The licensed marine captains who work with Sea Tow are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
They provide "road service at sea" and handle a variety of non-emergency calls, such as aiding boaters who run out of gas or helping those who have a dead battery.
But they also provide salvage services and help recover boats that have sunk or are in danger of sinking. Sea Tow also works with local municipalities to help with environmental issues when boating accidents occur.
One of their most notable jobs was helping to coordinate the removal and clean-up efforts for the Championship II, which caught fire in the Westport Marina in June of 2008. They also have a bid in for a recovery job of a 44,000-pound crane at the bottom of Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia.
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The first year the company was in business, owner Howard Kaplan and his one-man crew responded to about 120 calls. Now, the 10-man Cornelius operation, complete with a certified dive team, responds to more than 400 calls a year, and the business continues to grow, despite the economy.
"We're kind of like first responders of the water," Kaplan said. "If an accident happens, we're among the first people there. People see us as the guys to call when you break down, but actually we just want to help them get more out of boating."
Originally from Rochester, N.Y., Kaplan, 40, started the commercial marine towing business in 2006 after his father, Barry, died from colon cancer. He and his wife, Andrea - a freelance columnist who covers Cornelius for Lake Norman News - moved to the area in 2002.
Kaplan has a master's degree in business administration and specializes in franchise development and consulting. He grew up on the Finger Lakes of upstate New York and got his captains license in 2005. Shortly after getting his license, Kaplan learned that the Sea Tow chain in Cornelius was for sale and jumped at the chance to turn his hobby into a career.
He and his partner, Capt. Brian Graves, 30, operate six area Sea Tow chains that service Lake Norman and Lake Wiley, as well as lakes in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia.
Sea Tow also uses its network of contacts to offer advice on fuel prices in the area, to warn boaters of trouble spots on the lakes, as well as offer mechanic recommendations. It also is a N.C. wildlife service agent and provides fishing and hunting licenses, as well as vessel registration.
"We're like a concierge for boaters," he said. "We drive around in bright yellow boats and all our captains wear different hats.
"We're tour guides, we're weathermen, we give advice to people with boat troubles, we tell them where fish are biting - you have to be a jack of all trades, but mostly you have to be good with people."
Graves, originally from Pittsburgh, also grew up around boats and has been a fisherman his whole life. He has a bachelor's degree in English and education, but because of the salary ceiling on education jobs, he wanted to try something different.
They currently service 600 clients on Lake Norman and 1,250 members on all the lakes they service. By 2012, the duo hopes to open four more chains.
Annual membership prices range from $119 to $149. Those prices cover all of the member's watercraft, as well as anyone who may use the member's watercraft. If you don't have a membership, service calls can exceed $400.
"It's a small price to pay for peace of mind," Kaplan said. "It's almost the price most people would pay to fill up their boats."
Sea Tow will have a booth at the Mid-Atlantic Boat show, which runs Feb. 11-14 at the Charlotte Convention Center. Details: 704-895-8699 or www.seatow.com.