For the recreational boater it can be an absolute disaster with huge costs and the loss of your boat - all too easily. NAUTICAL LOG has suggested before that a membership with professional towing companies is the preferred course. By having a policy with BOAT US/VESSEL ASSIST or SEATOW the situation when one gets into trouble is that of an insurance policy activated when needed with the premiums fully paid up. Pretty much the same concept as your AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION policy for land travels and there are usually no additional charges. This membership pretty much obviates the salvage rights but not entirely so read and understand your 'Red' or 'Yellow' policy and talk with the franchise.
However for the boater dealing with an 'independent' tower things can be quite different because different rules can and indeed do apply. For example the 'independent' tower can come along aside and offer assistance, look at the problem, quickly assess a boater with little or no knowledge and offer a tow to harbour. Maybe all it is something as simple lack of fuel however the 'independent' does not have to tell the boater. Having agreed on a price the 'independent' puts their towline aboard you and with that act they have got a lien on you under maritime law. You are at the mercy of salvage laws and the 'independent' has ownership of your vessel. That ownership remains with the 'independent' until all monies have been fully paid by you under the Salvage Law.
The term 'Salvage' is inclusive of and applies fully too all maritime craft whether it be the act of picking up a dinghy, towing a recreational boat, supertanker or cruise ship. The Salvage Law is set and applied by Lloyds Open Form 95, the International Salvage Convention 1989, The Salvage Association and Principles for Assessing a Salvage Award. For a person to claim 'salvage' the following five points must be fully met:
1. Volunteer act
2. Succesful act
3. Maritime property
4. In real danger
5. At sea
From time immemorial Lloyd's Open Agreement was the accepted protocol. Tower called out to towee "Lloyd's Open" towee replied "Agreed" and the tower passed a towline across, all secured and off they went - yeah right if only it was so easy. The point here is the passing of that towline, if the tower line is used then an implied lien is in place under maritime law, if the towee line is used there is no implied lien under maritime law. So when you call and get assistance you will be using the tower towline. (Looking at the OMG photos in Part 2 one might wonder about that but there it is.)
Now it might just happen that another boater will respond and offer help. If they turn out to be a 'good Samaritan' make sure that you pass them your line, by doing that there will later be no misunderstandings about implied liens under maritime law. Things can happen, people change their minds about helping and demand money particularly if something breaks during the tow.
As always this Post is meant to be informative and is NOT LEGAL ADVISE so talk to the franchise and to your maritime legal counsel. An Officer of the Court has access to legal records, it might be that a particular towing company has a history of lawsuits or even within a firm a particular coxswain seems to have problems. Information is knowledge and knowledge leads to good decisions and safer boating.