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It's a seagoing `triple A' to the rescue. Private `tow chain' setup saves stranded or out-of-gas boaters

If you run out of gas on the highway, at least you may be able to walk to a service station. On the high seas, however, it's a different matter. If you do get stuck, though, it's always nice to know that people like Jack Curley are out there.

Shuddering and bucking like a bronco, Mr. Curley's 25-foot boat thuds and smacks its fiberglass hull onto short, cresting waves as it shoots across Boston Harbor toward another breakdown.

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When he gets there, the brawny seaman, who spent five years in the Coast Guard, will jump-start a balky engine, provide gasoline to those who've run out, or clear a propeller tangled in a lobster pot. If all else fails, he tows them home.

No, he's not just a nice guy trying to help out. Curley is making money. What the AAA is for motorists, Curley wants to be for stuck boaters. So far the idea has been successful.

Curley says his Sea Tow business made money its first year and has grown to a two-boat operation this year. As he slows his boat and guides it through what he calls ``hazardous'' waters rife with underwater outcroppings at low tide, Curley explains that the United States Coast Guard still handles all life-threatening calls.

But the Sea Tow business has filled a niche created by cutbacks in the Coast Guard budget and increasing demands on its rescue services, he says.

Partly because of its tightened budget, the Coast Guard has had to put an increasing number of calls for non-life-threatening situations -- such as boats adrift and out of gas -- on a waiting list. And it refers others to several private towing firms, including Sea Tow, a Coast Guard spokesman says.

On the East Coast, Curley's operation is only one of 25 independently owned Sea Tow operations. There are six on the Great Lakes. All are members of New York-based Sea Tow International and pay a percentage to a towing fund. The arrangement allows a Boston-area Sea Tow member, for example, to get a free tow in any coastal area covered by a Sea Tow licensee.

A one-year Sea Tow membership costs from $95 to $150 (depending on the size of the boat) and provides a variety of services, including a free two-hour tow if needed. Nonmembers pay $75 an hour for a tow, so a two-hour rescue would cost $150.

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If anyone -- member or nonmember -- runs aground or out of gas, all he has to do is get on the marine radio and call: ``Sea Tow, Sea Tow, Sea Tow. . . .''

Right now, the only thing on Curley's mind is finding a stranded 28-foot motor cruiser that wrecked its propeller on a submerged rock. Gazing out on the channel between two rocky harbor islands, he glances down from time to time, rechecking his chart.

Grabbing his marine radio microphone, Curley asks the people on board the stranded boat, called Snoozer, which of the harbor's many islands they are nearest. But after the transmission he looks a bit exasperated.

``The biggest problem is that most of the people that call in don't have much idea where they are,'' he says. ``This guy thinks he's near Gallows Island, but I have a feeling he's nearer Ramshead Point.''

Using his instinct and an intimate knowledge of the harbor, Curley steers around an island and cruises a few more minutes before he picks out one of several small boats on the horizon. ``I bet it's that one there, near Black Rock.'' It is.

On this cool, breezy Saturday in September, the Snoozer is anchored in just six feet of water near Black Rock. Its six occupants seem calm, but glad to see the twin-engine Sea Tow boat draw nearby and a line come flying out to be hooked onto the bow.

Pretty soon the line is pulled tight as a piano string and the Snoozer is being towed home at 7 miles an hour.

The Snoozer was today's only call. But before Labor Day and during the summer season, Sea Tow was getting 20 or more calls per day on a weekend. In the first summer it handled 70 calls. By the end of this summer, however, it will have handled about 220 calls in the Boston area.

During this and last summer, it wasn't unusual to tow five or six boats on a Saturday, Curley says. But with the second boat (which cost $30,000 and was delivered late in the season), Curley expects to handle many more calls on a busy day.

Now, however, the cooler weather has meant that calls are much less frequent. Curley spends a lot of time, especially in the morning, waiting in the boat (which doubles as his office) just reading a mystery novel and listening to the channnel 16, the emergency band channel on his marine radio.

Since helping out pleasure boaters is about 100 percent of the business, Sea Tow in the Boston area operates from May 1 to Nov. 1. When business shuts down for the winter, Curley and business partner Robert Lane, who works for a big-eight accounting firm, will plan a marketing strategy to gain more members.

This winter the company will send out direct-mail pitches to potential members and visit several boat shows, possibly towing along their new Sea Tow boat to display.

Yet word-of-mouth advertising -- and overheard radio distress calls -- have been most effective at signing up their nearly 200 Sea Tow members.

Curley also says having his boats berthed and operating out of the upscale Shipyard Quarters Marina here adds credibility.

So far, though, the job takes extra dedication. Curley works seven-day weeks during the season and lives eight minutes from the dock.

While Curley waits for another call, an obviously satisfied customer walking by the boat volunteers that when the key broke to the diesel engine on her sailboat Leprechaun, Sea Tow was on the spot in minutes. Her comment: ``These guys are great.''

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