There was a time when, if you wedged your boat on a sandbar or ran out of gas while racing a dolphin, you could call the U.S. Coast Guard for a rescue. But in 1982, Congress let the military organization off the hook when it came to dealing with citizens' boneheaded behavior, handing nonemergency calls over to private companies.
Joe Frohnhoefer, a former marine police officer and bay constable on New York's Long Island, wanted in on the action. In 1983 he took out a $30,000 loan, bought a boat and began helping stranded seafarers under the name Sea Tow. Thirty years later, the family-run company is nearing 200,000 members and 100 U.S. and international franchise locations, each serving lakes, rivers and oceans within their designated area of responsibility.
"When the law was passed, I started meeting with independent tow [operators]. It was a ragtag group of people with little boats that usually worked on weekends," Frohnhoefer recalls. "I saw what we were facing. It was a monumental task, but I decided to take it on. I worked with the Coast Guard to develop professionalism in the industry and to work hand-in-hand with them. We more or less started this industry."
Today, Sea Tow's bright yellow boats are an iconic sight on both U.S. coasts, as well as in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Europe. We got Joe, daughter Kristen and son Joe III to share their sea stories.
How does Sea Tow work? Is it like AAA?
Joe: Yep, members have priority, and we respond to them first. If you're not a member you might have to wait, and then pay an hourly fee. Members pay for fuel and parts. We can usually unground a boat in less than 15 minutes if it's in a safe, stable condition. If you're out of fuel, we'll transfer some, or if it isn't safe to do so, we'll tow you in to the dock. Sometimes we assist with repairs on the water, like fix a belt. Sometimes we can fix a problem over the radio. About 99 percent of what goes wrong with a boat is covered under our membership. Only salvage isn't covered, and that's usually covered under the boat's insurance policy.
What's it like being in such a niche franchise segment?
Kristen: I've been to a few International Franchise Association conferences, and we were the only business in the marine industry. It's hysterical; people come up and say, "What are you? Is that some sort of food?"
We're also unique in the way we treat franchisees. We give them a lot of input, and at least once a month our National Marketing Council votes on how we spend our money. We are a family business, and we're family-oriented at every level. Everyone is involved.
What are the most common causes of trouble on the water?
Joe: Lack of education, mainly, and a lack of basic maintenance. But fuels high in ethanol are causing problems--marine engines don't like them very much since they attract water and corrode tanks and battery jumps.
We have a favorite saying here: The more electronics on a boat, the farther up on the beach it goes. People look at their radar, depth finder and GPS but don't look in front of them, and that's when they run into something. Observation on a boat is extremely important.
Do you respond to serious emergencies?
Joe: If we're not under tow and it won't endanger our lives or boats, we'll respond. The Law of the Sea is to offer aid in any way you can. We save lives first, and there is no greater reward than doing that.
Each year at our annual convention we give out lifesaving awards. On average there are eight to 10 every year. One franchise owner in Brooklyn saved his 46th person last November. We feel a responsibility and give first responders aid when we can.
So, have any of you ever had to call Sea Tow to pick you up?
Joe III: I was using the family boat and had the radio on all day, which drained the battery. I had to call Sea Tow. A couple weeks later it happened to Dad, too. He didn't call Sea Tow--he called me instead! It just goes to show that problems can happen to anyone. Mother Nature and Murphy's Law reside well on the water.