He was an entrepreneur armed with perfect timing, a relentless work ethic and a good Samaritan spirit, who created a new industry: professional non-emergency marine assistance.
Joseph Frohnhoefer Jr., better known as “Capt. Joe,” founder and CEO of Sea Tow Services International, died March 24 at his home in Southold, N.Y., after a brief battle with cancer. He was 71.
Georgia, his wife of more than 46 years, was by his side to the end, the family says.
“He was a character, the type of guy who would give the shirt off his back, but he would also let you make your own mistakes so you learn from them,” says his daughter, Kristen, chief administrative officer at Sea Tow. “He didn’t like the words ‘no’ and ‘can’t.’ He’d say, ‘Find a way.’ He liked to encourage people to think outside the box.”
His son, Joe III, says his father’s business was one of his great passions.
“If you asked him what the best moments in his life were, besides getting married and having kids, he’d say it was a day he saved someone’s life,” Joe III says.
In 1981, the incoming Reagan administration was intent on trimming the size and scope of government through privatization. That led to a congressional mandate directing the Coast Guard to stop providing non-emergency on-water assistance. In September 1983 Frohnhoefer sought to fill that void with a start-up private operation.
The volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliary had temporarily been handling those non-emergency calls, and critics balked at the idea of privatization. The public’s safety was being turned over to for-profit companies, they argued.
“Joe Frohnhoefer and I first crossed paths in the early 1980s, when he and a partner came to my office to pitch the idea for a national towing service,” recalls Michael Sciulla, at that time vice president of government and public affairs for BoatUS. The nation’s largest recreational boating association passed on Frohnhoefer’s proposal for a partnership — reluctant to displace the volunteer Coast Guard auxiliarists with “unregulated privateers,” Sciulla says.
BoatUS leaders also feared that safety would be compromised if the Coast Guard and its auxiliary were replaced by a handful of commercial towers who were thinly spread across the country, Sciulla recalls.
“In the early days, I remember going to congressional hearings when he would speak,” Kristen recalls. “He didn’t want a bunch of cowboys out there, either. Capt. Joe was integral to the development of high professional standards — not just for Sea Tow, but for the entire marine assistance industry.”
Apparently it was a good point, and with a single $30,000 loan to buy the first boat, Frohnhoefer’s fledgling business took flight.
“Joe persisted in his pursuit and once the federal government officially curbed the Coast Guard and its auxiliary, his business began to take off,” Sciulla says. “It showed such promise that BoatUS later decided to get into the business itself.”
In the process, Frohnhoefer established a whole new industry — professional non-emergency marine assistance — and it has led to more than 100 franchise locations in the United States and overseas with another 500 yellow Sea Tow boats standing by to assist, the employment of thousands of industry professionals over the years and major improvements in boating safety.
Sea Tow, known for its trademarked distinctive yellow boat hulls, was named to the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in 2007 and again in 2011.
“Pretty much everyone here is family, all dressed in yellow,” Kristen says of the more than 60 staff at the Southold, N.Y., headquarters and more than 600 franchise captains and crew worldwide.
Besides Kristen, her brother Joe III serves as chief operating officer, and Georgia is executive vice president and “mother of all Sea Tows.” CFO Jim Foley has been an integral part of the family business for the past 20 years.
“We call him the fifth Frohnhoefer,” says Joe III.
Life on the water
The family patriarch was born on New York’s Long Island in 1943 and grew up spending summers on the North Fork on the East End of the island, where he developed a lifelong love of the water.
His entrepreneurial streak emerged as a college student when he founded Water Thrills in Southold, which offered water skiing and parasailing, swimming instruction, as well as Hydro Cycle (an early PWC), sailboat and powerboat rentals.
From the late 1960s through the early ’80s he taught high school industrial arts classes while working as a part-time boat salesman at Port of Egypt Marine in Southold. The trend of working on the water only continued from there.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Frohnhoefer also was a part-time bay constable for the local police, and he practiced what he preached as a good Samaritan, working for more than 40 years as a volunteer EMT with the Southold Fire Department.
In 1981, Capt. Joe, who also was a licensed electrician, inherited his parents’ business, Frohnhoefer Electric Co. in Southold, and continued to run it, along with Georgia, until he sold it in 1988.
He served two terms on the U.S. Towing Safety Advisory Committee, which was formed to advise the U.S. secretary of transportation on matters relating to shallow-draft inland and coastal waterway navigation and towing safety.
He also co-founded the Conference of Professional Operators for Response Towing, or C-PORT, the national association for the marine assistance industry, in 1986, and served on C-PORT’s board until his death.
During his career he received many awards for his efforts on behalf of the recreational boater and the boating industry. Among the accolades: the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the service category for the New York Metro region in 2002; the Optimum Lightpath Innovator of the Year Award in 2012 for the high-tech communications solutions implemented at Sea Tow headquarters in Southold; and the Compass Rose Award in 2013 from C-PORT in honor of his dedication to making the marine assistance industry better. In 2014, the National Marine Manufacturers Association honored him with the prestigious Charles. F. Chapman Award, recognizing a distinguished career that spanned more than 40 years in the boating industry.
In 2007, Sea Tow founded the non-profit Sea Tow Foundation, which promotes boating safety and life jacket use. Since its start, the foundation has distributed more than 29,000 free loaner life jackets.
Another boating safety initiative that Frohnhoefer, his family and the Sea Tow network spearheaded is the Sea Tow Automated Radio Check Service, which provides free VHF radio checks to boaters.
Frohnhoefer also had a guiding hand in the development of the Sea Tow Foundation’s Designated Skipper program, which will further promote boating safety by encouraging boaters to always designate a qualified driver who will remain sober.
In 1990, Sea Tow formed an environmental response division — Sea Spill — for oil spills and other environmental cleanup, and it responded to numerous national environmental disasters, including the 1993 Tampa oil spill, the 2004 Philadelphia oil spill and the Deepwater Horizon/Gulf oil spill of 2010, where Sea Tow had more than 50 boats participating in the cleanup.
In 1996, Frohnhoefer and fellow Long Island Sea Tow captains responded to the crash of TWA Flight 800, working in direct coordination with the Coast Guard.
In 2001, Sea Tow captains in the New York metropolitan area aided in the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including transporting first responders and medical personnel to and from the World Trade Center. In 2004, Sea Tow captains aided in the response to Hurricane Ivan in the Gulf of Mexico and in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi and other affected states by keeping disaster response teams in the area for more than three months.
The ripple effect
“Some people say he was larger than life, and he was, but he also had very high expectations of everyone here at Sea Tow International,” Kristen says of her father. “At the same time, he liked to find time to sit and chat with his crew. The running joke is that the more he joked with and picked on you, the more he liked you.”
Kristen and Joe say their father had been preparing them for years to keep Sea Tow running after he was gone.
“We grew up working here. He always taught us to work hard, be honest, fair and ethical in everything you do in life,” she says.
“We’re still a family business, but we’re all family here, and everyone here feels just as obligated to carry out his request to keep Sea Tow running, keep moving the company forward and growing the company and keep his mission alive,” Joe III says. “And the focus of the core business will remain helping people on the water.”
Joe III recalls that he started working with his father when he was 8 years old. By age 12, he was going out on Sea Tow calls with his dad. He remembers that his father felt uncomfortable charging non-Sea Tow members.
“He was always more concerned with helping people than making money. That’s why he preferred taking care of Sea Tow members so he could say, ‘no charge.’ The joke used to be to call him Non-Profit Joe because he felt uncomfortable helping people and then charging them,” Joe III says. “I used to have to remind him that you have to be able to put fuel in the boat so you can keep helping people.”
His father never changed, he says.
“Last summer he was on a boat, servicing people, as he often did. As he was towing someone in, the customer said something like, ‘I bet the guy who started this is probably out cruising in the Bahamas on a yacht,’ ” Joe III says. “And dad just smiled and didn’t say anything because he was doing what he loved to do.”
Frohnhoefer made it clear to his family that he was adamantly against a wake or funeral. Instead he wanted a joyful celebration of his life.
On March 29, five days after his passing, nearly 700 people gathered at the Wharf House at Founder’s Landing, which is a few blocks from Sea Tow headquarters and overlooks Peconic Bay — one of Capt. Joe’s favorite spots.
“We had a Hook and Lager beer truck [a converted firetruck], local caterers, a DJ, and people just came and did what he wanted — raise a glass and share stories about him. It was not a solemn occasion. It was a lot of fun,” Kristen says.
In a private ceremony, family and friends will head offshore to scatter Capt. Joe’s ashes.
“He loved the water and always wanted to make a living working on the water, which he did,” Kristen says. “He came from the water, he loved the water, and that’s where he wants to be.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue.