Frequently Asked Questions

Hey Captain Tom, I just ran out of gas, and am drifting down the river, can I sign up for that great Season Pass deal for $99 and have you come get me?

We will, of course, come and get you, but your boat must be fully functional to sign up for a Season Pass. That would be like crawling out of your wrecked car and then trying to purchase insurance for it. Life is risk, you can mitigate that risk by getting your Season Pass right now before you need a Friend on the Water. As for your present situation, we are on the way, but at our standard fee per service rates. We can certainly sign you up so you are covered for the next time!

How long is my Season Pass good for?

Your Season Pass is valid from the day after you submit payment, for 365 days. We will email you a renewal notice if you have kept us current on your email address.

When is your Season for the Season Pass?

When we started this program the Season Pass was only valid during the boating season. However in our second year we changed it to be valid all year round. We strive to provide timely service between May 1 and the end of Labor Day weekend, in the winter months service may be delayed or unavailable. This means that if we take a vacation in the winter, we may not have a captain available for a job. So far we have not ever turned anyone down as we have been able to have one of our backup captains cover while we went somewhere warm. We will strive to keep up this perfect record.

Will your Season Pass get me on a ski lift at Mt. Hood?

Errr, No. Wrong season pass mate.

How fast can you get out here? I have a wedding/flight/kids birthday party to get to.

We will get there as quick as we can, our boats respond at about 30mph and we are coming from Hayden Island, on the Columbia River, near the I-5 bridge. Our average response time is 22 minutes. Of course, if you are by the Bonneville dam, it may take a while to get to you.

What should I do while I am waiting for you?

Safety for your crew should be first priority, get PFDs on for everyone, set an anchor if you can do so safely. If you are in the middle of the shipping channel, you may want to wait until you drift out of the channel prior to setting the anchor.

Looks like there is a big ship or tug with a barge coming, what should I do?

Contact the ship on channel 13 and tell the captain your situation, give them your position and wave something bright overhead, preferably something that is orange or red. If you do not have a radio, call us and we can contact the ship for you and advise them of your position and situation. If at night, be sure you have your navigational lights on and wave a flashlight at the ship.

About those big ships...

Glad you asked. First, according to Rule 9 of the COLREGS or Navigational Rules, also called "The Rules of the Road", a vessel constrained by draft always has priority over recreational craft. These ships are moving in a dredged channel with sometimes as little as 2 feet of clearance from the bottom. If you get in their way and they have to run aground to avoid you, you may be responsible for the damages. If you are sailing, remember that they still have priority over you, again because of Rule 9. Sailing vessels DO NOT have any "right of way" over ships in the Columbia or Willamette Rivers. Their visibility is limited and it is common for them to not be able to see for 1,000 or more feet in front of their bow. If you cut across their bow, they cannot see you nor can they stop quickly. If you are sailing and cut too close to a ship, they may block your wind and leave you helpless to maneuver. It is best to avoid getting too close to these ships and never cross in front of them unless they are anchored.

What's this rule 9?

Rule 9 is part of the COLREGS, or Collision Regulations, an internationally agreed upon system of avoiding collision between vessels. There are 37 more rules you should be intimate with if you spend time on the water. The COLREGS define vessels, their hierarchy in the stand on/give way list, the application of proper navigational lighting, their behavior in passing and crossing situation and much more. If your vessel is 41' foot or larger you are required to have a copy of these rules aboard your vessel. All boats are required to follow the rules at all times. Find the rules online here Personally, I like this easier to read version, with examples and some interpretation from Charlie Wing.

What's this thing out on Government Island and what's it supposed to do, besides wreck boats?

That would be a Wing Dam, or Pile Dike. They were placed in the river around 100 years ago by the US Army Corps of Engineers to control silting in the channel. Read more about them here.

I have a sailboat, how do I get those bridges to open?

Good Question. Bridges monitor Channel 13 on the VHF Marine Radio. When you are close to the bridge, as in, less than 5 minutes motoring, hail the bridge on the VHF radio. The conversation should go like this. Be sure to speak slowly and clearly. Establish contact before you go into any details or ask for an opening.

"KQ-9049 Vancouver, this is the sailing vessel Quantum Leap, over."

The bridge operator will respond with something like this.

"Quantum Leap, I have a train about to cross, will get you through in a few minutes". or

"Quantum Leap, I will start your opening".

Its pretty simple actually, but there are a few rules. You must motor through the bridge, you will not be permitted to sail through a bridge opening. Know your clearance, the lift bridges will want to know how high to raise the bridge. Know which bridge you want to open, there are 7 in the Portland area and they all have names or call signs. The Interstate 5 bridge call sign is "KBM Interstate". The RR bridge just downstream of the Interstate bridge is "KQ-9049 Vancouver". The first RR bridge heading up the Willamette is "KQ-9050 St. Johns". The Broadway, Steel, Burnside and Morrison all just respond to their names. Just calling out "hey bridge, please open" will typically get you ignored. I have actually heard this on the radio.

Please do not go into your life story with the bridge operator, just a simple "requesting an opening" is sufficient to get through the bridge. The bridge operators are people just like you and I and treating them with respect and professionalism will go a long way.

I do not know exactly where I am, can you help?

Do you have a GPS or chartplotter on the boat? We can use the GPS position to find you. Also, if you have a smart phone you can usually pull a position from it.
Android App GPS Essentials Install this app from the play store, then open it, click on "Satellites" and you can read me your position
If you have an iPhone, you can use the "Compass" app to show your position. the "Compass" App is pre-installed onto iPhones.
You can also use Google Maps to text me your position. Open Maps from your apps list, turn on location services if requested, touch the centering button at the lower right corner of the screen (looks like a target crosshair). Now you should see your position as a blue dot in the center of the screen. Touch and hold the dot, until "Dropped Pin" shows in a banner at the bottom of the screen. Touch the banner, now touch "share". Enter my phone number 503-349-4401 and send. Follow up with a phone call so I can get more info and give you an ETA.

How is your hourly rate calculated?

Our hourly rate for fee per service is calculated by adding the total time from when we leave our home dock, render assistance to you, or return you to your home port or boat ramp, then return to our home dock at Tomahawk Island Marina. This is called portal to portal and is the industry standard for commercial assistance. Of course, Season Pass holders receive service at no additional cost.

What is a dock to dock tow?

Dock to dock is a non-urgent tow, typically it is to move a vessel from its home moorage to a boat ramp or repair yard when its propulsion machinery is inoperative. We have a special discounted rate for dock to dock of $150/hour, but there are some conditions. The job must be scheduled 24 hours in advance so we can fit it into our slow times, it also must be scheduled for a weekday, usually in the morning. Season Pass holders receive free dock to dock tows, with the same scheduling constraints.

I have a small sailboat without a motor, can I sign up for a Season Pass so you will tow me home when the wind dies?

Your vessel must have a working engine and be 100% functional to be eligible to sign up for a Season Pass.

How large of a boat can you tow?

We have towed a number of larger vessels, including a 60 foot Carver Motor Yacht, a 55 foot full keel wooden boat, and an 85 foot steel barge. Last summer we pulled a 90 foot yacht off of a sand bar that was high centered. All with our 21.5 foot center console 200 HP Tugger. We have been able to assist even larger vessels, simply by things like bringing out steering fluid, or a replacement hydraulic line. When working out on the coast back in 2008 , we went 80 miles out into the ocean to dive under a 102 foot boat and cleared line from the propeller.

How many boats do you tow each year?

We assist about 185-225 boaters every year.

I have my Oregon boaters card, can I come drive a boat for you?

Sorry, no. Our captains are USCG Masters licensed and have a minimum of 720 days working aboard boats. The boaters card is to the Masters license like a first responder with a CPR card is to a Paramedic.

Why should I pay you to tow me? Can I just flag someone down?

Sure you can flag someone down. Remember that when you pay peanuts sometimes you get monkeys. For example, watch this video of a "Good Sam" tow. How NOT to tow a boat

Does the boater you flag down have a floating tow line that is not going to break and snap back and hurt someone? A water ski or wakeboard tow rope is completely inadequate for towing a boat, they stretch, they do not have near enough working load, and snap back like a whip when they break. Our tow lines are 10 times stronger than any ski rope. It's a rare boater that has an adequate boat to boat tow line onboard. For one reason, tow line is expensive, expect to pay $2-4 per foot for a decent diameter, floating, synthetic tow line that is rated for more than 10,000# working load and is long enough to keep a safe distance from your tow, 75 feet minimum for river tows, 200 feet for offshore. We have invested over $3500 in tow line alone, plus the shackles and Korg Quick biners. Here is a good reason not to use ski rope for towing. Look at the energy that line snaps back with when it breaks. Imagine if it hit someone.

Most cleats are not strong enough or backed up solid enough to tow a boat from, what do you expect to happen if a metal cleat breaks? Where are the metal bits going and at what velocity, what about the broken end of the line, who might get hit with that? Think about the difference in weight between a skier and a boat. Attempting to tow a boat from your wakeboard tower can very easily flip your boat upside down, think about where the line is pulling from. Commercial tow posts are designed to be forward of the rudder, and as low as possible on the tow boat. Our boats have an engineered multi-point mounted 4 inch diameter tow post that is mounted so securely that the boat could be lifted from it. Another major issue, especially with grounded boats and boats that are lighter than the towed vessel, is being tripped or swamped. This is difficult to describe in words, but is shown is this video. Tug boat nearly tripped

This can happen when the tow force gets off to the side of the towing vessel, it can happen towing a sailboat with a power boat and the power boat stops. The sailboat keeps going with a tremendous amount of momentum, turns the power boat sideways and pulls them over, or drags the transom under water. Even a near miss can dump people out of the towed boat and is that prop still spinning? I personally know a commercial tow company owner who tripped his boat attempting a difficult ungrounding. He has been doing this for years and still managed to get out of position and roll his boat over, the damages to his boat were ~$80,000. Are you ready to assume that level of liability by towing someones boat?

Does the boater you flag down know how to side tie your boat with adequate fenders to protect your finish and place you gently into the dock without breaking or scratching anything? Have they been drinking today? Will their insurance cover your boat if they break something? Do they even have insurance? Do you know that on average a tow from us will cost less than any fiberglass or gel coat repair?

We carry jerry cans of gasoline on board as well as 30 foot jumper cables, dive equipment so we can untangle that line from your prop and other tools to provide a complete assistance solution and get you back running, so would you rather get home under your own power, or be towed by someone for hours? Helping a fellow boater in distress is a time honored tradition, but that was before lawyers showed up on the scene, offering to sue folks that were only trying to help. Keep this in mind if you offer to render assistance to a stranger. Sometimes the best help is to suggest they set an anchor and give us a call. Please stand by until we arrive. Remember that we do this every day, Columbia River Marine Assistance has over 2,000 on water assists in 9 years of providing commercial assistance. We can turn your OMG problem into a non-event. Sometimes the guy you flag down will wrap the tow line in his prop and then we get to tow two boats at once. We call this a double header! Wouldnt it be easier to just get a Season Pass now? Why trust your families safety to a complete unknown?

Will the guy you flag down for a tow know what to do when this comes around the bend heading right at you? We maintain a VHF radio watch on channels 13 and 16 and know how to communicate with all commercial river traffic. Our tow boats have AIS receivers that provide us the name, position, speed and direction of large vessels displayed right on our chartplotters.

Come on, towing boats is not rocket science...

I agree, but some experience helps. Say you have a sailboat and break down on a calm day. A nice guy in a wakeboard boat stops to give you a tow home, and then forgets to ask your mast clearance and snaps your mast off under a bridge. He didn't hear you yelling to stop because he had the tower speakers up too loud. The same guy has only an 18inch draft and pulls you onto a sand bar that he has crossed twice that day with no problem. Of course you have a 5 foot keel. I see early season boaters running over wing-dams on the Columbia and they have no idea that they missed tearing the bottom of their boat out by only a foot or maybe inches. We know where the wing dams are, we know the bridge clearances, how to contact the bridge operators and how to safely bring your boat home and put it right back in your home dock. There really is no replacement or quick fix for years of experience and local knowledge.

Hey, I see the Sheriff's River Patrol towing boats occasionally, can I get them to take me back to the dock for free?

They do occasionally do that, but free? Typically what you are seeing is an impound, after a DUII. They would rather us do the towing. After they get you back to the dock, they will do a very through safety inspection on your vessel, PFD's, visual distress signals, proper marking for your registration, breathalyzer test, the list goes on. Did you know that towing a biscut with out using an orange skier down flag will net you an $87 ticket? These guys are police officers, they LIKE writing tickets and they will usually look until they find something to write a ticket for. How do you like that free tow now? Hmm, $99/year is looking even better. Although I do care that you have the correct safety equipment aboard, I don't write tickets and I am not a law enforcement officer. I can do a vessel safety check for you at no charge so you know if you have all the proper safety equipment aboard.

Isn't the Coast Guard out there to help boaters?

In the old days the Coast Guard is who you would call for any on water problem. In 1985 Congress required the CG to rewrite the SAR policy which now requires the CG to defer all non-distress cases to commercial assistance operators (that's us). If you call the CG with only a breakdown or other non life threatening problem they will run you through a script and ask a bunch of questions. Then they will say, "For the situation you have described it is Coast Guard policy to defer to a commercial provider, is there someone you would like us to call on your behalf?" At this time they will also offer you our phone number and/or our competitors number. If you are having a serious emergency, sinking, burning boat, or medical situation then by all means give the CG a call, but if you are out of gas or need a jump, calling us will get help on the way much faster. If you are 40 miles offshore and taking on water, a Coast Guard helo is your best friend. Sitting on a sand bar in the Columbia, call us.

How about those other guys?

We work well with our competition, you are in good hands with them as well. We provide a few extras they do not. As part of our Season Pass program, we offer diving to clear a propeller and keep dive gear on the boats, our competitor would have to call in a diver for you at extra expense. We also provide discounted dock to dock towing which is free for Season Pass holders, our competitors have no such discounts. We have three boats, they have one. Besides, wouldn't you rather keep your towing program dollars local, rather than send your money back east to some huge insurance company fat cats? I think we know the answer to that question. Buy Local and keep us going!

I bought that $19 towing package at West Marine, does that mean I am covered for all my towing needs?/

Unfortunately, we see this problem quite often. That $19 towing package only provides $50 of towing coverage. Really. You get what you pay for. All that $19 "membership" does is get you on the mailing list so they can market all their other services to you by mail and email. $50 of coverage won't even get the tow boat out of the marina. You are actually paying these people to SPAM you. We all have a minimum of one hour service at $200/hour. Get yourself a Season Pass for only $99 and get real, locally based marine assistance from your "Friend on the Water".

How about those other, other guys?

Well, those Portland area Sea Tow guys in the yellow boats gave up and quit about 9 years ago, so if Sea Tow, (the parent company in New York) is still sending you invoices for their yearly service at $169/year, just know that they do not have a boat here and would have to pay us or those other guys to do their work for them. Actually you would have to pay us and get reimbursed by them later. Makes that $99 a year Season Pass look pretty good eh? Isn't it a stinker that they never told you they have no boat in Portland?

Should I keep insurance on my boat year round?

ABSOLUTELY! Our Season Pass does not cover service to vessels that are sinking, sunk, on fire, on the rocks, hard aground or otherwise in a state of marine peril. We can still help you and help keep your boat from sustaining additional damage, so get us coming if you have a serious problem, but the bill for that is something you will want to hand to your insurance company. Even if your boat is worth very little, dollars wise, if it causes an environmental problem by sinking or spilling oil, you can be fined by the Coast Guard or DEQ for substantial amounts of money. If your boat sinks, you are responsible for removing it from the water, if you choose not to, the Coast Guard can hire a salvage company like us, and bill you for the work. Off season is when we see lots of boats sunk at the dock, so don't let your policy expire just because you are not using your boat.

What is salvage?

If your boat is sunk, sinking, on fire, hung up on pilings or otherwise in a state of marine peril, then service to save your boat is considered salvage. Our job in a salvage situation is to "salvage" as much of your vessel's remaining value as possible. We carry crash pumps, flotation bags, dive gear, patches and various other tools aboard that can be used to prevent your vessel from sinking, or to raise it after it has sunk. We do, on average, 10-15 salvage jobs per year, with well over 100 of these dangerous and difficult operations under our belt. This type of service is expensive, and should be covered by your boat's hull insurance policy. The Season Pass does not cover salvage.

I have towing added on to my boat insurance, do I need a Season Pass too?

We do not bill insurance directly, so you will have to pay us out of pocket and send in the receipt to your insurance company for reimbursement. With your valid Season Pass, there is no out of pocket payment required in the event you need a tow or other service. Typically tow riders on boat insurance do not cover running out of gas, you usually have to break something to get the tow part of the policy to kick in. Check your policy carefully for any exclusions. We know that Progressive insurance for boats, has a good comprehensive towing package for their insured, we are the exclusive provider in this area for Progressive.

Hey Captain, can I get a deal from you?

Well the best deal is to be a Season Pass holder and get all services for free. However, if you have grounded your 40 foot sailboat an hour up river from me, at night, during a storm, then you can figure on full price of fee per service rates. If you are right in front of my marina on a sunny day and need a quick jump start, we can talk.

I am at my home dock and it seems my battery is dead, will you come over and give me a jump start?

This is a sticky one, remember that our services are designed to get you home in the event of an on water problem. If your battery is dead at the dock, you should consult your mechanic and find out why, then fix the problem before you go boating. If I give you a jump at the dock to enable you to go boating, there is a really good chance that you will need another one to get home later that day. It takes running your engine at speeds higher than idle for 8 hours or more to fully charge your battery. So, if you really want to pay me fee per service rates to come give you a jump, sure. But expect to pay a second time to get home. Jump starts and fuel drops at your home dock are NOT covered by the Season Pass. We recommend hooking up a standard battery charger and bring the battery up to full before you leave the dock. Are you the guy who tried to get car insurance so you could compete in a demolition derby?

Send us your question, click on Contact at the top of the page.