TowBoatUS River Forest celebrates 30 years

Published 11:18 am Friday, July 14, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Axson Smith Jr. and his son, Axson Smith III are celebrating 30 years of keeping boaters safe in Beaufort County as owners and operators of TowBoatUS River Forest. 

For those unfamiliar with TowBoatUS, think of it as an aquatic AAA. The Smiths and their team of four captains help boaters who may be stranded, need a battery jump start, fuel or need assistance when they’ve gone aground. Smith III added that TowBoatUS River Forest is unique among towing services, because they can repair damaged boats. 

Those who are familiar with TowBoatUS know the immense amount of relief felt when the sight of a bright red boat appears coming to the rescue. Smith Junior said the appeal of running a tow service for three decades is the look of gratitude on boaters’ faces and the appreciation they express. 

“I’ve never seen anybody unhappy to see us arrive,” Smith Jr. quipped. 

Boaters needing assistance can use a BoatUS app on their cell phones to quickly report their issue. They can also call a dispatcher or use a VHF Radio. Smith Jr. said TowBoatUS River Forest receives an estimated 300 calls per year. He’s had boaters who after 25 years make their first call and he’s had boaters call for assistance three or four times in one year. An average boater can expect to make a call to a towing service at least once or twice a year. 

The most challenging rescues, Smith Jr. said are the ones where boats run aground, or in other words, when a boat becomes immobilized by water so shallow the boat can no longer float. In most instances, TowBoatUS River Forest has to refloat the damaged boat and tow it a long distance back to their marina. 

“If you can only imagine the liability once you refloat something and the catastrophe that can happen and obviously things can get worse,” Smith III said, “but we’ve been very fortunate over the years and have never had that happen.” 

The Smiths and the captains with TowBoatUS River Forest cannot rely on fortune and luck to keep them safe out on the water. It takes skill and focus to perform the job as safely as possible. 

Smith III described the towing business as “dangerous,” because it can be fatal, noting multiple deaths occurring last year among people who operate towing vessels. 

In 2017, a catamaran caught on fire in a Belhaven harbor. Smith III and his father were some of the first people on the scene, Smith III shared. They watched the boat owner go back onto the burning boat. A propane bottle exploded underneath the man and he went 30ft into the air. 

The Smiths helped pull the man out of the water and brought him to nearby firemen. 

Smith III speculated the cause of the fire could be related to the fact that the air conditioner on the boat was left running while the man went to dinner. Results of an investigation into the fire were inconclusive because of the extensive damage to the catamaran. 

TowBoatUS River Forest operates 24-hours, 365 days a year, but most calls, Smith Jr. said, happen late afternoon and early evening when many boaters are trying to leave. They respond to calls on the Pamlico River, Tar River and Pamlico Sound. 

Anyone who has spent time in Belhaven may recognize Smith’s name in connection to River Forest Manor and Marina. Smith’s Jr. ‘s father started River Forest Manor and Marina in 1947. The stately home and marina stayed in the family until it sold in 2013. 

Smith Jr. said it’s worth maintaining TowBoatUS River Forest and his family’s legacy on the water, because “it’s fulfilling.” 

“It’s very fulfilling when you get there and someone is happy to see you that you’ve never met before,” Smith Jr. said. 

TowBoat US River Forest is part of Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS), a national organization that provides marine services for recreational boaters.