Sometimes the best way to assist another paddler is to give them a helping hand in the form of a tow. Towing another boat isn’t always part of a rescue scenario. You may decide to put a kayak under tow simply to help a tired paddler make headway against strong current or high winds. Towing is also a great way to deal with an injured or seasick paddler. Other times, a tow can be just the ticket for quickly extracting another kayaker from a dangerous situation.
The most basic towing formation is the in-line tow. In this system, the towing paddler simply clips a line to the bow of the boat to be towed, and then pulls it along behind their kayak. To effectively tow another kayak using an in-line tow, you will need some dedicated gear in the form of a towline. Towlines consist of a length of webbing or line with an attachment system at each end. Most towlines have a carabiner on one end, ideal for quickly clipping onto a kayak’s grab loop, and a quick-release belt or deck cleat on the leading end, designed to allow the rescuer to ditch the whole system with a simple flick of the wrist.
My favorite tow set-ups are those integrated into a PFD. With this approach, the tow system is always on your body, and not an extra bit of gear that you can forget or decide not to don. The PFD-mounted tow also keeps the quick-release buckle solidly fixed in one place where it is always within easy reach, while waist-worn tow belts tend to rotate on the torso, making it difficult to locate the quick-release buckle in an emergency.
Boat-mounted systems are the most comfortable for really long-distance tows because they are much easier on the towing paddler’s body—the kayak takes the strain rather than the rescuer. The leash portion of the tow system can be short or long. Short towlines or “cow tails,” around one to three metres long (three to 10 feet), are very quick to deploy but are only suited to very short distance tows as they usually result in frequent and potentially violent collisions between boats.
Long leashes, around ten to 15 metres (30 to 45 feet) long, are far better for towing over longer distances. For distance tows, it is important to have enough space between the lead boat and the one being towed to reduce the risk of collision, particularly in following seas when the towed boat can surf down a wave and into the lead kayak. Many tow systems also integrate some shock absorption into the system, often in the form of shock cord, that yields a much smoother tow with far less violent jerking or yanking transmitted down the line.
Towing is very physically taxing, and the decision to tow another kayak over a long distance should not be taken lightly. In rough conditions or when fighting current or wind, it is truly exhausting. Also be aware that deploying long towlines in breaking surf or powerful rapids should be strongly discouraged due to the risk of possible entanglement with the line.