Back in September 1609, Henry Hudson’s Half Moon ran aground on a sandbar near, historians believe, the present-day site of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. Hudson and his crew had to rely on the rising tide and muscle-powered rowboats to get free.
Today, Hudson River sailors have a better option — Joe Thomas.
Thomas, 31, operates the Sea Tow franchise for a stretch of the Hudson River running from the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge to the Troy Lock. With a fleet of five boats and ten crew members, Thomas tends to the unskilled, unaware or just plain unlucky among the river’s weekend mariners. From dropping off fuel to those whose motors have unexpectedly run dry to dragging boats free from the same giant sandbar that bedeviled Henry Hudson to clearing abandoned wrecks that litter the riverbanks, Thomas sees his job as both a business and a mission.
“Anything we can do to help anyone on that river,” said Thomas. “That’s our job.”
Thomas first started working on the river 13 years ago when, after college, he found himself substitute teaching but feeling adrift. He took a job on the party boat Teal: “Scraping paint, bar-backing a little of everything.”
That led to him getting his Coast Guard captain’s license and eventually becoming a part owner of the Teal. Three years ago he began working as a captain for the previous owner of the north Hudson Sea Tow territory. In March, he bought out the franchise.
Based on Long Island, Sea Tow oversees 120 franchises in North America, Europe and the Caribbean. The company specializes in providing non-emergency services to recreational boaters. Thomas’ operation consists of five boats berthed in Kingston, Poughkeepsie and the Greene County town of Coeymans. The geographical distribution, Thomas said, allows him to reach boats anywhere in the territory in about an hour.
The fleet’s flagship, the MH-2, features a design and equipment tailor-made for getting to boats in distress quickly. The Center Console Twin V boat carries twin 200-horsepower Mercury Engines, which allow for a top speed of about 25 miles per hour. A wide hull and catamaran configuration help keep the boat steady in the notoriously unpredictable Hudson River chop. The boat carries Coast Guard-approved emergency lights and sirens, radar and other navigational aides that allow her and other Sea Tow boats to operate at night and in poor weather.
Then there’s the “tow bit” — an aluminum post bolted to the deck directly behind the cockpit. The bit and 12-braid towing line allow the MH 2 to pull up to 14,000 pounds and boats up to 65 feet long. A larger boat in the fleet, “Dot,” handles bigger jobs for commercial clients.
The bulk of the Hudson Sea Tow business is made up of recreational boaters who pay $169 a year for what amounts to a riverine Triple-A. The MH-2 and its sister boats spend the boating season — which runs from early spring to whenever ice begins to clog the river — criss-crossing the Hudson from one distress call to the next. The most common calls, Thomas said, involve boats that have run out of fuel (small-boat fuel gauges being notoriously unreliable), suffered thrown belts, drained batteries or other mechanical problems. Other times, “bad decisions” — like ignoring channel markers or not keeping track of the tides — leave boaters in need of a tow back to shore. Non-members pay $300 an hour for the service, making the annual fee, Thomas said, a good investment.
“I tell people, ‘You want Sea Tow because boats break,’” said Thomas. “They just do — if you boat long enough, you’re going to have a breakdown sooner or later.”
Thomas, though, sees his operation as an all-purpose source of assistance and advice. In the northern part of the territory, where tugboats and tankers sometimes wait days to off-load cargo, Sea Tow delivers food, spare parts and fresh crews to the commercial vessels. The business is also working with the environmental group Riverkeeper to remove wrecks left behind almost two years after Superstorm Sandy.
The mission also extends to offering advice to Sea Tow clients that Thomas hopes will keep them afloat and off the tow line. Thomas said that he spends time on the phone with clients, especially new boaters, and even makes visits to marinas to help troubleshoot mechanical problems or show boat owners how to operate new gear. Thomas said simple fixes, like topping off fuel before you head out, basic preventative maintenance and making sure you have enough line to drop anchor anywhere in the river can make all the difference. He also advises clients to update charts frequently since storms and shifting tides can create new hazards overnight. He counsels boaters to know their and their vessel’s limits when it comes to operating in bad weather or unfamiliar waters.
Most of all, he said, it comes down to being prepared. “We’re always there if you need us,” said Thomas. “But we’d rather people stay safe on the water and do what they have to do so they don’t need to call us.”
For information, call 336-8145. ++