On Wednesday, the phones atin Southold were ringing off the hook as an FBI dive team worked to raise a boat that hadon July 4 in a tragedy that killed three children. Workers from Sea Tow had responded to the scene the night of the accident, helping rescue workers from other agencies as they always do in the face of across Long Island and around the world.
And at helm of this world-class towing company is Capt. Joseph Frohnhoefer, a lifelong North Fork resident and lover of all things boating and water sports. Armed with only one boat — a 24-foot Privateer — he founded Sea Tow in 1983 after the Coast Guard stopped responding to non-emergency calls due to budget cuts and the business of sea towing became a private enterprise. Nearly 30 years later, Sea Tow is an international operation with 200,000 members, 52 employees in Southold and around 3,000 employees around the world.
Capt. Frohnhoefer, 68, and his wife, Georgia, will be honored at“Cocktails by the Bay” fundraiser atnext Sunday. In the midst of the busiest time of year for Sea Tow, Patch had a few minutes with Frohnhoefer this week to find out more about his passion for the sea and his secret to continued success.
Patch: Have you always been a water person?
Frohnhoefer: Oh yes. I was born in Rockville Centre but I was raised out here. My father was a licensed electrician — I am too — and he ran a business out here. I can show you pictures of me fishing as a little kid on the local docks. There’s no place I’d rather be.
Patch: Have you always been in the marine business?
Frohnhoefer: No. I was a shop teacher. I taught shop, driver’s education and industrial arts — six years in Freeport and 14 in Mattituck. I went through Suffolk County Police Academy while I was still teaching and worked as a for 12 years and spent one year as a State Trooper, patrolling the North Fork. That’s a whole different ballgame when you put that big hat on …
Patch: Tell me how Sea Tow started.
Frohnhoefer: While I was still teaching I also worked in sales for Marina. In 1982, we sold three boats to a guy in Cleveland, and he’d defaulted on the third boat. At the time, congress had mandated that Coast Guard would no longer respond to non-emergency towing situations — when people would break down or run out of fuel. So I decided to buy that boat that the customer had defaulted on and convert it for towing. The first couple of years were tough, but we built up our network from scratch. Now we have 200,000 members.
Patch: Did you ever envision that Sea Tow would become a worldwide operation?
Frohnhoefer: When we first started I was calling it Sea Tow International, so I knew we would grow. I had no idea where it would grow, but we did.
Patch: What have you seen change the most in your years out on the water with Sea Tow?
Frohnhoefer: Well, over the last five years there’s just been an increase in boating in general, but with that I’ve seen an increase in alcohol use and intoxicated boating. There seems to be a lack of what I call courtesy out there too — people are speeding and aren’t as aware of the wake they create and the damage it can do to fellow boaters. That’s why we are pushing our foundation and trying to educate people — booze and boats don’t mix, we always say.
Patch: What has been the toughest rescue you’ve experienced, if you can name one?
Frohnhoefer: We are often the first at the scene of an accident, and it’s always tough to deal with the amount of bodies we’ve sometimes had to face. Flight 800 [off of East Moriches in 1996] was rough. And I can’t tell you how many boats we recovered over the years between Hurricane Katrina, Hugo, Fran, Andrew …
Patch: What is your favorite part about this job?
Frohnhoefer: The best thing we can ever do it is save a life. A few years ago, a boat was sinking off of Shelter Island with a family onboard — eight people and lots of young children. The bow of the boat was sticking straight up out of the water, some had already died, but one of the rescue workers said he heard someone trapped in the bow say, “I can’t breathe.” We had to work quickly to pull the boat out, and once it was nice and level, a 9-year-old boy was flushed out of the boat along with everything else, hitting this rescue worker in the legs. The guy grabbed the boy and slapped him — and the boy spit up water and started to breathe. I told the guy – “I don’t know why you slapped him but whatever you did, it worked!”
We lost three people but were able to save one boy that day. That was a good save and a good feeling. Out there all the time, you will always experience some wins and some losses. But you remember the wins, and those are always the best moments of your life.
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