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Tow, Tow, Tow Your Boat

Dutch-born photographer Walter Garschagen runs a marine assistance business on the Hudson River.

Former history major Walter Garschagen (WCAS91) bought his business just a year ago, but he's already made headlines with it.

On Mother's Day last year, a 65-foot tour boat lodged in the mud of the Hudson River, stranding 88 people. Garschagen, who purchased the Sea Tow Central Hudson River franchise last January, dispatched two distinctive yellow powerboats to the scene as he drove to a nearby dock to direct operations. Working alongside local officials, his teams unloaded the passengers, six at a time, and then towed the boat, the MV Tahiti Queen, back into open water.

That's just business as usual, according to Garschagen. "Many calls are pretty straightforward. They don't have the drama of some of our other jobs. Sometimes we get calls like, [imitating radio static] 'Cchhh! — Help! I'm taking on water … — Chchchhh! — … under the bridge at … — chhhcch! — … a lot of water!' and you have to figure out which bridge it is they're sinking under."

Quickly answering any calls for help, which total more than 250 per year, is one of the most important parts of Sea Tow's normal operations. Sea Tow, founded in 1983 in response to the U.S. Coast Guard's decision to cease responding to nonemergency calls for assistance, functions as a kind of roadside assistance club on the water, conducting towing, refueling and rescue operations, with about 150 franchises in the United States.

Garschagen's franchise provides emergency and nonemergency service on the Hudson River between the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge and the George Washington Bridge, a busy 50–nautical mile–long stretch of water north of New York City. Boaters often call for help with dead batteries or engine trouble. And at least 30 percent of Sea Tow's calls come from boaters who have run out of gas, sometimes as a result of a broken gas gauge but more often because the owners were "having too much fun," Garschagen says.

Like the American Automobile Association, Sea Tow International sells memberships ($149 a year; nonmembers are charged $250 an hour). "You get young families, older couples, people of all walks of life. You don't need a lot of money at all to take an old 20-foot powerboat out to cool off for the afternoon," Garschagen says. Powerboats account for the majority of his 1,500 members, but many sailboat owners join as well. Even riders on bobbing, powerless Jet Skis, notorious for running out of fuel due to the too-much-fun factor, flag down the yellow Sea Tow boats from time to time.

Garschagen keeps his radio on 24 hours a day. He and his two co-captains all live within minutes of the river, with two boats at Haverstraw Marina and one near Garschagen's home in Cold Spring, N.Y. Their response time to either end of their territory is 45 minutes. "Once, I was sitting at home with my kids," he recalls, "and I got a call over the radio that a boat had hit a piling and was sinking fast. I dropped the kids with the neighbors, raced to the boat and got to the scene in time to save the sinking boat with a gas-powered pump."

Each of his three Sea Tow boats carries several large pumps designed to evacuate water from sinking vessels. "When we get there and start the pumps and turn on our work lights and get control of the situation, people feel a whole lot better," he says.

Marine assistance may seem like a strange career for a former history major, but Garschagen has always "played around on boats," from his childhood in the Netherlands where he lived near a canal and "could almost take a rowboat to school" to teaching at the Northwestern Sailing Center. He came to the United States after graduating from high school and joined his father in Chicago. Following graduation from Northwestern, he parlayed his interest in photography into a career on which he now mainly focuses in the winter.

Photography brought him to New York City via an internship with Life magazine. Now one of his specialties combines his two passions: marine photography. As a regular contributor to Professional Mariner magazine and a freelancer for the Coast Guard, he photographs boats all over New York City and the Hudson River. He also specializes in photographing theater companies, as well as corporations and universities.

"I knew I wasn't going to be a history teacher," he says. "If I can make a hobby into a living, I will."

— Kent Cubbage

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Walter Garschagen
Walter Garschagen