SOUTHOLD, N.Y. – As a teenager, Chuck Bower spent countless hours in his dad’s boat shop where Privateer Boats were made, but one boat is burned into his memory unlike any other. Today – 35 years later – the boat Bower remembers is still in operation as Sea Tow’s maiden vessel – Sea Tow I.
While recently looking through some old files and searching through photos, Bower stumbled across some items that belonged to his father, Horace Dewitt Bower, vice president of Privateer Boat Company.
Bower said the rare find of his dad’s memorabilia prompted him to contact Sea Tow about that distinctive yellow boat he recalls his dad working on and ask if they might have any photographs – that is, if they even remember the vessel.
“We not only remembered it, but Sea Tow I is still in service today at our Eastern Long Island franchise; we also have a framed photograph of it in our boardroom,” said Georgia Frohnhoefer, the wife of Captain Joe Frohnhoefer, who started Sea Tow Services International in 1983. “I remember the first time I rode on that tow boat; I remember when Joe bought it from a friend of ours named Bill Lieblein, as well. It was the start of something big.”
Bower said he was very surprised to find out that Sea Tow I was still in service and noted that he had a similar feeling about that special Privateer boat his dad worked on in their shop in Chocowinity, N.C.
“I felt like Privateer had hit the big-time when they started building boats for Sea Tow,” Bower, who was a teenager when Privateer started work on Sea Tow I, recalled. “My dad’s company was building something that was a commercial, purpose-built boat – kind of like for the U.S. Coast Guard. I do remember thinking it was strange to put that huge towing bollard in the back of the boat and reinforcing the stringers, but it worked. At Privateer, they basically said, ‘Whatever the customer wants, we will make it happen.’”
The longevity of Sea Tow I is no coincidence. Bower’s father, Horace, had a long history of working with industry-renowned boat manufactures after becoming a certified naval architect from the American Boat & Yacht Council, which to this day is known for its commitment to providing technical education, training, certification and professional development for those who want careers in the marine industry. He later worked with boating giants Hatteras Yachts, Grady White and Sea Ox.
“I feel so fortunate to have been part of the family with all these connections in the boating industry,” Chuck Bower said. “My dad saw and learned so much and brought that to Privateer. He maintained friendships with some of the engineers at Grady (White), and one of those friendships is why I got to see Sea Tow’s first boat being built.”
While at Grady White, the elder Bower became friends with Warren Wilkerson – another name synonymous in North Carolina’s boating industry. Wilkerson was the founder of Privateer Boat Company and recruited Bower to join him in 1977 after he finished one of the major projects he had started while at Sea Ox.
“(Horace) loved to design stuff and, in particular, do the wood plugs for boats,” Wilkerson said. “He was a real craftsman in my mind and very good at what he did. I was proud to have him on at Privateer and my partner. He is actually the one that designed that Sea Tow I boat. His son should be proud.”
Today, Privateer is known as Radcliffe Boatworks after it was sold in 1991 and is located in Belhaven, N.C. While Privateer did some recreational boats, the commercial industry started to turn the tide for the company’s manufacturing and profits. It also led to the Sea Tow connections.
About 125 miles north of Privateer’s base of operations in North Carolina, commercial fisherman in the Chesapeake Bay started to hear of the unique ways Privateer Boats were being made.
It wasn’t long before word of Privateer’s design spread further north, even to Long Island, N.Y. The connection of Privateer to Sea Tow came through Bill Lieblein, who owned a boat dealership on Long Island – which he still operates it today. Lieblein was a friend of Frohnhoefer, and through some conversations about the unique features and construction of Privateer Boats and the need for a private boat towing company following the Coast Guard’s decision to cease service of non-emergency calls, Sea Tow was born.
The year was 1983, and Sea Tow I was the first in a long line of Privateer Boats that made up the beginnings of the Sea Tow fleet.
Today, Sea Tow I is still in service under the leadership of Capt. Bill Barker, owner of Sea Tow Eastern Long Island. As a native “East Ender,” Barker has been fortunate, not only to be the owner of the first Sea Tow franchise, but also the owner and custodian of the original Sea Tow tow boat.
According to Joseph Frohnhoefer III, Captain Joe’s son and CEO of Sea Tow, the company’s first boat has established a legacy that still lives on today. Along with photos of the boat in Sea Tow’s headquarters on Long Island, the boat’s original 6×6 wooden tow post is in the lobby as a treasured piece of memorabilia to remember the company’s roots.
“I started riding that boat at the age of 10 and have so many memories,” Frohnhoefer said. “Privateer made a solid boat for us; in fact, they made several. It also had a shallow draft that would allow us to get into some complicated spots to help members.”
Frohnhoefer recalls that the boat wasn’t the smoothest ride, but it always got them home, no matter the conditions.
“We have been out in some rough seas on Sea Tow I,” he added. “One day, we blew out the windshields when we dropped down the backside of a large swell and crashed in the trough of the wave. The glass from the windshield cut my dad’s arms and chest, but despite it all, we made it to our customer in need and back home.”
Like so many in the marine and boating industry, legacy is the theme of this story. From Bower’s original email to Sea Tow, to a reconnection of so many that helped create a foundation for a company that today helps thousands of individuals every year, a legacy lives on that will continue for decades to come.
About Sea Tow
Founded in 1983, Sea Tow Services International Inc. is the largest on-water assistance fleet for boaters consisting of nearly 100 franchise locations across the United States with additional locations in Europe, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Headquartered in Southold, NY., Capt. Joe Frohnhoefer established the family-owned company to provide non-emergency assistance to boaters on the water after the U.S Coast Guard stopped servicing non-emergency calls. Known for their “distinctive yellow boats”, Sea Tow’s network of dedicated US Coast Guard licensed captains, crew, and support staff, are standing by 24/7 to serve its members and other boaters in need. Sea Tow also responds to emergency events, natural disasters, environmental response and oil spill cleanup. For more information, please visit seatow.com
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