Towing is one of the least-practiced skills in sea kayaking. People seem to think deploying a tow line is a rare and serious occurrence. While deploying lines always complicates things, towing is an essential skill that has some uses of which many paddlers aren’t aware. Towing needn’t be only used in dire straits or emergencies!
I never, ever paddle without both a full tow line and a cowtail/short tow. Here are two short examples of why I think this is a best practice for all paddlers, and how towing can often mean what you least expect.
The Psych Tow
I once towed a paddler in a skin-on-frame boat with neither skeg nor rudder. We were in strong crosswinds abeam crossing a strait, and the paddler couldn’t hold a course, even with what she thought were aggressive edges and strong corrective strokes. I volunteered to give her a “directional tow,” just to keep her kayak on the right course. We paddled across and the towing was effortless. We rafted up so I could unhook, and that’s when someone pointed out why it had been so easy.
The rope was slack and in the water the whole time.
The paddler made it across all by herself. What she needed was a visible connection between the boats and she edged more aggressively and took better corrective strokes, as she could focus on a shorter-term goal of just aligning herself to my boat, not to a distant shore or less-visible goal. It wasn’t a directional tow after all: It was a psychological tow. She was thrilled and rightfully proud when this was pointed out to her!
Sometimes a visible link and even perceived assistance can make a big difference. In my case it was a tow line, but in other cases it can be an extra cookie at lunchtime, a drink from your water bottle on the water, or some other small gesture to demonstrate a sense of camaraderie and trust amongst paddlers.
The Urban Tow
We took a pair of friends paddling who had never been in kayaks before. We gave them some instruction and planned to do an incredibly mellow, flat-water paddle. While they surprised us with their fitness and ability, within the first 5 minutes one of them capsized. He was doing a good thing, exploring the edge of stability, but in a way that was overzealous, and FLIP! In he went. Dressed for immersion and a former surfer, he was embarrassed but comfortable. Ms. Brinestorm proceeded to provide a T-rescue.
Then a weird thing happened: A scenario we had in a class actually came to pass.
In a class with Helen Wilson and Bryant Burkhardt, we had a scenario involving towing two boats while a rescue was underway, to prevent the rescue boats from drifting into rocks along the coast. However, here there were no rocks, nor coast: Instead, there was a fishing pier. Of course, the first time a t-rescue is done with someone who is unfamiliar with it, it takes a while, and a strong ebb current was pulling the rescuer and the swimmer towards the pilings.
Since they couldn’t take action to get away from the pier due to the activity of the rescue, I simply paddled over, clipped my short-line cowtail onto the rescuer’s boat, and paddled backwards to move them away from the pier. Decidedly undramatic, incredibly easy, and took basically no time and little effort. But not having done so would have caused complicated situation, especially for the swimmer, especially with many fishing lines cast into the water in their path. Drunken, angry fishermen are bad.
Now, certainly, with newbie kayakers a tow line makes good sense. But I had no way of guessing that I’d be applying it to my own significant other’s kayak during a rescue. And while we’d practiced this before, I certainly didn’t expect to use it within 20 meters of the beach. But I was ready, equipped, and it came naturally…as a direct result of practice.
I’ll Have Your Back if You Have Mine
So there we have it: Two really mellow, non-drama situations in which towing was incredibly helpful. Towing isn’t just for complex extractions and injured paddlers and lassoing orcas. It’s flexible and handy, but only good if you know how and have practiced it. As stated earlier, practice also breeds better judgement about the use of ropes and lines in the water, which can cause their own problems.
But while I’m willing to practice towing and always wear my towing gear in order to help my paddling pals, I would rather strongly prefer that my paddling pals have their own tow ropes and also know how and when to properly use them. It could be me that’s in trouble for any number of reasons, and knowing that I can be ably assisted – and that I can ably assist – is a major foundation for trust between kayakers…and, in fact, in almost any human endeavor.