempts to start it while it was full of water had rendered it inoperable.

The strandees were British, and perhaps didn’t fully comprehend the exposure to liability in which we here in the Colonies take so much pride.  The dad started to get a bit irritated that I felt it inappropriate to tow them or otherwise do what it would seem to be the right thing. Then a northbound Sportfisher about 34′ long came by.

I tried to raise the skipper on the radio, no luck.  When he passed in the slow zone, I yelled over to him asking if he could drag the PWC and its occupants north, since that was his existing direction, and perhaps he had less sensitivity to the liability.  Took him about 3 nanoseconds.  “Nope, can’t do it.”  He offered to make a call, which I’d done already, but there was no way he was towing anything.  Validation of my stance.

The PWC dad had a phone in a baggie on the craft, and he finally raised a neighbor with a 17′ boston whaler to come and get him.  As it turned out, the driver was 12 years old as was his copilot friend, and, truth be told, they behaved somewhat shy of that.  But he got there, we bid them a good day, and we all went our separate ways.

With some time to think about it, it made me quite sad that giving this guy a tow was even a question.  Worse, upon doing a little research, I found that marine liability is something that’s been written about quite extensively, and much sage advice is given to never ever EVER expose one’s self to the liability unless perhaps lives are at stake.

I suppose it’s a reflection on society in general, but the boating community is, and has always been, something special.  Sure, nobody likes everybody, but there’s a bond among boaters that we’re on to something special, and we’ll help each other when in need (watch any season of Deadliest Catch!).  We all felt terrible that we would have been wrong to help this father and daughter, no matter how silly they were to be speeding in a slow zone.  They needed help, we could physically give it to them, but the barriers to assistance are too high.  Maybe somebody has a release form that we could use that would protect us from the liability?

On the other hand, it gives the folks at SeaTow, TowBoat/US and their like gainful employment.  It’s a heckuva price to pay though.


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