You know times are tough when boat owners let their towing insurance lapse, says Phil Risko, who controls the Cape May-area franchise and 13 local rescue boats (the longest a 90-footer) stationed at six docks between Sea Isle City and Salem, N.J., for New York-based Sea Tow.

"Last year we had an 8 percent loss in membership," to around 5,000, Risko told me. "They wouldn't renew, and we'd call them, and a lot of times the answer was, 'I can't afford to put my boat in the water this year,' or 'I'm selling my boat.'"

But this Spring "we are seeing heavy renewals. For this year we'll have a slight increase. The people who were going to get rid of their boats because of the economy, did so." There's also new tough-times business -- from people who used to think they could afford paying a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for a tow, who now see Sea Tow's $149 "AAA-style" coverage as less risky.

Risko says his captains handled 1,100 calls from members last season, and towed 80%. The rest were jump-starts, "ungroundings", and a few embarrassed refuelings.

The private sea-towing business goes back 20 years, to when the Coast Guard stopped answering basic boater-requires-assistance calls.

"They assist us sometimes in urgent search-and-rescue," Dave Umberger, a Coast Guard veteran who's now a civilian Coast Guard dispatch supervisor in Philadelphia, told me. "We respond to emergency situations. Federal law prohibits us from engaging in routine non-emergency situations. Say you're battery's dead. That's when a commercial salver would come and get you. If you were sinking, we'd come and get you." But Risko's Sea Tow might come, too, he added. "They don't make that distinction."