BOATS, BEARS AND INSURANCE CLAIMS - by Captain Mike Schoonveld

BOATS, BEARS AND INSURANCE CLAIMS - by Captain Mike Schoonveld

The best remedy to on the water or along the road problems with your boat and trailer is a good preventative maintenance program. That includes regular inspection of the trailer, suspension and periodic wheel bearing service.


TowBoatUS operates the largest franchised fleet of tow and rescue boats on the Great Lakes. 


I was driving home from a great day on Lake Michigan one day. Boat in tow, traffic was normal, skies were blue, the toughest decision ahead of me was whether to have asparagus or a spinach salad along with the fresh salmon I’d be grilling out on my deck. 

Then a pickup truck pulled along side, slowed and the driver started honking his horn. This isn’t uncommon. Occasionally, it’s someone I know just giving me a wave. Sometimes it’s a fellow Great Lakes angler, noticing the ‘riggers and rod holders and the direction I’m traveling (away from the lake) and wanting a quick, on-the-fly, fishing report. A thumbs up or down is usually good enough.

This time, instead of a wave or questioning gesture, he was urgently pointing back to my boat and trailer. He was yelling something I couldn’t hear through my rolled-up window. My lip-reading skills are weak, but it seemed as though he was saying something about a burning bear riding in the boat. What?

I quickly glanced in my rear-views and didn’t see a flaming bear, but I did see a solid contrail of smoke coming from one of the wheel hubs on the trailer. Yikes! Burning bear—burning bearing?

I glanced back at the driver next to me and mouthed, “thanks” to him through the glass as I started looking ahead to see where, up ahead, I would be able to quickly pull over out of traffic. Hopefully, that’s what he lip read from me, though he may have misinterpreted it as something like, “Oh s**t.



It was mid-June, bright skies, waves on the lake approaching six-inches and my chart showed a sure-bet waypoint just a couple miles ahead. Suddenly, it was though someone had reached over and shut off the switch.

After nearly four decades of “captaining” my boats on the Great Lakes I’m a fair marine mechanic. I’m not a magician, however, and I suspected immediately (and correctly) this wasn’t going to be a quick diagnosis and simple repair. I checked a few simple things and then repeated the same two words I used when I spotted my “burning bearings.”

In both of this instances, I pulled out my cell phone and soon help was on the way. Are you able to do this on the road or on the water? Do you know who to call and have their number?

In a boat, on the Great Lakes, try calling the Coast Guard—either by VHF radio (channel 16) or on your cell phone. On an inland lake, perhaps a call to the sheriff’s department will work. You could try to con-tact your boat insurance company. I’m sure there are some that would be able to help. Most don’t or can’t. Check your policy.


A vehicle breakdown can double the cost of a roadside rescue to get the truck, boat and trailer towed to safety.


Unless your situation puts you in immediate peril, neither the Coast Guard or the sheriff will dispatch help. Instead, they’ll contact a private boat towing service who, for a fee, will dispatch a tow boat.

When a roadside issue happens, who are you going to call? Don’t call the Coast Guard. You can call the police, if you know their number. Insurance companies might be helpful in a roadside situation. Some vehicle policies do include roadside assistance. Mine does. I pay extra for it, but it doesn’t cover boat trailers. Many people join Triple-A or similar organizations, but AAA doesn’t cover boat trailers, either.

Once you get in touch with the police, AAA, your insurance company or anyone with a modicum amount of concern for your situation, they will do the same thing. They’ll call someone—usually a towing service—who will dispatch a service truck to your location. Perhaps the driver can fix the problem, usually, he will tow you, your boat or both home or to somewhere the problem can be fixed—again, for a fee.

Whether on the water or alongside the road, don’t call 911 unless there is a flam-ing bear in the boat or the breakdown has put you or others in a dangerous situation. Plan ahead, know who to call and how to call. You do have all those numbers on your phone’s contact list, don’t you?

When situations like these happen, the immediate concern is getting help in a timely fashion. Once assistance is summoned, it’s the “for a fee” portion of the rescue that becomes a concern.

That’s where insurance comes in—if you have it and if you are covered. When it comes to insurance, what you think is covered isn’t always what the insurance companies think is covered. Is there a maximum limit or a deductible? Check the fine print on your policy. Remember, the reason many of the tallest skyscrapers in the world are owned by insurance companies isn’t because they are in the business of freely doling out money for claims.

Do you have roadside assistance on your vehicle insurance? Does it include problems which happen to your boat trailer? Some might; others, like AAA exclude boat trailers. Triple A would pay for towing your vehicle. You’d pay extra to get the boat and trailer taken somewhere.


The author is licensed to tow, but only renders assistance in emergency situations. 


On the water, who are you going to call? In most areas of the Great Lakes, a working, hard-wired VHF marine radio coupled to an eight-foot antenna will reach a U.S. Coast Guard station. If you are out of range of the Coast Guard, you are likely far out of range of a cell phone tower. Even on southern Lake Michigan where I can contact two or three USCG stations with my VHF, I’m often faced with zero bars on my phone.

I actually have two “who to call” phone app options when I do have a cell signal. One is the U.S. Coast Guard’s Mobile App—available free for all cell phones. It has many great features including emergency assistance—at least for contacting help, not paying the bill.

The app I used in both situations at the beginning of this story was the BoatUS app. Each year, I renew my BoatUS membership as I’ve been doing since the early 1990s. I joined BoatUS initially because of their advocacy work on behalf of America’s boaters. I still appreciate their advocacy influence; but now, I always make sure I purchase the roadside assist add-on, called Trailer Assist, as well as the Unlimited on the Water Towing add-on when I pay my renewal fees. The complete “package” costs $90.

Is it worth it? After the driver of the flatbed truck unloaded my boat and trailer in my driveway, I asked about the bill. “Do I need to do anything?” I asked.

“Nope, your insurance company has already paid,” he said.

“Can I ask what the cost was?”

He flipped a couple of pages. “Mileage starts when I leave the shop,” he explained. So 53 miles at $3.50 per mile, plus $90 loading fee—it comes to $275.50.

It could have been worse. A friend of mine had brake line trouble with his tow vehicle. In this case, his truck was loaded on a flatbed truck and the boat was hitched to the back of the rescue truck to move both the boat and tow vehicle at the same time.

“Great idea,” he said. “Until I saw the bill. I was charged for hauling the broken truck and also for towing the boat, even though both were moving at the same time.” In effect, the tow bill was twice as much.



I didn’t think to ask the Tow Boat captain who pulled my broken boat back to the marina what the cost of that service would have been if I’d been paying out of pocket. A couple of weeks after that event, however, I was mailed a copy of the paperwork between the towing service and BoatUS. The bill was on the far side of $1100. I talked with the same captain recently and was told the average tow bill from his franchise last summer was over $1300.



Back in the 1980s when western Lake Erie was experiencing it’s first “rebirth” as a walleye Mecca, I trailered my own boat over to experience it firsthand. Unbelievable—both the quality of the fishing, but more so, the uncountable number of other boats out on the lake.

A side story was the number of calls on the marine band being made to the Marblehead Coast Guard station asking assistance. I don’t know how many response boats they had but if they’d had a dozen, most of the boats would have stayed busy.

It wasn’t long after that the USCG changed their policy of assisting disabled boats or boaters by dispatching a rescue boat. Now, the Coasties respond in person only if a vessel is in eminent peril, such as being adrift in dangerous waves or drifting towards a hazardous area. Instead, the USCG will contact a local commercial towing service or send out a general call to other boaters requesting them to offer assistance.


Bearing problems are the second most common trailering issue after flat tires. 



“Any port in a storm” is a nautical based maxim often used in many situations meaning take help where you can get it. By all means, if your motor conks out and you have a friend fishing nearby who will come to your assistance, go for it. Remember two things, however. Rendering such assistance isn’t a normal boating operation. As such, should some sort of incident occur to either the boat or passengers being towed or in the boat doing the towing, that incident is likely to be not covered by either boat’s insurance policy.

In fair weather and if you are very confident in your skills and those of the other boater, go ahead and accept assistance or render it. But be hesitant.

If you do rescue one of your buddies or a stranger, let him buy you a beer sometime in the future or offer some other token gesture of thanks. Don’t pay him (or her). Worse would be if you hear of a boat in distress nearby, you respond and then offer assistance for a fee—even if it’s 20 bucks to “pay for gas.”

Towing “for hire” requires a special license (issued by the USCG), special insurance and most likely special boat inspection requirements, depending on state or local regulations. Recognize too, your fish-ing boat and motor wasn’t designed to be a tow boat. Those tie down brackets on the stern may be okay for pulling a 200-pound water skier. Are they up to pulling a
2000-pound boat?


This boat under tow isn’t a boat anyone wants to be in. 


I have a towing endorsement on my captain’s license. To get this endorsement I had to learn special rules, requirements and procedures, then pass a separate exam. Still, I don’t respond regularly to requests for assistance—actually just twice in over two decades. Once was a good-sized boat only minutes away from being blown onto the rocks. Another was a friend in a smaller boat with motor trouble on a calm day. Both boat owners offered to pay me, but I declined.

The best remedy to on the water or along the road problems with your boat and trailer is a good preventative maintenance program. That includes regular inspection of the trailer, suspension and periodic wheel bearing service. The same goes for your boat, inspections—including battery, engine tune-ups and attention to other mechanical details.

Even with this, as Forrest Gump said when he splashed through the mud puddle, “…it happens.” Be prepared for when it happens, whether it’s a broken bilge pump or burning bear.

A part of being prepared means hav-ing insurance and having the right policy. I’m not touting any particular insurance company. Whether it comes with Good Hands, an ostrich or lizard as a spokesman makes little difference. What does is the coverage and service you get when you are alone and adrift or sidelined on a busy highway. Check your policy before you need it so you know what to do
when you need it.

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