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Do you want to be a Tow Boat Captain?

Captain Lee Eckler tosses a line to a boat in need of a tow. Photo by Glenn Hayes
Captain Lee Eckler tosses a line to a boat in need of a tow. Photo by Glenn Hayes

So you’re tired of your cubicle and have to stare at photos on a calendar to get any semblance of a view at work? Have you ever dreamed of being on the water and getting paid to be there? At the helm of your boat and watching fish, birds and boats go by as the water laps at your hull, instead of staring at a monitor all day? You can if you take “the best … and the worst of jobs” as a tow boat captain.

Towboats from various tow companies ply the waters of the U.S. covering every major body of water. They are just a dispatch call away from running inshore or offshore to offer towing, un-groundings, salvage operations and provide a jump or fuel for boaters in need of their services. There are small independent operators on call offering their services as well as major national companies such as Towboat U.S., Vessel Assist and Sea Tow that offer memberships covering towing and other services for an annual membership fee. As a member you can call on these companies either via VHF or cell phone and receive their towing services at no additional cost, or in some cases at a reduced fee, depending on the service required. Without a membership the cost for these services can be large and warrants looking into getting a membership. Towboat U.S. claims that the average cost for a tow to non-members can be around $600, and it’s not unusual for it to be even higher. Different companies have different business models and coverage can vary so its advisable to do your homework before signing up and see which company offers the best program for your particular needs.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Captain Lee Eckler, a seven-year veteran towboat captain for Towboat U.S., and asked him what it’s like to be a towboat skipper. It immediately became obvious he has a passion for what he does and enjoys his days on the water helping his fellow boaters. Working the waters from Clearwater to Hudson on Florida’s west coast he claims, “it is the best job and the worst of jobs all rolled into one.”

It has the benefit of being on the water in some of the best boating scenery in Florida, but he points out that it is not all sunny days and relaxing vistas. As a tow captain he is paid by the hour and is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week – with the exception of the time he chooses to take off. He is quick to point out that if he is off work, he is not getting paid. It’s for that reason that last year he only took 13 days off. To take advantage of the slowest weeks of the year, Captain Lee takes his vacation in the winter during the slowest two weeks when he would otherwise be generating very little income.

After giving up a well-paying corporate job as a CFO, this master’s graduate traded his master’s degree for a master captain license and jumped headlong into being a towboat captain, claiming he made the financial sacrifice for the love of the water and the satisfaction of helping fellow boaters. Being on call 24 hours means that he is under contractual agreement to be able to get to his towboat at the mouth of the Anclote River and be along side the vessel requesting help within an hour. That requirement certainly puts a limit on what you can do while on call and puts a time pressure on all calls for service. If he is not already on the boat or at the marina he can be found on board his own private boat/office at a nearby marina, just minutes away. Being on call also can put a kink in your social and family life. It can be tough for the captain and his significant other or family, knowing that they can be called away at any moment, be it at two in the morning or while attending a function. Drinking is also out when on call, so there is no possibility of a cocktail at the gathering. Captain Lee just never knows when he is going to get a call, so he can’t take the chance of having an alcoholic beverage. According to the captain it can be a strain socially and it has been the cause of his losing touch with some friends. There is also the exasperation of waiting for a call to come in.

“It can be frustrating when you are required to be out on the water on the weekends and see hundreds of boats around you and not get a call.” Again, when there are no calls, there is no income.

The day I interviewed Captain Lee was a typical one for him. It started in the pre-dawn hours of the morning with a call to go 40 miles offshore to tow a 62-foot sport-fishing vessel that had been fishing and ran out of diesel fuel. It was a relatively fast ride out on his franchise-owned 266 World Cat towboat, powered with dual 200HP four-stroke Yamaha outboards. But the tow back at about 5 knots took hours. The rest of the day was very slow doing maintenance and cleaning the boat, until what he calls “the witching hour” at about 4 p.m. That is when all the boats out at the beaches, sandbars or fishing the inshore and outside waters start heading back to port. The radio, texts and emails started flooding in, and he went from sitting for hours to running from one tow to the next until late into the evening.

The area Captain Lee works is handled by a franchise of Towboat U.S. that covers all of Tampa Bay all the way up to Yankeetown, roughly 100 miles of coastal waters (an atypically large area). Large lakes in the area are also covered with a trailered towboat that is towed to the lakes and launched as needed. There are approximately 13 boats servicing the area through the franchise and some of their captains own their own workboats. Owner-operator captains get a higher hourly rate, as they are responsible for all aspects of their vessels and fuel costs. Captain Lee uses a franchise owned boat for his time on the water and that vessel can cover a lot of miles in a single day. When things get hectic in a particular area he may be required to cover waters north or south of his regular territory. If a towboat gets called on a tow and it looks as if a customer will not get to be taken care of within the hour, dispatch will call other boats from neighboring ports to fill in. The same is true if a particular area were to get busier than usual.

This means that captains such as Lee must have excellent local knowledge for extended bodies of water within their dispatch area. Local knowledge is critical to be able to aid customers and to not create problems while in tow. With seven years on the job, Captain Lee knows the waters as well as or better than anyone on the water. He is able to tow and dock disabled vessels safely in any conditions and can place towed vessels in their dock better than most of us could manage under our own power. Because of their experience, these tow captains are always an excellent source of local knowledge and usually are more than happy to provide information on currents, tides, weather and navigation questions.

Sometimes towboat captains get to be heroes and save more than just the boating day or a prized vessel. Captain Lee did just that recently when returning from a long tow to a facility outside of his regular service area. A seasonal summer storm with heavy rain, strong winds and lighting had kicked up. As he was running back to his homeport he spied what looked like an overturned kayak and three people struggling in the water. It turned out to be three young girls, aged 12 to16, who had fallen off the kayak in the storm. With one lifejacket between them they were in big trouble. Captain Lee was able to come around and pull all three girls from the water and then return them and their kayak to shore, so was able to take control of what could have been a tragic incident. Not only saving lives but also vessels is a part of the job. These captains are often the first on scene in sinkings, capsizes and boat fires and get to be the first to help passengers and vessels in distress.

Every day Captain Lee is on the water he is doing what he loves. Taking the good with the bad he keeps coming back for more and wouldn’t have it any other way. He, for one, truly enjoys his time at the office.

Glenn Hayes is a regular contributor to All at Sea Southeast. Find him online at hayesstudios.com.

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