Choosing a Tow Belt

by Sherri ~ March 1st, 2010. Filed under: Kayaking Equipment, Paddling Safety.


The first sign of spring has arrived on my doorstep.  The Canoecopia program brochure was delivered a little over a week ago.  Can paddling season be far behind?  As the snow begins to melt into the rivers and lakes, our thoughts naturally turn to all the pieces of kayaking gear that we want or need to purchase before this season.  In that vein, I will take a little time in my upcoming posts to talk about what to look for when purchasing certain items.  Today I’ll talk about tow belts, but feel free to ask for advice on the gear item of your choice if you’re doing some research before buying.

My North Water Quick Release Tow Belt with modifications

My North Water Quick Release Tow Belt with modifications

When unfolded, the large pouch makes it easy to restuff the rope.

When unfolded, the large pouch makes it easy to restuff the rope.











In 20 years, I have not had to use my tow belt more than about a dozen times, but when I needed it, I REALLY needed it and I was very glad to have it.  Don’t wait until you find yourself in a  desperate situation wishing you had a tow belt.  Make the investment and get one now.  There are a lot of tow belts out there.  I get no kickbacks from any manufacturers, so I’m going to tell you which tow belt I use and why.  I own the North Water Quick Release Rescue Tow belt.   It has all the following features that I think are important, and I was able to easily modify it with those few features that I wanted but it didn’t come with originally.  An even better option is the newer North Water Sea Tec Tow Line which has many of the modifications that I made to my older Quick Release Rescue belt, and comes with a lot of reflective tape on it besides.

  1. The number one feature of any tow belt is the quick release buckle on the belt.  In the event that you or the person being towed capsizes or some other problem arises, you need to be able to ditch the tow line quickly even with tension on the line.  Look for the quick release buckle.
  2. Another important feature is a bungee integrated into the rope to take some of the shock off your back when you are towing in rough water.  Without it, you will get a strong yank on your back every time the boat you are towing slides backward down a wave or you accelerate forward down a wave.
  3. Floating line (and line that does not absorb water) will reduce the drag you feel since the rope is going to sag into the water even when there is tension on the line.
  4. For smaller bodies of water or the Great Lakes where we rarely see swells with long periods, 25-35 feet of line will be enough, but if you take your boat out on the ocean, make sure to get a towline that is 35-50 feet long.  If you use a shorter tow line on ocean swells, you could have the boat you are towing surfing down the same wave you are on possibly crashing into your kayak from behind.  I recommend getting the longer rope length and daisy chaining the rope to shorten it.  That way you’ll have the extra rope length if/when you need it.
  5. A float of some kind is needed to keep the carabiner from sinking when it is disconnected from the boat you are towing.
  6. After you have finished towing someone, you will need to think about what to do with that pile of spaghetti that your towline has turned into.  The proper way to restow your line after a tow is to stuff it carefully back into the bag so it does not tangle.  That can be hard or impossible when you are out on the water.  I like a tow belt with a large, wide-mouth pouch that I can easily throw the loose rope into, where it will be contained until I get back to shore and can restuff the bag properly.  My old tow belt had a small opening that took several minutes to restuff.  After disengaging from a tow, I usually threw the belt and all the loose rope into my cockpit until I could get back to shore.  Had I ever capsized, I could easily have gotten tangled in the mess of loose rope coils inside my cockpit.
  7. The carabiner should be large enough that you can easily grab it and clip it onto another kayak with one hand, even when wearing gloves.  I like carbiners that have a separate eyelet for tying the tow line.  Unfortunately, most tow belts use climbing carabiners, so it is easy to lose the carabiner if the rope slips off when the gate is open.  Worse yet, some of the tow belts use carabiners that aren’t even rated for climbing strength.  Some of these carabiners are so cheap I would expect them to bend or break under pressure.  I spent about $35 to purchase a different carabiner to replace the one that came with my tow belt after paying around $100 for the original belt.  That said, I think it was well worth the money to have the best carbiner possible.
  8. I also like to have the option of a short tow as part of the belt.  This can be accomplished by rigging your line so  that the length is adjustable (daisy chain), or you can have a separate short line.  I added something called a “cow tail” to my belt.  This also cost me another $40 or so to add this piece.
  9. I want a D-ring on the belt itself that I can clip the carabiner on to.  That way I can grab the carabiner easily and attach it to another kayak when I need to start towing in rough seas or just need to get a tow started quickly (Two kayaks involved in a rescue being blown into an area of breaking waves or a shipping lane may need to be towed into a safer area immediately).

You can also consider using a deck-mounted towing system, but that usually requires your kayak to have some permanently mounted hardware on the kayak.  This takes the strain off the back of the person doing the towing.  The only problem with deck-mounted systems is that your kayak is now the only boat that can do the towing.  If you end up being the person who needs to be towed, you may be out of luck.  With a belt, you can always give the belt to another paddler if you get tired and need someone else to take over the towing, or if you need to be towed.  If you already have a tow belt, it may be time to give it a good inspection to make sure it is still safe to rely on it in an emergency.  If you notice fraying, cuts, or portions of the rope core poking out through the sheath (see photo below), it’s time to get a new rope.  (Also notice the small opening that the line is feeding out of.  The rope had to be stuffed back into that opening.)

I’ll see you at Canoecopia.  My husband and I will be the ones wearing the SherriKayaks t-shirts!

Sherri

Note the integrated bungee, float, carabiner with separate eyelet, and D-ring.

Note the integrated bungee, float, carabiner with separate eyelet, and D-ring.

This tow rope needs to be replaced.

This tow rope needs to be replaced.

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