Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tow Lines and Danger

So one of the things I get asked a lot is "what causes accidents on the water"?  There is no single greater causes of accidents I can think of than lack of knowledge.   To illustrate this example, take a close look at the video below.  At first you will just see the breath-taking sea around the North coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.  This was a particularly rough day with lots of holes (the spots between the chop/waves) and a fairly strong wind.  

What you might fail to notice is that there is a two and one half inch (6.5 cm) thick tow line stretching from the back of the tugboat all the way back to the barge.   That barge is back 500 meters or more in some cases.  This tow line is often under water and recreational boaters may not even understand that the tug and barge are linked.  This has lead to some very tragic accidents in the past.  

Notably on August 7, 1999,  the tug boat Jose Narvaez engaged in towing the gravel barge Texeda B.C.   While in transit, the crew of the tugboat Jose Narvaez felt a jerk on the towline. When the master (Captain) shone a searchlight upon the port side of the barge Texada B.C., he saw a grey object laying alongside the barge. The object was later identified as the Sunboy, a pleasure craft.  This boat had 14 people aboard.

Of the 14 people who had been on board the Sunboy, nine were rescued and survived, four drowned and one remains missing and is presumed drowned.  This accident could have been a lot worse.  Understanding the dynamics of how the tow cables work and how they react in the water is important.  Even when you encounter trawlers or sport fishermen, you need to be aware that any line towed in the water is likely to extend out a very long way with very little sinking.  These lines remain near the surface.  NEVER try to pilot a vessel between a tugboat and a barge.

Towboats have certain day signals that indicate they have a tow astern and at night they display certain lights to indicate that they have a tow and the length of the line.  Will you recognize the day shape for a towboat that has a tow astern or the lights displayed at night?


The Sunboy operators knowledge and understanding of navigational practices was
such that he did not fully recognize navigational cues that posed a danger to his vessel and passengers.


Knowledge is everything.  That is why we built the InstaCaptain application for Android Phones.  As the person responsible for your boat, you are responsible to know about the threats around you at all times and Transport Canada may hold you ultimately responsible for the safety of everyone on board your vessel.

Be safe out there!  Download the application today.  It is free.


  1. Actually there were a variety of factors including the tugboat not having the proper lighting, no one being in the wheel room of the tugboat, and poor knowledge of boating on Sunboy's side.

    I should know. I was one of the passengers of Sunboy that night.

  2. MoviePanda:

    We are all so thankful you are still here with us. Yes - the coroners full report mentioned a lot of errors and the fact the captain of the Jose Narvaez actually left the bridge. I can only imagine your horror of going through that. Thank you for sharing here.

    The entire purpose of this blog is to help raise any awareness that can prevent further tragedies. many boaters expect that commercial mariners are always operating safely. it is not always the case.