Harry Essex was out for a day of fishing on his 30-foot yacht, Central Park, when trouble hit. The spark plugs on the twin-engine craft had got wet and the battery had died after repeated attempts to start the boat.
Essex, 50, was stranded three miles off Marina del Rey and he wanted to go home.
So he called the Coast Guard. But instead of a free tow to port, Essex received a list of telephone numbers of commercial towing companies. When the Beverly Hills man was returned safely to shore by one of them, he was presented with a $300 bill.
Others have found themselves in the same boat in the year since the Coast Guard enacted a new policy in which it tows boats only in emergencies. Coast Guard officials admit that the practice has tarnished their reputation for public service and angered some boaters who say they have been gouged by commercial towing companies.
Acting on orders from Congress, Coast Guard Commandant James S. Gracey decided in June, 1983, that only boats in serious trouble would be towed by the Coast Guard. Those stranded but not in danger would be left to private towers. The policy went into force in January, 1984, in the 11th Coast Guard District, which covers Southern California waters. The Coast Guard has referred 153 boat owners to private towers.
Since then the number of rescue cases handled by the Coast Guard has decreased by more than 20%. A Coast Guard official attributed its towing cutback to the private companies, as well as to better boater preparedness.
The Coast Guard keeps a list of towing companies that it radios to stranded boats. There are 12 towing companies from Santa Monica Bay south to Huntington Harbor, compared to four a year ago, a Coast Guard spokesman said.
Boat owners who said they had never heard of commercial towing companies before must hire them if they become stranded. Instead of the free tow they had come to expect, they pay from $100 to $235 an hour. And most of the private companies charge for the time it takes them to reach a stranded craft, as well as for the tow.
The resulting fees often run over $1,000, according to boaters who were desperate to get back to shore.
Essex said he was surprised when he learned the Coast Guard no longer towed and then "furious" when he heard how much the private company would charge him. "I screamed at them but you just don't argue when you are stuck out there," he said.
The operators of the towing services said their high prices are necessary to cover expenses.
"You have two paid men on each boat," said Carl Fromhold of Donohugh Boat Service in San Pedro. "And it costs a lot to run a twin-diesel engine. And when you are towing someone you have to have insurance. That costs a lot, too."
Donohugh charges $100 to $160 an hour for a tow and said business is up 75% since the Coast Guard policy was instituted.
Other companies, including Marine Club of Los Angeles and Newport, have formed group towing associations. Marine Club provides four free hours of towing a year for a charge of $1.70 a foot of boat length. After four hours a tow costs $62.50 an hour. And unlike most other towers, charges are strictly for towing time, not for the time spent reaching a stranded craft. (The club will also provide unlimited towing for $120 a year.)
The Marine Club has 250 members and is growing at a rate of five per month, according to chief executive officer Bret Graham.
But boaters have suggested that they should band together to provide tows for each other. In a recent letter to a seafaring newspaper, one man suggested that boat owners form a club to provide free tows.
Coast Guard officials said the orders from the commandant enforce a policy that prohibits interference with private towing businesses. The change protects private enterprise and allows the Coast Guard to concentrate on work such as drug enforcement, they said.
The Coast Guard will respond if a craft is sinking, on fire or has sick people aboard, or if darkness is approaching. Even when commercial towing companies take a case the Coast Guard is supposed to make sure that the boat is returned safely to port.
The effects of the policy have been positive, according to John Dejung, senior operations duty officer in Long Beach.
Boaters are more likely to be well prepared when they leave port now that they know the Coast Guard will not give them a free tow when they run out of gas or forget to charge their batteries, according to Peter Simons of the Coast Guard Station at Marina del Rey. The new policy has also brought out good Samaritans who are willing to tow each other out of trouble, according to Dejung.
But Dejung admitted that it "has harmed our public image. . . . It kind of goes against the grain of what we have come to value and believe in. Many (in the Coast Guard) have trouble with the concept that we are not responding with all our assets to each of these situations."
Members of the volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliary have also been restrained from towing disabled boats. While on patrol in their own boats, auxiliary members are considered members of the service and cannot provide non-emergency tows.
"Many times we are out on patrol for the auxiliary, just waiting to help people," said Joe Harris of Marina del Rey. "But the Coast Guard, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to send out a commercial tow."
Harris said he and other members of the auxiliary have become disillusioned because they cannot help. "This is one reason that we are there," he said. "Now we sit there for eight hours a day and twiddle our thumbs."
The Coast Guard and boaters also are concerned with the qualifications of towing companies. Operators of towboats over 26 feet in length must pass a minimum proficiency test on boating and navigation, Dejung said.
Last August, a state law regulating towboats of under 26 feet was approved. The law was in response to the new Coast Guard policy and the increased use of private tows, according to an aide for the law's sponsor, Sen. Milton Marks (R-San Francisco.)
Regulations for the law, being written by the state Department of Boating and Waterways, will include a provision for arbitration of cases in which boaters say they have been overcharged.