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Dec. 9, 2018
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TowBoatUS: Always on call, here to serve

By Pamela A. Keene 
 
While he may not be known by name, for the past 23 years, Robert Estrada has rescued stranded boaters on Lake Lanier. As one of the most successful inland waters’ licensee for TowBoatUS, Estrada has seen it all, from helping boaters who have run out of gas to working with local law enforcement on search and rescue missions when tragedy strikes.
 
Back in 1993, Lanier Harbor Marina owner Barkley Geib hired Estrada to help around the marina. Little did either of them know that their plan to help boaters at Lanier Harbor would turn into a long-standing award-winning business serving boaters on Lake Lanier.
 
“Actually, Mike Burgamy from the  Georgia Department of Resources suggested to me that we needed a towing service on Lake Lanier to help with boats that had broken down,” said Geib, who now manages the marina at Lanier Islands. “Robert and I talked – he was working with me at Lanier Harbor – and decided to offer towing. At that time, Scott Sears, who also worked with us at the time, worked on the marina management side with me. “Robert got his US Coast Guard Captain’s license and became the go-to guy in the towing business. In fact, in the beginning, we all got our captain’s licenses and took shifts.”
 
They started with an 18-foot center-console Wellcraft and operated out of Lanier Harbor. Several years later, they applied to be a TowBoatUS licensee. “At first, I just thought we were going to help the marina’s tenants, but word got around that we towed boats out of Lanier Harbor, and we started getting pretty busy,” Estrada said. “It has blossomed into a decent business.”
 
Geib and Estrada knew each other from their days in the hospitality and restaurant business. When Geib purchased Lanier Harbor in the early 1990s, he soon hired Estrada to come to work with him. 
“Our operation was one of the first fresh-water TowBoatUS licensees in the country,” Estrada said. “From the beginning, it wasn’t a hobby for me; it was a full-time business.” 
 
Over the years, he added boats and when Lanier Harbor closed, he began relationships with other marinas around the lake. Geib sold his share of the business to Estrada in 2008. 
 
Today, Lanier TowBoatUS operates five boats and has six captains, including Estrada, who work regular shifts and respond on-call as needed. Boats are based at Holiday Marina, Hideaway Bay, Sunrise Cove Marina and Port Royale, virtually covering the lake. 
 
Captains, all holding US Coast Guard Captains’ Licenses, include Rick Dieumegarde, Mike Cochran, Zack Baxter, Don Smith and Randy Kapalako. Dieumegarde has been with Estrada the longest, having joined him 15 years ago.
 
“I love what we do,” Dieumegarde said. “With so many boaters on the lake, this service is definitely needed, and it’s my way of giving back to the community.”

Dieumegarde said that when calls come in, the captains gather information from the caller, and in some cases, are able to help over the phone. “If someone says they can’t get the boat to start, we get them to check to see if the boat is in gear or if the kill switch has been pulled. But we are always ready to come out and assist.” The captains are not mechanics. “We leave that to the experts,” he said. 
 
Dieumegarde cites the old adage when reflecting about his job. “Even if someone is broken down or needs our services, a bad day on the lake is better than a good day at the office,” he said. “We want people to be able to enjoy their time on the lake and do what we can to make that happen and make their day better.” 
 
He said that he and Estrada are more like brothers than boss-employee. “Robert is like the brother I never had,” he said. “He’s great to work for, because of his patience, his character and his demeanor. I really admire the way he treats people.” 
 
In addition to providing towing services, the Lanier TowBoatUS gives back to the lake community. It has been actively involved in the Lake Lanier Association’s Abandoned Boats and Derelict Docks program from the beginning of that initiative. It’s not unusual to see the bright-red TowBoatUS boats on site with Estrada or members of his team helping raise a boat from the lake or maneuver it to be put on a barge or trailer for removal. He also provides monitoring of the association’s solar lights program, and donates his time and the company’s services to events including the Pirates of Lanier Poker Run and the Lanier Partners Christmas Parade of Lights.
 
The Lake Lanier operation and Estrada have earned national recognitions, perhaps more than any other inland TowBoatUS operation. For more than 10 years, the organization has won the BoatUS Dispatchers Award. In 2016, it also received the prestigious Tower Award.
 
“We also have sold the most BoatUS memberships of any other licensee for several years running,” Estrada said. “Even people who don’t own boats buy memberships because of all the benefits and information that BoatUS provides.”
 
According to the BoatUS website, members can access more than 25 benefits and services, including marine insurance, on-the-water towing, on-the-road towing, boat loans, and free boating safety courses, plus savings on travel and at retail locations including West Marine. The organization offers boating tips, maintenance guides, its hurricane tracking center and the bi-monthly BoatUS Magazine with information for boaters of all levels, travel stories and how-tos for buying boats and accessories.
 
For nearly eight years, Estrada has served on the BoatUS National Tow Advisory Council, working with boating, towing and marine industry representatives from across the county. 
 
Membership in BoatUS is $72 per year and includes towing and a number of boaters’ benefits. “It’s a real bargain, because if you use your other insurance, towing can cost upwards of several hundred dollars,” he said. 
 
For more information about or to join TowBoatUS, visit the Lake Lanier TowBoatUS website at www.towboatuslakelanier.com, or call 770 945-2884. The service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Boating Tips
 
If you’ve got an on-the-water boating problem, Lake Lanier’s TowBoatUS is available 24/7 to assist. But if you want to minimize boating issues, Robert Estrada of the Lake Lanier operation offers these tips:
 
• Keep your battery maintained, putting it on trickle-charge if you’re not going to be using your boat often. Or bring it home to charge it there.
• Perform maintenance on a schedule and maintain good written records for routine work, including oil changes and gear lubes.
• Regularly check your impeller and change it out if it is worn.
• Winterize water-related items, including your water heater, etc.
• Turn off the water in your boat if you’re not using it regularly.
• During the winter, check your boat in its slip every two to three weeks to ensure that mooring lines are secure. 
• If we have storms or strong winds, check the security of your boat. 
 
Safety first: When checking your boat in the winter, docks and decks can be slippery. Wear your PFD, take your phone with you and let someone know your plans.

Posted online 9/28/18
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