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Kayak Towing Methods & Equipment by Tom Holtey
Visit Tom's TopKayaker Shop: Safety Gear Department

Towing is an important safety skill. The ability to "pull" some one out of trouble can come in handy. This of course does not happen all the time, but when the need arises you will be thankful for your preparedness in bringing the right equipment and knowing how to use it.

Open water towing and WW towing are completely different, and this article will cover open water conditions only. Some of these principles will be useful to both sit-in and sit-on paddlers and some only for sit-ons.

Simple Tow Lines - - Rescue Vests & Belts - - Throw Bag - - Surf Zone - - Rescue Scenarios - - Kids - - Further Reading

Simple Tow Lines

Your classic reason for a tow is a paddler who is having trouble going strait and keeping up with the pack. While it is wise to paddle at the pace of the slowest paddler, it may be necessary to "tie up" due to a variety of needs and weather/water concerns, or even frustration.

Many folks will feel that a tow is a failure. It really is not! The idea here is to "share the work" like you would in a tandem kayak, with both paddlers working. So any kayaker needing a tow should keep paddling, if at all possible. It essentially turns two solo kayaks into a tandem, and no one should feel bad or tease.

tow illustration
Towing with a bow / stern line

For sit-on-top towing a basic rope will do, even a bowline, clipped or tied to the tower's stern handle, and then to the towee's bow handle. I have for years carried a 25' foot rope, with a shock cord segment, float, and clips, just for this purpose. It also doubles as an anchor line extender, and drogue line as well a handy rope for camp jobs. The only problem is that to undo the rope one must untie/unclip at the stern and/or bow and this takes a minute or two. Consequently this can only be used in conditions where a quick-release is not needed.

tow rope homemade
Home-made Tow Rig:
Note float, optional shock cord segment, and improvised "quick-release."

If you build such a rig yourself, use floating rope, like polypropylene, adding floats next to any metal clips and use the heaviest possible shock cord and only in a short segment.

STEARNtow illustrationBOW
Stern Line rigged for towing

It is best to set up your kayak in advance for towing when using a simple line. A "stern line" (bow line on the back) can be clipped or tied to the stern handle before launch, and clipped into a gunwale strap eye along the cockpit in an easy to reach spot. (Preferably on the right for righties, and left for lefties.) When the need arrives, simply paddle along side the towee to their bow. Unclip the stern line at the cockpit, and clip it into the bow handle of the towee's kayak, remaining seated the whole time. To undo: simply back paddle to the towee's bow and unclip. Plan the unclipping far in advance, as it will take a minute or two to complete.

STEARNtow illustrationBOW
Towline stowed in backrest pocket

If you carry a longer tow line use the same set up, clipping to the stern handle. Instead of clipping to the gunwale strap eye, stow the rope in the backrest pocket or net bag mounted on the rear deck. Make sure to store it in an easy to unwind manner. Stern lines and tow lines can be handy also for docking, tying up at the beach (to prevent high tide/water from sweeping your kayak away), multiple kayak anchoring and for use with a sea anchor.

Rescue Vests & Belts

tow illustration
Towing with a rescue vest

Kokatat Tour TowBy far the best tow rope is a belt mounted version with a quick-release. This type of tow rig is usable for both sit-in and sit-on rescue paddlers. I like and use the Lotus Sea-Tow. In fact it is permanently mounted to my PFD that I wear every time. The Sea-Tow can also function as an ocean throw bag just like the ones used for White Water. The only down side of the Sea-Tow is that it is slow to load back into the bag.

There are other models that use the belt with a quick release, but have a large open pouch that closes with Velcro like a fanny pack. These load faster, but are more apt to open by accident and let your rope dangle overboard and this type is not meant be used as a throw bag. This waist mounted towing device can be used with any PFD combination.

If interested in this model use this link at The TopKayaker Shop: Waist Mount Tour Tow

Many tow rigs are sold with a "Rescue Vest PFD" and/or integrate into some regular vests. All these rescue towing devices have advantages and disadvantages. I use the Lotus Strait Jacket. The tag on this type of vest will strongly suggest training and practice to use it. Some advanced sea kayak lessons will train with these techniques. Regardless of whether you take such an advanced course or not you will still need to practice towing periodically.

pfd with tow front
Waist Belt For Sea Tow:
Note Quick Release w/ Red Toggle

pfd with tow
Ring falls free from belt when buckle is released.

The reason for the quick-release is to jettison your load (the towee and their kayak) at a moment's notice, such as a rouge wave, motor or sail powered vessel incidents or other situations involving currents and obstacles. This of course leaves the "rescuer" free of the line and the "towee" still attached to the line. I have modified my Sea-Tow with a small float at each end of the line to prevent the line from sinking and snagging under water.

tow package
The Sea Tow Throw Bag:
Note: 1. Addition of blue float to support ring; 2. Float to support carabineer inside the bag.

You can have some fun practicing with such gear, starting in calm conditions and working into rougher conditions. Take turns towing and being towed. Towing is hard work! Don't quit because it is hard, go for a long haul so you know what you will be up against when the chips are down. Use the quick release too to get a feel for it, and practice line retrieval with an emphasis on speed and tangle free repacking.

At Tom's TopKayaker Shop
throw bag Rescue Rope Throw Bag
Primary rescue gear for white water paddlers. Can be used in many water sport situations. Throw bag consists of: 50 feet of yellow ¼" floating poly line, 900 pound test. Durable drawstring bag with built in float. Resists rot and mildew.

Throw Bag - Now available At Tom's TopKayaker Shop

While some rigs are set up as a throw bag, it is generally not practical to toss a line to a towee. It is best for the rescue kayaker to paddle along side and clip on the bow of the boat to be towed. Clip your tow line into the deck lines (not bungee cords) if the kayak is equipped with them, other wise clip into the bow grab handle. Practice this with an emphasis on doing it quickly and in one attempt.

Always approach the towee's kayak pointed in the same direction and on the side that you wish to pull toward. This prevents the tow line from fouling under or over the kayaks, paddlers and their paddles.

Try your hand at using the tow rig as a throw bag on land, if it is set up as such. Practice hitting a target with the rope, because a rope will do a victim no good if it misses. Tossing a rope and hitting a target is a good skill that can come in handy at some time.

A throw rope must be re-packed into the bag carefully starting with the rope on the bag end, packing one hank at a time, and ending with the rescuer's end last into the bag. This will allow the rope to play out smoothly when thrown.

Remember the safety slogan "Throw - Row - Go" for a swimmer in distress. Throw a rope or float, launch a boat, and finally, go for help. The old slogan is the best advice. The throw rope is your first line of defense after a float (throw able PFD). Bear in mind that the Sea Tow has a carabineer clip on the throw bag that can put a goose egg on a victim's head. It is best to over shoot a victim, with the line crossing right on top of them.

At Tom's TopKayaker Shop:
bow line
Bow Line
Finally a "one size fits all" bow line! Made of strong nylon webbing strap. Brass swivel snaps at each end. Ladder-loc for adjustment to fit a wide variety of kayaks. Extends up to seven feet long. Can be used as a stern line.
Surf Zone

You should never tow in the surf zone, so unclip and stow your rope well before a passage through the waves. Kayaks can and do get away from paddlers in the surf zone, and need to be reunited with their rider. Bear in mind that it is more important to stay with a swimmer than chase down wayward gear, so hopefully you paddle in a threesome; one victim, with his escort, and one to catch the runaway kayak. (Otherwise head to shore, the loose kayak will tend to wash up there too.) Rendezvous in calm water using the channels between breaks for towing a loose boat and escorting a swimmer, but NOT in rip currents.

Rescue Scenarios

On occasion you will need to tow a kayaker experiencing difficulties or illness out of a dangerous situation. A partly flooded kayak drifting onto a wave battered rocky shore is an example, a lost paddle, sea sick kayaker or maybe in a strong head wind on open water, so the group does not loose much ground to the wind. In this case tie up to the "victim" kayak while an assisting kayaker tends to the victim, if necessary, to man a pump or implement a repair or keep an ill paddle from falling in. Assisting paddlers can "raft" with paddles across both decks and use a handgrip(s), bear hugs or accessory clips from a backrest to keep the to kayaks together. The use of knee straps can be critical in this situation. Grip your kayak with them and use backrest clip to tie on with. Be careful of pinching fingers and hands between boats. Tow until out of trouble, and then regroup to solve the situation.

Sometimes you may have a sick paddler (sea sick most likely). A tow comes in handy with this situation. Derek Hutchinson has some very good diagrams of sick paddlers being towed by multiple towers with others attending, in several configurations in his books. A really sick paddler will need an attendant. A not so sick paddler may be able to brace, or at least lean on a paddle with a paddle float.


Those who paddle with kids should be prepared to tow. A child's paddling ability cannot be depended on in all conditions. So therefore "mother duck" should be handy with a tow rope.

I can't imagine any boating situation where some kind, and/or some length of rope is not an essential piece of gear.

It is unlikely that your bow (or stern) handles will break, but not impossible. This would likely happen in open ocean swells that can cause a jerky ride. A shock cord segment (heavy duty) will lessen the strain. Changing the length of the line can help too sometimes. Additional attachment points on bow and stern, like deck lines or the use of an anchor/tow harness can be valuable back ups.

Further Reading:

safety and rescue bookSea Kayaker Magazine's Handbook Of Safety & Rescue
This handbook shows how to understand weather, waves, and currents; use emergency communications; analyze risk; and perform a wide variety of kayak rescues.


NSWSKC Sea Kayak Club - Article on towing


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