Two companies provide worldwide coverage.
By DAVE STREGE
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- A boat loses its propeller. The battery goes dead and the motor won't start. The fuel tank is empty. A line gets tangled in the prop.
Whatever the cause, it remains one of boating's most dreaded nightmares: The boat is dead in the water.
So what do you do? Who do you call?
When your car breaks down, you call roadside assistance. When it's your boat, you call "coast-side" assistance.
Unbeknownst to many boaters, Vessel Assist and Sea Tow offer the boating equivalent of an auto club, covering the coast and local islands 24-7, delivering fuel or parts to members or towing their dead boats to port.
Boaters can find worldwide coverage with these two companies -- both in business for more than 20 years -- since the Coast Guard stopped giving free tows to boaters in nonemergency situations.
"The majority of mariners think to this day that the Coast Guard and the Harbor Patrol will tow you for free, and that is not true," said Heather Warmington, general manager of the California Service Center of Vessel Assist, which operates under BoatU.S.
If a boater calls the Coast Guard and the situation is not life-threatening, the Coast Guard puts out a Marine Assistance Request Broadcast.
Private tow companies respond, and that means one thing.
"You'll get stuck with a large towing bill," Warmington said.
Unless you are a member of Vessel Assist or Sea Tow.
"You're crazy to go out on the water and not have some sort of towing coverage," Sea Tow Newport president Chris Curcuru said. "Use it once in five years, and it'll pay for itself."
Towing rates average about $175 per hour, so a towing bill could amount to more than $1,000, depending on where you break down. A breakdown halfway to Catalina Island could mean a $700 tow.
Simply jump-starting a battery at the 14-Mile Bank might cost $400 or $500, Warmington said.
For members of Vessel Assist or Sea Tow, the service would be free, as part of an annual membership that costs less than $150.
Boats from both services were patrolling outside Newport Harbor on the Saturday before the Fourth of July, awaiting the next call from a boat in need of service.
Devin Onesti was in the Vessel Assist boat, a 25-foot Seaway. Just before 1 p.m., one of the 20 dispatchers from the Vessel Assist Newport Beach office radioed about a member in need of help.
"Look for somebody waving," Onesti told his ride-along passengers.
All sorts of boats were scattered about near the harbor entrance where the disabled boat was reported.
Soon, in the distance, Tim Schoenberg of Newport Beach could be seen waving an orange life jacket over his head. His 18-foot Wellcraft was dead in the water.
Onesti raced over and made sure it wasn't an emergency.
"It just died," Schoenberg said. "I was able to restart it, and then it died again."
Reggie Curry showed up in a second Vessel Assist boat and towed Schoenberg in.
Schoenberg had purchased the used boat a few weeks before and was taking it on a solo run to make sure everything was working before he took his family out.
The boat's engine had been recently rebuilt, he said.