Joseph Frohnhoefer Jr., founder of Sea Tow International, dies at 71

The Frohnhoefer family (from left) Kristen, Joseph III and parents Joseph and Georgia in July 2012. (Credit: Courtesy photo)
The Frohnhoefer family (from left) Kristen, Joseph III and parents Joseph and Georgia in July 2012. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Boaters across the world are safer today thanks to Sea Tow founder Joseph Frohnhoefer Jr., said U.S. Coast Guard Captain Ed Cubanski, sector commander of Long Island Sound.

Even among emergency personnel, Capt. Cubanski said, Mr. Frohnhoefer was a larger-than-life figure, a mentor to many and a titan in the industry. His counsel was invaluable and he was tirelessly committed to saving lives and helping others, he said.

When Capt. Cubanski became sector commander in June 2013, the first person to shake his hand after his promotion was Mr. Frohnhoefer. The businessman quickly became like a “second father,” he said.

“Everyone goes to the summit to talk to him,” Capt. Cubanski said. “He’s one of those people they should build a statue of. He’s a legend and — shoot — he’s gonna be missed.”

Mr. Frohnhoefer, who founded the Southold-based marine assistance company Sea Tow Services International and donated to several causes across the North Fork, died Tuesday. He was 71.

A former Coast Guard captain and licensed electrician who taught at Mattituck High School for 20 years, Mr. Frohnhoefer was also a state trooper and police officer.

While serving as Bay Constable for Southold Town police, the Coast Guard changed its policies about responding to non-emergency calls. In response, Mr. Frohnhoefer founded Sea Tow in 1983 to help boaters stranded on the water. The company has since expanded internationally and moved beyond towing stalled boats.

“He taught us the value of hard work and to never take ‘no’ as an answer,” said his son, Joseph Frohnhoefer III. “If someone told him it could not be done, it only drove him harder to accomplish it.”

But Mr. Frohnhoefer said his father always took pleasure in his work.

“He was always having fun,” he said. “He was also always looking five steps ahead for the next opportunity and adventure; he never stopped.”

In one of Sea Tow’s most celebrated moments, the company sent 50 employees to assist with relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Those efforts were crucial to emergency workers, said Al Martinez-Fonts Jr., a Cutchogue resident who served as assistant secretary to the Department of Homeland Security during the storm.

“When Katrina hit he was one of the first to call to offer his service,” Mr. Martinez-Fonts said. “When communications were down, Joe and Sea Tow were able to provide some of the best situational reports of what was going on in the Gulf.”

“Captain Joe,” as he was known, also donated his time and resources to several local organizations, including Relay for Life, San Simeon by the Sound and Eastern Long Island Hospital.

In 2005, Mr. Frohnhoefer was honored as The Suffolk Times’ Businessperson of the Year. In February 2014, he received the Charles F. Chapman Award from the National Marine Manufacturers Association for a “distinguished career spanning more than 40 years in the boating industry.”

“He was a good friend for years and years,” said Bill Lieblein Sr., owner of Port of Egypt in Southold. “I felt like he was another brother.”

Mr. Lieblein recalled selling Mr. Frohnhoefer his first boats when Sea Tow was in its infancy.

“Joe worked so hard at it. He put his whole heart into it,” Mr. Lieblein said. “I was so happy to see him successful.”

The two families vacationed together, creating memories Mr. Lie-blein said he’s grateful for. He also remembers the many times Mr. Frohnhoefer helped him out by building Port of Egypt’s showroom or excavating the property.

“Joe would drop everything to help you,” Mr. Lieblein said. “He had a heart of gold. He was a mountain of a man.”

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley, who trained with Mr. Frohnhoefer in the police department, said he was “always professional” and willing to help cops however he could. His generosity carried over to his personal life, Mr. Flatley said.

“He’s always been community-minded,” Mr. Flatley said. “He’s always willing to be the person to volunteer anything.”

Mr. Frohnhoefer also served as a volunteer emergency medical technician, became a captain in the Southold Fire Department’s Packard Hose company and was once president of both the North Fork Lions Club and Mattituck Gun Club.

“He’s been in a long time,” said Southold Fire Chief Peggy Killian. “You can always count on him.”

Chief Killian said Mr. Frohnhoefer was captain long before she joined the department, but they had a deeper connection: he was her high school teacher.

“He would do anything for anybody,” she said.

ELIH president and CEO Paul Connor described the Sea Tow founder as a “rare human being” who was “irreplaceable” to his community.

“He took a lot of pride in what he did and he should. Capt. Joe was there if you needed help,” Mr. Connor said. “It’s just such a loss.”

Despite this, his son said, Mr. Frohnhoefer’s work will endure.

“His life lessons and the legacy he built, not only with Sea Tow but within the community, will keep his memory alive for decades,” he said.

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