After more than three decades, Sea Tow I still going strong patrolling local waters

04/27/2019 6:00 AM |

For their most challenging salvage jobs, the crews at Sea Tow Eastern Long Island turn to their oldest, most trusted boat: Sea Tow I.

More than three decades after first entering the water, the 24-foot vessel still operates with its original hull. The steering wheel is original. The distinctive yellow paint dates back to 1997, having received only occasional touch-ups since.

It’s estimated the tow boat has responded to 11,750 jobs and operated for just under 30,000 hours of towing.

Sea Town CEO Joseph Frohnhoefer III couldn’t recall exactly how many engines the boat has had.

“A lot,” he said.

Sea Tow I has responded to stranded boaters across the East End for 35 years; the upcoming season will be its 36th. As technology changes and boat design evolves, Sea Tow I remains a constant — a reliable workhorse that can handle just about anything thrown its way.

Sea Tow I’s captain, Bill Barker of Mattituck, Mr. Frohnhoefer and other Sea Tow employees recently reminisced about the boat, which dates back to the Southold company’s founding, after an unexpected note arrived from the son of the man who helped design it.

In North Carolina, Chuck Bower recently set out to refurbish a boat he had built. It was supposed to be a short project, but ended up taking several years. As he prepared to put the boat in the water, he realized he was no longer signed up for Sea Tow. As he filled out the paperwork to rejoin, he noted in a comment section that his father, Horace, had been vice president and part owner of Privateer Boats, the company that designed and built the original Sea Tow vessels. He had no idea at the time that Sea Tow I was still in operation today. 

In an interview, he recalled spending time at the shop as a teenager.

“I remember going over there one day and seeing the Sea Tow boats and asking the president of the company about what was going on with the boat,” said Mr. Bower, 54. “He explained the Sea Tow concept and what it was. I just thought that was kind of cool, all these years later, it’s this wonderful service that’s available and been successful. I thought to myself, our boats were some of the first boats that they used.”

Mr. Frohnhoefer, whose father founded Sea Tow, joked that he spent so much time around Sea Tow I as a kid, its tow post could have been used to chart his height.

“It was kind of a perfect design,” he said of the venerable tow boat. “It had good balance. And as Bill [Barker] always said, you knew the boat would take you home.”

Privateer Boats is now known as Radcliffe Boatworks and is located in Belhaven, N.C.

Mr. Bower said that as a teenager he worked for the company after school in the wood department. He went on to join the Navy at 18. He’s now a full-time firefighter.

Mr. Barker, who owns Sea Tow’s Eastern Long Island franchise, said Sea Tow I was the operation’s main boat up until about 2005. Nowadays, on a given weekend during the busy season, three or four boats will be working at the same time, he said, so Sea Tow I still gets its use.

Part of the evolution of newer boats is a thinner fiberglass hull. The Sea Tow I’s thicker hull makes it better suited to bump into rocks when pulling boats that end up in precarious positions.

“We’re not afraid to scratch it,” the captain said. “[The hull] been cosmetically repaired, but it’s never had structural damage to it. It’s been beached, wedged in rocks in Sag Harbor, it’s been run into by other boats.”

Mr. Frohnhoefer recalled one time when the windshield blew out of the boat. He was riding with his father en route to Sag Harbor for a rescue on a “nasty, nasty day.”

“The waves stacked up,” he said. “We got on top of a wave, dove and blew it out,” he recalled.

Asked how much longer Sea Tow I might be in service, Mr. Frohnhoefer didn’t hesitate. 

“Bill will keep it going forever,” he said with a laugh.

Photo caption: Sea Tow I pictured in 1985. (Courtesy photo)

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