This is a controversial topic. There’s a lot to know and a lot to learn about towing. Kayakers have varying opinions about what system to use and why, and their opinions are often quite strong. At the end of the day, you need knowledge and practice to tow effectively. You never know when it might be necessary to tow another kayaker. Keep your tow system handy and in good working order.
Among the paddlers I know, Tsunami Ranger John Lull, author of the classic book Sea Kayaking Safety and Rescue, prefers a throw bag attached by a shock cord to a cleat near the cockpit on the back deck of his kayak. TR Captain Debrah Volturno wears a rescue PFD and carries a throw bag and a short tow.
For every day use, TR Jedi Jeff Laxier of Liquid Fusion uses a rescue PFD with a waist belt. He has a short tow that goes from 4’-ish to 12’ and he carries a 55’ throw bag to complement it. According to Jeff, “The idea with this set up is I can do a short quick tow, great for Whitewater of the Sea classes, and extend it out for anchored tows or again for short distances. When I need a long tow or I’m towing for a long distance I switch to the combo throw bag/short tow set up. This is a rare set up and works great for me”. For sea kayaking instruction and blue water touring he uses a modified Sea Tec system.
Our friend Bill Vonnegut of the Neptune’s Rangers uses a Northwater Sea Link that is used with a rescue PFD. It has a cowtail and a 15′ rope all in one and he carries a 25′ extension in his boat that he can add when a long tow is needed. (A cow tail is a piece of nylon tubing with a shock cord threaded through it. It has a carabiner on one end and a ring for a quick-release belt on the other.)
Moulton Avery with the National Center for Cold Water Safety says, “I can use my boat tether as a short tow. I use a Northwater tow belt for standard tows. I like it. Reliable, works well. I also carry two paddle floats in case I have to tow someone who can’t paddle. One on each of their blades and it functions as an outrigger. I like that system better than the idea of another paddler alongside the person being towed.”
Jason Self of Kayak Trinidad says, “I use a Sea Tec waist belt tow line made from spectra high strength line and a stainless steel keyhole carabiner at the clip-on end. There’s a bit of shock cord where the spectra connects to the belt for shock absorption. I also use a short deck mounted tow that’s about 5′ of spectra with stainless keyhole carabiners at each end. I clip it on to both sides of the deck rigging on the foredeck and wrap it back through for quick deployment with about 3′ of line with a carabiner to clip in order to tow on either side of the boat”.
All these paddlers have devised systems that work best for them. All of them understand their gear, its purpose, and how to use it. This is not a comprehensive article. All systems mentioned in this article are multiple systems. The main thing is that you know your system and how, why, and when to use it. Know how to stow your system and know that it can come unraveled at any time.
It’s also important to note that any time you add a line you have Absolute Consequences, and you MUST have a knife. Do not carry one without the other.
There are at least three types of tows which involve a line: long tows, short tows, and anchored tows. Then there are contact tows such as a push tow – no line involved.
A good sea kayak tow system should meet the following criteria (as per Sea Kayaking Safety and Rescue, 2nd edition, p. 125):
- A short length (around 2 feet) of shock cord to prevent sudden, intense jerks on the line. Such jerks could create discomfort or even pull the line loose.
- The attachment point should be located behind the paddler or aft of the cockpit so as not to affect boat control.
- It should be easy to deploy in rough, windy conditions.
- It should allow for a quick release.
Long, or in-line, tows are tows using a long line that connects the rescue boat to the towed boat. This is the most basic towing system. The tow boat clips on to the bow of the boat to be towed. The line should have some stretch, like a cow-tail, or a shock cord or bungee cord attached to prevent the bow of the towed boat from colliding with the rescue boat. If you’re towing in swells, the bigger the swell, the longer the line should be.
When paddling downwind, be aware that the towed kayak will tend to surf forward, creating slack in the line. This isn’t a problem as long as the towed kayak doesn’t overrun the lead boat and the towed paddler can maintain control. Otherwise it may be necessary to slow down. When towing another kayak, periodically turn around to check on the towed kayaker.
There is little difference between long and short tows other than length of line. A short tow can include a tow using a large carabiner holding the deck lines of two boats clamped together. Because there are lines in use, it’s still a short tow.
Capt. Deb prefers short tows or contact tows in rough conditions. This is primarily because the physics of the short tow require less work. Also, in a contact tow the two boats can stabilize each other. Short tows in rock gardens are used to quickly get a paddler or a rescue a short distance away from a hazard. Of course no tow line should ever be used in actual surf because of the risk of entanglement.
TR Cate Hawthorne of Liquid Fusion says, “In the rocks we find it is important to be flexible and able to tow the bow or stern in the essence of getting paddler/rescuer into safer waters quickly. In many instances we are not really towing but anchoring to keep a situation from drifting into hazards”.
Anchored tows are a type of short, quick tow to keep a paddler or a rescue from drifting. Designed to anchor the rescuing boat while the rescue takes place, the first rescuer goes in as if it’s going to be a regular rescue. The second rescuer hitches a line to the rescuer’s bow and paddles away until the line is tight. Meanwhile the rescue continues to take place. This is a great technique to use in wind and current. By keeping the line tight there’s no drift. There’s no need to go anywhere, although when the swimmer is back in their boat the second rescuer can tow both boats away from potential danger in a tandem tow. In an anchored tow it’s important not to pull on the line as that could interfere with the other boats. To see a video of Nigel Foster using an anchored tow, click on the link at the beginning of this paragraph.
Contact tows are good for fast towing at short distances. They’re also good for getting clear of dangerous situations, such as surf zones. The paddler to be towed grabs hold of the rescuer’s foredeck and leans on it for stability. You can start towing at speed for a quick getaway and you don’t need specialized equipment.
The push tow is a form of contact tow. This is a way to handle a situation when it’s just you and an incapacitated paddler. You paddle up to the distressed paddler’s boat bow to bow and far enough so that the paddler can hang on to your foredeck. The two boats face in opposite directions, and the incapacitated paddler can either hold onto or drape across your bow. This holds the two kayaks together while you paddle forward. In this way you can easily communicate with the incapacitated paddler and you can both keep an eye on each other. The push tow is not optimal for sure but it may be your only choice under the circumstances.
Here’s a variation on the contact tow. Capt. Deb was out near Tatoosh Island at Cape Flattery, WA. One of her fellow paddlers couldn’t turn into the wind. That paddler began going broadside and blowing out to sea. Deb lined up perpendicular to the paddler’s boat and gently bullnosed her bow into the direction she needed to go. Once the paddler had the bow into the wind she could control her boat.
Towing a loose kayak can also be necessary if a paddler gets separated from their boat because of wind or current. In this case it’s better to use a shorter line of around 10 to 12 feet in order to keep the boat close and under control. If the boat is capsized, turn it upright before towing to reduce drag. Then clip onto the bow and tow the boat back to the swimmer. Remember that if you have to choose, rescue the swimmer rather than the kayak.
The toggle tow is a fast and easy way to get a swimmer to safety. It can be done in a number of ways. A stern toggle tow is a simple and efficient way to get a swimmer out of the mouth of a cave or a churn (an area of surging whitewater). The swimmer hangs on to your stern toggle and swims along. This tow works well for short distances and is mainly an assist to the swimmer. The swimmer kicks and swims so as not to be dead weight. The boat can be retrieved using a short line if it doesn’t wash out on its own once you get the swimmer to safety. Any time you’re using a toggle tow the swimmer should keep their elbows bent and close to the body to protect the shoulders.
Sometimes it’s possible to tow both swimmer and kayak out of a difficult situation such as surf, a cave, or a rock garden. The swimmer holds on to your stern with one hand and their own boat with the other. Paddle hard; progress will be slow and you may have to get through some rough stuff before you reach deeper, calmer water. Once clear of the danger zone, you can get the swimmer back in the boat.
When I spoke with Cate, she emphasized the need for flexibility and creativity. You might find yourself back paddling out of a situation with a swimmer hanging on to your bow, or towing a kayak stern first in order to quickly clear the danger zone. In dynamic situations, rapid response is essential. Once you’ve reached a place of relative safety, you can regroup. The main thing is not to get locked into a conventional mindset. The ocean has a way of challenging assumptions.
A stern carry is when the swimmer scrambles up on to the stern of your boat and holds on to the cockpit coaming. The swimmer should press their chest against the deck and keep their head down to keep their center of gravity as low as possible. This helps stabilize the kayak and protects the swimmer’s head. I’ve found this technique pretty easy even in surf as long as the swimmer does their part. This technique also keeps the swimmer out of the water, which can prevent hypothermia especially in the event of a long rescue. As you can see from the photos, it’s possible to do a stern carry together with a toggle tow when the paddler on the back deck holds on to the toggle of their boat.
If the swimmer can’t be extracted safely by kayak, use a throw rope. Get close enough in your boat to throw accurately, or get up on a rock using a seal landing or have another paddler hold your boat. Then toss the bag to the swimmer. The swimmer should indicate verbally or with a hand signal that they have a grip on the line. Then you can tow them to safety. If possible, the swimmer should hang on to their boat.
There are also various towing configurations. These depend on the circumstances and the number of paddlers in the group. A tired paddler who can still paddle and an incapacitated paddler require different configurations. For a paddler who can still paddle, there are the standard tow, and the tandem tow mentioned above.
The standard tow is the most basic, when one kayaker tows another. The person towed should be able to remain upright on their own and should paddle while being towed, both for speed and to keep from stressing the towing paddler. This tow can also be used for a sick or injured paddler as long as they can keep from capsizing.
The tandem tow allows two or more paddlers to share the chore of towing a distressed kayaker. The tow line of the lead kayak is hitched to the bow of the next boat in line, and you can use two or more kayaks to perform the tow. All kayaks involved in this rescue are hooked together in sequence with the towed boat last in line.
The rafted tow allows one or more kayakers to tow two other kayakers who are rafted together. This is necessary if a paddler is incapacitated and can’t keep from capsizing. One paddler comes alongside the distressed kayaker and hangs on to their boat. This is called rafting up, and stabilizes the distressed kayaker’s boat. The tow line is hitched to the bow of the kayaker in trouble. While one kayaker can pull both boats, if you have enough paddlers it’s much easier to use a tandem tow to pull the rafted kayaks, especially if you have to paddle upwind or against current.
CHOOSING A TOW LINE SYSTEM
Here’s where the rubber hits the road. No two sea kayakers seem to have the same tow system. That’s reasonable because no two sea kayakers are alike. For one thing, all ocean whitewater kayakers are sea kayakers, but the reverse isn’t always true. Traditional sea kayakers will seldom or never need the tools and techniques required by rock gardens, caves, and surf. On the other hand, ocean whitewater kayakers borrow from river whitewater techniques all the time. One of the tools they use is the throw bag.
The Throw Bag
Designed for whitewater kayaking, a throw bag is a rescue tool with 50 to 70 feet of floating rope loosely packed into a bag that pays out when thrown to a swimmer. It often has a rope handle on one end that allows it to be grabbed and held by a swimmer as the current sweeps them downstream. When I was taking swiftwater rescue training, we did drills where we competed to see how far we could throw a 50′ rope and how fast we could pack it up again. These drills make great games for kayak camping trips, as well as being practical. There are many videos online that show you how deploy and pack a throw bag. Paddlingmag.com has a lot of good information on this rescue tool.
A cool innovation on the throw bag is the Jeff Allen Throw Tow Rescue System. Designed by British expedition kayaker Jeff Allen, this hybrid rescue system has multiple uses. It can be worn under the arm, across the chest, or on the belt, depending on your preference. To read an article about this system written by rolling instructor Helen Wilson, click here, and you can see Jeff deploying the Throw Tow in a video here. Here’s what Jeff has to say about the Throw Tow:
“In terms of where it sits, I’d say in between a tow line and a throw line. We call it the rescue multi tool as it can be used as a waist mounted contact tow, a short tow, long tow, a throw bag for boat extractions (base clip on), for paddler extractions (base clip removed), a rescue drogue for landing casualties through surf, a rescue stirrup, a standard bank-side/beach-side throw bag, an anchor, and an improvised ‘traction splint’ (when combined with a paddle).” Check it out.
When sea kayakers venture into caves, rough water, and rock gardens, they find themselves in conditions similar to those encountered by whitewater kayakers that can be as dangerous as whitewater, so it’s useful to carry a throw bag in addition to a tow rope.
Note that two of the kayakers mentioned above use deck mounted tow systems. A deck mounted rig puts the strain on the boat, not the paddler, which is a huge advantage over other systems. Additionally, when attaching anything to your deck with carabiners, best practice is to attach the clip from under the deck line because if you clip over the top of the line the carabiner has a good chance of self-releasing under tension.
The Rescue PFD
Many ocean whitewater paddlers wear rescue vests. All rescue PFDs are type V PFDs. Type V means that the PFD includes special devices for special uses and conditions and requires special training to operate safely and effectively. For example, the addition of the rescue harness requires additional swiftwater training. One of my whitewater instructors cautioned me not to use a rescue PFD because, as she said, someone might expect me to rescue them. The additional equipment on the vest introduces new elements of risk that could cause problems without that needed training.
The rescue PFD has a specially reinforced belt of cam webbing which goes around the mid-section. This cam webbing must be secured to the PFD via webbing which meets the load ratings of the rest of the PFD. The webbing contains a quick release buckle and a metal O-ring. The quick release buckle has a small cord and a high visibility ball designed to be pulled to release the belt. At this point the O ring must be able to slide off the belt in case of entrapment or a difficult situation. This system protects the rescuer from load strain and allows the line to be quickly released in need.
Most rescue PFDs have a lot of additional pockets and storage options, like radio pockets, which is why I wanted one. It’s a bad idea to paddle a sea kayak solo unless you have a radio with you. The ocean is a dynamic environment and even the most benign conditions can change rapidly. Having safety devices like radios and flares is a good idea. But get the training you need before you buy and wear a rescue PFD. You can learn more about type V PFDs on the US Coast Guard website.
THE TOW BELT
A tow belt is a towline in a pouch mounted on a quick-release belt. There are many to choose from but ideally you’d want something low profile so as not to hinder your paddling.
TOW LINE LENGTH
The length of your tow line depends on how long you need it to be. Understanding all the requirements of the rescue situation is crucial to choosing the right length, so it’s good to carry options like the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article. Research your options and talk to knowledgeable professionals who have experience towing in a variety of environments and circumstances.
Tow systems should be customized to fit your best interest and use. Jedi Jeff says, “I have had many different systems and each time I take it out of the package, completely disassemble and put it back together with my modifications”. And that’s what you have to do. Buy it, use it, figure out what needs to change, and adapt it. The more you mess around with it the more adapting you’ll probably do.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Whatever system you choose, practice. It’s no good if you aren’t so familiar with your system that you can effortlessly deploy it in real time. Grab some buddies, find some play spots, set up some scenarios, and practice. Get some books on sea kayaking safety and rescues, watch videos, talk to other paddlers, especially those who have performed multiple rescues in conditions similar to those you want to paddle in, and practice. Let flexibility and creativity be your guides. There are so many ways things can go sideways. You should always be prepared to adapt.
I’m grateful to NSSKA member Robert Nissenbaum for bringing this topic to my notice. It’s been good to learn more about an important safety aspect of our sport. I’m lucky I’ve never needed to tow or be towed given the conditions I’ve paddled in. I have had to self-rescue plenty of times, but none involved a rope. To date, my tow system has been a 17′ rope in a throw bag stowed in a hatch, but that will change.
I’m also grateful because in an effort to learn more about tow line systems and rescues in general, I started reading Sea Kayaking Safety and Rescue. As Paul McHugh, former Outdoors Editor for the San Francisco Chronicle and an adventure kayaker himself, said when he wrote the forward to the book, “Lull has thrashed himself in strong winds, heavy current and huge waves so you won’t have to… he has no current peer”.
A special shout out to TR Capt. Deb Volturno who consulted with me while I was writing this article and who provided most of the photos, and to all the sea kayakers who contributed, as well as big props to TR John Lull, author of Sea Kayaking Safety and Rescue, one of the best books you’ll ever read on the topic. Almost everything John describes in the book is based on his direct experience, and at the time of the writing he had 20 years of that experience in some of the roughest water that Baja and the Pacific Ocean coast of Northern California and Southern Oregon can dish up. The link below will take you to a variety of sites where his book can be purchased. If you can, get the second edition. It contains an extra chapter on fine-tuning your strokes plus 36 stroke sequence photos to show you exactly how to improve.
For questions and comments about this article, please click below or hit the Contact Us button at the top. Please tell us about your tow system and what has worked for you. Thanks for reading!
Deb Volturno says
Brilliant job with the article, Nancy! Impressively well researched and written. I particularly like that you reinforced getting out there and practice with your gear so you know what you know, and discover what else you need to know! You say that your article is not comprehensive, but it is the most comprehensive one I’ve read. Especially awesome is that your article is based on real-life experience of those who use and know their tow systems, and they can tell you why they use their chosen system. Your article highlights how towing systems are particular to individual paddlers. Those of us who are experienced in towing are highly opinionated about our towing systems, and we can tell you why because we use them in real life! And wow, there are some stories to tell!
Thank you for the great article on an important topic, Nancy
Moulton Avery says
Deb – I’d love to read some of those towing stories in a future TR post. Personal accounts have a power and authenticity that transcends the “how to” narrative, and I think they’re great ammunition for persuading paddlers to buy the tow gear and practice with it.
Nancy Soares says
Hey Deb, thanks so much for reading and commenting. As you know I couldn’t have done it without you and actually I probably should have credited you as co-author! I’ve learned so much from you and John and the others whom I talked to about towing.
For sure the most important lesson learned for me was how individualized towing systems are. The question now is what’s mine going look like? Since I’ve never had to tow anyone I’m going to have to go out with a buddy and tow them and see what happens. Maybe you should do a class on towing, and I’ll be there.
Thanks again for all your help, Captain! See you in 2023!
Moulton Avery says
Superb article, Nancy! Thank you so much for including my quote. I’d forgotten our conversation, so it was a very sweet surprise when I read the article.
In the intro you said “You never know when it might be necessary to tow another kayaker.” That’s for sure. And there’s no shame in asking for a tow. I feel like it gives me a chance to put into practice a skill that I’m not called upon to use much in real life. I find towing in conditions to be strenuous and think switching off with other paddlers is a good idea when possible – as it using multiple paddlers in the towing position.
On two occasions when paddling with a group, situations arose in which a tow made a huge contribution to safety. One was at the mouth of Ocean City Inlet on the Atlantic coast of Maryland. Paddler capsized in rough conditions near the breakwater as our group was exiting the inlet. Two-person tow got him out into a safer and calmer area north of the inlet.
Another was when surfing Hen and Chicken shoals in the Atlantic just south of Cape Henlopen, Delaware. Waves were triangular in one section and breaking in a very precise area. Guy snapped his paddle while bracing and exited. Got overwashed by large breakers two or three times and it was a little tense. Strongest paddler in our group dashed in, hooked up, and towed him and his kayak clear in a very impressive rescue. It took guts, skill, and timing – and was a beautiful thing to see.
Moulton Avery says
After I wrote that comment, another one came to mind. Group peer paddle with the Chesapeake Paddlers Association. Inside the mouth of the Indian River on Chesapeake Bay. We’re heading back up the river against a headwind – about 2 miles from the take-out when one person became very seasick and unable to make progress. Two foot chop with some waves breaking over the decks. Multiple paddlers took turns with towing and helping the seasick paddler, and it all ended well. Also, John Lull’s book is a classic and as superbly relevant today as it was when he wrote it.
Nancy Soares says
Hey Moulton, thanks for reading and commenting. Loved reading your stories. Just curious, specifically how did the guy accomplish the surf rescue you mentioned. I assume you mean he hooked up to the kayak but where was the paddler? Was it a stern carry for the paddler and a short tow for the boat?
I will try to get Deb to tell us some stories. It’s always good to hear sea tales, and that’s why we tell them, to entertain and to learn. I’ve heard a few of them, one being the time when she and John Lull were doing an ACA class under the Golden Gate and a jumper landed in their midst. Talk about drama. If I remember right, that one involved a gaff.
Thank you for helping out with the article, and for reading and commenting. It’s always good to hear from you. I appreciate you. Happy New Year to you and Angie. I hope it’s a good one for both of you.