I am of the opinion that tow belts are extremely important pieces of safety gear to carry with you on all trips. I’ve used mine to tow paddlers who were getting fatigued and started falling farther and farther behind the group as well as to reunite a capsized kayaker with the kayak that got away from him on a windy day. I pretty much never leave the beach without my tow belt around my waist. However, there have been times when I’ve almost found myself without my tow belt when returning to the beach.
“How can that be?” you might wonder. Well, all tow belts should have a quick-release buckle that allows you to remove yourself from the belt quickly should it become necessary during a tow. Recently, I and a friend have had some problems with our tow belts coming off when we didn’t want them to. My friend thought he had lost his belt for good in Lake Superior when he noticed it was missing after practicing some scramble self-rescues. Luckily, it washed ashore and was found awhile later. I have had some similar experiences in which my tow belt was found in the water by a student after I had been teaching rescues. Yesterday, I noticed my belt lying unbuckled on the back deck of my kayak after doing re-entry practice with another student. I’m thankful I noticed it before I did another wet exit. Tow belts tend to be rather expensive and may not have enough buoyancy to float on the surface if they end up in the water.
I’ve been using a tow belt for almost 2 decades, why am I noticing the problem now? I think the reason may be the little orange ball that is attached to the quick-release buckle. My old Salamander tow belt did not have this feature. The ball on my newer tow belt was added by the manufacturer with the thinking that it would make it easier to find and release the buckle in an emergency. Unfortunately, this ball is likely getting caught on the deck rigging of my kayak when I am doing re-entries allowing the belt to slide through and fall from my waist. As a result, I am most likely going to remove the little orange ball and see if this reduces the incidence of my tow belt coming off during rescues.
I would suggest that you do some controlled tests with your own tow belt. Try doing some solo and assisted rescues in a pool or some other area where it would be easy to spot and retrieve your tow belt if it comes off, falls in the water, and sinks. Is your quick-release buckle being inadvertently released without your knowing? If so, why and what can you do to prevent the unintended release?
I also have one other issue with the quick-release buckles used on tow belts that only applies to kayakers who paddle in sub-freezing air temperatures. In case you haven’t experienced it, the build-up of ice on the tail end of the webbing belt will prevent it from being able to slide through the buckle. I have gotten off the water in winter only to find that I couldn’t take my tow belt off until I could remove the ice on the end of the belt. As a result, I’m trying to decide if it makes sense to replace the existing buckle style with a 1.5″-wide fastex buckle similar to those used on backpack hip belts. They are somewhat harder to release with gloved hands, but would not be subject to the same problem with ice buildup in the winter.