Joseph Frohnhoefer Jr., whose small Southold-based sea-towing company grew into an international enterprise that aided first responders after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, died last month from liver cancer. He was 71.

Frohnhoefer founded Sea Tow Services International Inc. in 1983, shortly after the U.S. Coast Guard stopped providing nonemergency assistance to boaters, spawning a new type of towing business that expanded to more than 100 franchises worldwide, relatives said.

"He started a completely new industry. He's left a lasting impression on the marine industry," said Cindy McCaffery, vice president of program development at Sea Tow Services International.

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She said his efforts led to the employment of thousands of industry professionals and national improvements in recreational boating safety.

Frohnhoefer served two terms on the U.S. Towing Safety Advisory Committee, formed to advise the U.S. Secretary of Transportation on matters relating to inland and coastal waterway navigation and towing safety, family members said.

Sea Tow captains in the metropolitan area helped after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, transporting first responders and medical personnel to and from the World Trade Center.

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Frohnhoefer was born in October 1943 in Baldwin.

His entrepreneurial spirit developed while a student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, when he founded Southold-based Water Thrills, which offered water skiing and parasailing as well as sailboat and powerboat rentals.

With franchises nationwide, and in Australia and the Caribbean, Sea Tow offered continuous boat-towing assistance.


"Serial entrepreneur is one of the best ways to explain who he was," McCaffery said. "And he was always thinking about helping people on the water and saving lives."

Frohnhoefer's career also included being an electrician, a bay constable for the Southold Police Department and a Southold Fire Department volunteer, family members said.

"He always said his wife was the secret to his success," said his daughter and Sea Tow executive Kristen Frohnhoefer of Southold.

Frohnhoefer was married to his wife, Georgia, for 46 years.

The business owner met McCaffery when he was her eighth-grade homeroom teacher at Mattituck Middle School, where he also taught wood, metal and auto shop.

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"I've had the good fortune to have known him 30 years ago," said McCaffery, who has worked at the company for six years.

"Mr. Fro," as he was called by students back then, was known to challenge students, she said.

"He didn't want you to do well, he wanted you to do great. And if you made a few mistakes along the way, it meant you learned something," McCaffery said.

In 2007, Sea Tow founded the nonprofit Sea Tow Foundation, which promotes boating safety and life-jacket use. The foundation has distributed more than 29,000 life jackets to boaters, family members said.

Frohnhoefer died at home on March 24. A celebration of life was held five days later at the Wharf House at Founder's Landing in Southold, friends said.

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In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by son Joseph Frohnhoefer III of Mattituck and two grandchildren.