Used to be, if you were a boater who ran into trouble on the water, your best friend was the closest mariner.
While the buddy system is still alive on the waters off West Hawaii, those who experience mechanical problems now have an alternative to asking other boaters for a tow or calling the Hawaii County Fire Department.
Dive tour operator Rob Hemsher towed in enough friends that he figured there had to be a better way. The result is Vessel Assist Kona, a membership-driven service capable of dispatching a tow boat at any hour with fuel, battery jump packs, dive gear — even pumps that could help bring a sunken vessel up from the bottom.
“Originally, there was no one here,” said Hemsher, owner of Ocean Eco Tours. “We were dependent on fellow mariners. Doing charters, we’re always looking out for each other.”
Responding out of Honokohau Small Boat Harbor, Hemsher operates the 30-foot Almar, an aluminum rigid-hull inflatable painted bright red and rigged for both towing and salvage. The company also owns the 30-foot Pursuit, a high-speed fiberglass boat. Tow boats will assist as far south as Ka Lae, north to the Kawaihae side of Upolu Point and west as far as 25 miles, depending on conditions.
“We’re here for members and nonmembers alike,” Hemsher said. “We’re also here for vessels in distress and salvage.”
Since launching Vessel Assist last July, Hemsher has signed up 48 members and responded to an average of two calls for assistance each month. The service costs $149 per year for private vessels. Commercial towing plans for charter boats run $281. Vessel Assist Kona is a member of BoatUS, a national association of boaters that offers towing and insurance to members at 300 locations around the U.S.
Most of the calls have been for fuel or engine trouble. But it gets expensive quickly for boaters not under the Vessel Assist umbrella — to the tune of $240 an hour. Hemsher recently did two tows in 12 hours — a $450 rescue for someone who wasn’t covered, and a tow that would have cost around $1,000 if the customer hadn’t had a membership.
Misha Sperka, a member of Vessel Assist Kona, is a Honaunau coffee farmer and experienced sailor whose 49-foot yawl has been around the world twice. Coming down from Kawaihae, Sperka knew he would need help getting into Honokohau Harbor because he lacked an engine.
“I’m glad Rob got himself into it. It’s really needed on this side of the island,” said Sperka, who needed Hemsher’s help last summer to maneuver to a travel lift and around the docks. “No one else is doing this. If your engine breaks down or you get bad fuel, the next stop is Australia.”
The tow probably would have cost him $1,500 if he hadn’t been covered by his membership, Sperka said.
Growing up in Florida and California, Hemsher remembered vessel assist services were popular in the boating communities.
“It’s like AAA on the water,” he said.
But that hasn’t been the case here. Hemsher acknowledges building membership has been a slow process.
“There’s still work I need to do to build awareness,” Hemsher said. “It’s a small territory but there’s a huge need for our services.”
The wind, current and topography all conspire to make Big Island waters a tough area for boats, Hemsher said.
“You can feel alone out there awful quick,” he said.
Hemsher would know. His eco-tourism and surf-school business got its start in 1996 with surf lessons — humble beginnings that Hemsher says were pieced together out of necessity. He built the business slowly and was known back then for his surf reports, which ran on local radio for about seven years.
“I may do the surf report again,” he said. “We’ll see. People still think of me as Radical Rob.”
Vessel Assist Kona can be reached 24 hours a day at 331-2121 or through the BoatUS dispatch at 800-391-4869. VHF channel 16 and a free BoatUS towing app for smartphones will also connect boaters to towing services.