Rescuing Houseboats

October 2019 Live By Heather Magda Serrano

Captain Don Hunter makes his living helping people in Lake Cumberland, in Kentucky, the houseboat capital of the world. He and his wife Suzanne are the proud owners of Marine Assist, a commercial towboat service company. Not many inland bodies of water can boast they have a tow service available like this, so this makes it fairly unique.

Cumberland is over 100 miles long with an impressive 1,200 plus miles of shoreline and 60,000 surface acres of water play land, which includes hundreds of secluded coves. This makes it a virtual paradise for houseboating. However, those stats and seclusion can also be a little overwhelming when you start to think about what you would do if you had a mechanical breakdown, disabling your houseboat and leaving you stranded.

Well, on Lake Cumberland, you can call the team at Marine Assist and they’ll be there in a jiffy.

Getting To Cumberland

Captain Don and Suzanne started their business in 1999 on the west coast of Florida as a Vessel Assist service provider. Then a merger of BoatUS and Vessel Assist left Captain Don without a service provider contract since there was already a BoatUS provider in the same area.

He stayed on after that setback and made a living for a few years doing hurricane recovery work from Hurricane Charlie and a few others, but when weather patterns began to shift, the work thinned out.

A friend that used to work on Lake Cumberland mentioned to Don how the lake didn’t have any towing service companies so he did some research and made the decision to sell and move from Florida. In 2006 he brought his business of boat towing and recovery to Lake Cumberland.

Captain Don said it was a roll of the dice, and he laughed about Suzanne calling it a midlife crisis. Regardless, 13 years later, Marine Assist is thriving on Lake Cumberland and their oldest son joined the business a few years ago.

Feast Or Famine

The lake is managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, so it can be a little complicated to get all the legal permissions necessary to provide the service on the lake, and all the captains must be United States Coast Guard licensed.

“I suppose people think we are busy all the time which we’re not,” continued the captain. “It’s a feast or famine type of business. Good Samaritans tow in the vast majority of people broken down on the lake, but the larger the disabled vessel the more that help dissipates. A lot of our members simply do not want to ask their friends to take time away from their family to tow them too.”

Marine Assist keeps three towboats in the water throughout the season. There is a boat at Grider Hill Marina, one at Jamestown Marina and one at Lee’s Ford Marina. Don keeps a fourth boat at the ready on a trailer, just in case. All of Marine Assist’s towboats are twin engine catamarans since the owner has found them to be the best-riding and most maneuverable work platforms of all the boats he’s had.

Marine Assist charges hourly for service, but they also offer service plans. If you pay the yearly fee for the service plan, you get free towing for breakdowns for the year. Marine Assist has over 1,500 members on this program and they cover over 3,500 boats.

Then there’s the part of boating no one wants to think about: sinking. As a full service provider, Marine Assist has raised the vast majority of the houseboats that have sunk on Lake Cumberland and even the surrounding lakes over the past 13 years.

“When you look at my total experience in the marine salvage business since 1999,” added Captain Don, “we’ve raised over 600 boats over the years, of all sizes. I’m sure we have raised 30 houseboats or more.”  

Common Houseboat Problems

Don explained that when houseboats break down, most of the time it’s because they aren’t getting the maintenance they need.

“You’d be surprised at how many twin engine houseboats we tow,” said Don. “You’d think that because you have two engines you’re safe, but we’ve had situations where an outdrive will go bad on one side, and as they’re trying to limp back with one engine, the other overheats on their good side.”

A lot of people also have trouble with their remote shifters. Their batteries go dead or they won’t allow the engine to be shifted into gear to control the speed. Then there’s docking. If you are down one engine, you may have an issue getting into a slip, so a tow may be the safest way back.

Water pumps are another issue when it comes to lack of maintenance. Captain Don recommends they be changed every 150 hours. The outdrive service is another issue since it can be a bit difficult and expensive to pull houseboats out of the lake. Unfortunately this means they don’t get the maintenance they need.

Catching Fire

Captain Don explained that fires can also start when people store propane cylinders down inside their houseboat over the winter instead of leaving them out on the deck. Storing propane in your boat like this is never a good idea because when Kentucky experiences wild temperature swings, the cylinders actually vent to let off the pressure, and then when the heater kicks on to keep the boat warm, it ignites the fumes. This is especially true during power outages in the off season.

The last two fires Captain Don was involved with started this way, and they burned four or five houseboats in a row. The fire spread because it was in the middle of winter when nobody was around so it took awhile to get a response. The fire jumped from boat to boat before the firemen could contain it.

In one instance, one of Marine Assist’s captains kept a houseboat from catching fire. The boat owner was grilling on the back deck when a grease fire started and it began traveling up to the roof. Seeing they were in trouble, the towboat captain acted quickly, pitching the grill overboard to get the fire under control and saving the boat.

“You just never know what you are going to run up on while on the lake, or what that next phone call will ask of you,” chuckled Don.

Crazy Mishap

Captain Don was involved in one ordeal where a houseboater had his houseboat, runabout, and jet ski out on the lake. The engine stopped running on the single engine houseboat, and since it was a fairly breezy day, he slowly began to drift up to shore. To prevent himself from running aground, the boater got his runabout to try maneuvering the houseboat.

In the process he somehow managed to get a rope tangled around the propeller of the runabout, disabling it as well. Then he got the jet ski to try to move the whole mess, which overheated due to the strain. At that point, his wife decided to give Marine Assist a call.

“His wife had had enough, so we went out to get them and ended up towing all three back,” laughed Captain Don. “We looked like a parade going up the lake.”

Extending The Season

Considering all the crazy things that can happen on the lake, it’s a smart move to get a membership with a company like Marine Assist. Captain Don explained they offer two kinds of memberships.

The first is a $95 per year Gold Plan which covers one boat, and the second is a $145 per year Ultimate Plan that covers up to four boats as long as they’re owned by the same person. Having a boat covered means you can get free towing assistance back to your point of origin from anywhere on the lake. They also provide jumpstarts and fuel deliveries. Of course, non-members can elect to pay hourly for service when in need.

Having an affordable membership for marine assistance gives you peace of mind because you know you can call Captain Don and his team day or night if you’re in a jam. This actually helps to extend the season for quite a number of houseboaters on Lake Cumberland and this same membership provides the support the business needs to survive.

“There are a lot of people now who will boat early and late in the year but never did before because the lake has fewer boaters on it when the summer crowds are gone with fewer chances for help. Now they’re not as concerned to go out because they know we’ll be there to help them if anything goes wrong. I really like that we can help extend people’s boating time.”

A Great Gig

For Captain Don, one of the greatest things about running Marine Assist is that he gets paid to be on the lake helping people. He’s grateful that he took the leap all those years ago and came to Cumberland to relocate his business because it’s been a wonderful adventure.

Marine Assist also has a strong relationship with their members, and over the years they’ve grown to really trust Don and his team.

“I know most of my customers by name and they all know me,” shared Don. “The respect and gratitude they show me for my commitment to them and this lake is truly humbling and greatly appreciated. It’s what keeps me going.”

Thanks to Don and his crew, countless houseboaters continue to enjoy Lake Cumberland year after year with peace of mind, knowing that if they ever need help, Marine Assist is only a phone call away.

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