Training Notes [34]

By David Winkworth

Hello Everyone,

This month, I thought we’d have a look at towing sea kayaks. It’s something that everyone has to do sooner or later on the ocean so we might as well be ready for it!

Towing can be a real chore or possibly a chance for some hard exercise with a slower group. Whichever way you look at it, when you need to tow someone…you need to tow them and that’s all there is to it. So, let’s have a look at all aspects of towing on the ocean and make it as simple as possible.

Why do we need to tow? Well, the most obvious reason is a paddler’s incapacity to paddle due to exhaustion in headwind conditions or complete incapacity due to sea sickness. Our old friend tenosynovitis is another reason for a tow. Group cohesion always pops up on the ocean and towing can be a simple way to keep a group together and arrive at the destination before nightfall or before weather conditions deteriorate.

We’ll have a closer look at towing for these reasons in a moment but I just want to mention the importance of observation first. Although you may be on a trip with a designated leader, it’s everyone’s responsibility to observe fellow paddlers and the weather.

You may notice that a fellow paddler is having difficulties, falling behind perhaps or favouring one arm due to cramp. Incoherence may be a sign of hypothermia onset. Communicate your thoughts to the leader as soon as possible and possibly avoid a minor problem becoming a full-blown disaster. Does the group need to pick up speed to avoid a predicted wind change? Look for the signs – look around you!

OK, back to the tow! Towing an exhausted paddler….exhaustion on the ocean is dangerous. Apart from the obvious speed reduction it can mean a loss of balancing skills and more importantly it can affect a paddler’s reasoning and decision making skills.

So, exhaustion is a good reason to tow someone. Usually the paddler can paddle on slowly while under tow to contribute to the effort and use their rudder or paddle to maintain course.

Complete incapacity to me means an associated loss of balance and a paddler in this condition will most likely need a support paddler to raft up with them as part of the tow. Sea sick paddlers fall into this category. They need support. If it’s serious they just want to curl up and die where they are. This means aborting a planned destination and heading straight for shore with a supported tow. Now, if there are only two of you out there, the situation is not hopeless. We’ll cover this in the section on tow lines.

There is undoubtedly a real stigma attached to towing which is unfortunate because there shouldn’t be. Towing is a means of keeping moving while having a rest!

It’s ok to be towed

Think of bushwalking. If someone is tired, the group sits down and has a rest together. You can’t hook a rope around their legs and drag them along the track! But you can on the ocean! Think of it as a bonus for sea kayaking! If a paddler group leader suggests for a reason that that they should tow you, accept it gracefully because there is obviously a very good reason. It’s just that you may not be able to see it!

A few years ago on a two week coastal expedition, one of our paddlers in a double sea kayak had a severe case of tenosynovitis. Despite protests of fitness, we hooked on to the double in a V tow for the remaining 4 days of the trip. By the end of the trip, the paddler had recovered OK but more importantly had accepted that this was the only way we could keep the group together….. and still enjoy the trip. We could have reduced the daily distances but that would have meant compromising the sense of achievement for the other paddlers.

Alright, we’ve decided that someone needs a tow. What now?

You’re the leader, the weather is deteriorating and a paddler is falling behind quite exhausted. Paddle up to that boat and raft up with your boat at 180 degrees to the other.

Reason? This is your assessment time for this paddler. Tell them in firm reassuring tones what you plan to do and have a good look at the paddler. (I’ll use the male gender here)

Is he sweating? Red eyes perhaps? Is it salt spray or exertion? Is he cold? Is he shivering? Are his lips blue? Does he respond readily to questions?

The reason for the boats being opposite here is so you can observe the paddler closely. Obviously something is wrong or you wouldn’t be planning a tow would you? The question is…how wrong are things? So, be in front of the paddler to find out. Also, in this position, you can hold his boat by the foredeck deck lines while he gets ready for the tow.

Get ready, What’s he got to do

Well, this paddler has been burning up the kilojoules at a great rate and now he’s going to sit there in the wind getting cold during the tow.

Tell him to put on his cag if he hasn’t already done so. If he is wearing it, he may need another layer under it. Poly, not cotton obviously. If he’s not sick, give him some muesli bars or chokky and a good drink of water. Does he have a whistle to signal you if the wind and waves pick up?

Tow time folks!

If there are a number in your group, you could use a V tow for this paddler with another to paddle beside him for company and to check his condition regularly. If he is OK but just tired, the accompanying paddler can alternate with the towers to give them a break.

Getting the tow started is where paddlers can easily make a dog’s breakfast of the whole operation. Remember, this sick/exhausted/scared paddler is looking to you for confidence and reassurance. Getting your tow lines hooked around every piece of boat in sight is not going to inspire him !

So, after getting him ready for the tow, get your own line ready but DO NOT deploy it yet. Decide which side of your boat you are going to attach the line to, and then back away from the paddler and re-approach with your favoured towing side against their boat. Move to the bow of his boat, hook on, a last call to the paddler and move off. Don’t stuff around here get the line taut gently and paddle off. If the wind has spun your boats around opposite to the desired direction, paddle in a wide arc to get on course. Gently does it!

If you decide that a V tow (2 towing paddlers in a V configuration) is the way to go, and the sea and swell is messy, have one paddler get the tow underway. The second paddler can then come in beside the “towee”, hook on, and paddle off to form the V with the other paddler. Nice and smooth, no tangles, no capsizes.

Don’t underestimate the ability of the wind and waves to make a mess of your endeavours. Towing systems (and your plans) should be simple and easily understood by any helpers. More on this soon.

Let’s have a look at towing configurations.

Figures 1 and 2: Inline tow and V-tow

Obviously, one towee, one tow-er is the simplest and most often used. If the wind isn’t too strong and the distance not too great, this setup is fine. You can zip along at a pretty good rate you’ll find.

If the wind and seas pick up, you’ve got to tow a sea sick paddler plus support boat or it’s a loaded double, you may want to try a V tow. (See Figs 1 & 2). You’ll have double the power but also double the potential for stuff ups. It helps if the two tow lines are equal length so that the towing paddlers will know if their partner is not pulling their weight! It’s also good for company. Towing can be lonely work!

Another tow configuration (which I haven’t tried) is called the Husky. Basically a V tow with another paddler on a longer line right up the middle. More power but again increased chances of foul ups. I would be interested to hear from any paddler who has used this method in a real wind and wave rescue (see Fig 3).

Figures 3: Husky

Another method I have read about is a straight in line tow with 2 or three towing boats. Not a method I would try but if anyone has used it speak up. This method seems to me to take away independence from the towing they cannot unclip when they need to do so.

The last method is a good one for an incapacitated paddler when there are only two of you out there in total. The line is short about 0.5 metre, boats get scratched but it works. Pretty self explanatory really. Oh yes, this method requires strong deck fittings.

Now, setting up your boat for towing.

In case you may one day need a tow and in any case, you should have a toggle/rope loop setup right on the bow of your boat. Deck lines are an obvious requirement.

When a boat (incl. kayaks) turns, it typically pivots on an area about 20% of the boat length from the bow. It follows, does it not, that if your tow rope attaches well back from your cockpit, the boat being towed will pull your kayak all over the ocean? You’ll also have lots of trouble hooking your line on in a lumpy sea. Think about it!

The best place for a towing attachment is right behind the cockpit on either side of the deck. The attachment there is accessible and yet out of the way of normal paddling movements.

Some books and magazines, indeed some club members prefer to tow from their PFD with a whitewater quick release system. It’s definitely not my cup of tea for a long ocean tow with boats going up and down swells at different times but you may wish to check it out before deciding on a system. Just look for paddlers with more stuff hanging off their bodies than California Cops.

Quick release systems. Are they really necessary on the ocean? I don’t think so. You wouldn’t be silly enough to tow through the surf zone would you? Apart from that (and gauntlets) I really cant see the need for these items. I find simple 50mm stainless snap hooks are fine for both ends of the tow line.

Make your towing attachment on your rear deck strong. Stainless saddles, decklines, loops of cord whatever make it strong and waterproof under the deck.

Check out your rear deck for places where a tow line could lodge and not be freed during a tow. Rudders are an obvious problem. If it gets stuck well back on your deck where you cant reach it, you may have lost the ability to control your kayak in wind while towing.

Let’s have a look at actual tow lines for your boat.

These are my requirements for a tow line:

  1. Simple to use – not just for me either. And quick!
  2. Reliable – deploys all the way every time. No tangles. It floats.
  3. Compact enough that it is no problem to take on every paddle.

When you get a tow line, see if it fits the above criteria. Point No. 3 is important. It’s no use in the shed when you need it. Years ago we used to make tow lines from ski rope with lengths of 8mm shock cord built in for shock absorption. They were huge and suitable for towing the Titanic. They did not fit Point No.3

Many of us are now using simple 3mm nylon cord. It’s strong enough for towing doubles, has great stretch – just enough, and it’s compact. It’s drawbacks are that it needs to be kept out of the sun and washed regularly to remove salt build and it will tangle if not put carefully into it’s bag. I’ve detailed my system in Figure 4 and I suppose it’s also a Mk 4 version too. There are a few club members with them for you to copy if you like it.

Figure 4

Length of tow line?

It makes sense for us all to have equal length lines does it not! A few years ago, the club standard was 7 metres which I don’t think is long enough for towing in ocean swells. Many of us are now using 15 metre lines. I’m not sure if it’s an official club standard but it does make sense. You can always reduce the length if you need to do so during use.

Towing needs to be practised. When you’ve made up a line, go out and practise with your paddling companions. Good luck.