Team Towing
A New Way to Think About Towing

by Wayne Horodowich

Published in Sea Kayaker Magazine December 1997 Vol.14 No. 5

Let's face it, there is more attached to the tow line than a kayak. After many years of teaching and leading kayak tours I can say without a doubt, that most people do not like the idea of being towed. The range of emotions I have observed included embarrassment, inadequacy, anger and failure, only to mention a few. Some are even willing to die at sea rather than face the tow rope. I freely admit to using the tow rope in my past as a tool of intimidation, waving it menacingly at lagging paddlers. The thought of being towed struck fear into their hearts and their pace would suddenly accelerate until they dropped like flies from exhaustion. I've since changed my thinking about towing. The sea kayaking community has much to gain by getting rid of the stigma attached to towing.

The dictionary simply defines tow as "being pulled." There is no reference to breakdown, failure, incompetence, or inability. Yet these self imposed feelings are real and seem to be the norm. They limit rather than serve us, even to the point of injury.

When a paddler is exhausted, injured or incapable of continuing on their own, towing may be his only option. However, why should towing be limited to these situations? If a tow is necessary, why should the towee feel such negative emotions? This question raises two different, yet related issues: the uses of towing and the emotions tied to the tow line.

The Double Kayak Advantage
By looking at towing in a new light, we can address the uses of towing, which can also lead to changes regarding the negative emotions attached to towing. Let's compare towing to the concept of paddling in a double kayak. If you and your partner use a double, you combine your energy. You automatically stay together due to the nature of the craft and probably travel at an average of your individual speeds. If you are in a double, there is no embarrassment felt by the slower paddler because he cannot keep up or frustration on the part of the faster paddler because they have to wait for the slower one. Yet, put those same two paddlers in singles and many issues can arise if they paddle at different speeds and have different kayak handling abilities. When in single kayaks, how often do you paddle with someone who paddles faster or slower than yourself? Trying to maintain the pace of your partner can be frustrating or even impossible, whether you are the faster or slower paddler. Therefore, let's take a lesson from our double friends and consider a method of combining the strengths of the two single paddlers.

If we think of a tow rope as a way to make two singles into a double, we can then combine the energies and some of the skills of the two paddlers to benefit both of them. Just think of the possibilities when connecting two paddlers with a tow rope. The person being towed is still paddling and the tower is just sharing some of their energy with the towee. The use of the tow rope should not only be considered a tool for rescues or emergencies. It is a tool that should be used without the label of LOSER attached to it.

Team Towing
I am proposing we consider using a tow rope more frequently and not only for paddler's in trouble. For example, when the trip plan calls for a combination of time and distance that is out of the range of the slower paddler, plan on towing right from the beginning of the trip to ensure that the required pace is maintained. I believe that we should actually plan for the use of the tow rope to accommodate the needs of the paddlers in the group. Perhaps we should call towing "team towing" instead?

Think of the many ways a tow rope may be used other than emergency situations:

1) Keeping partners together who travel at different speeds.
2) Keeping a group together. (Greatest challenge for trip leaders.)
3) Helping keep your partner on a straight course on windy days.
4) Helping the paddler who needs that little extra to paddle against the current.
5) Maintaining mileage while one of you eats.
6) Towing the photographer when in choice scenic/wildlife areas.
7) Training to build strength and stamina.
8) Getting back to shore more quickly when conditions begin to worsen.
9) Taking the place of a lost paddle when you neglected to bring a spare.
10) Gaining the experience to better handle an emergency tow if it ever happens.

Benefits for the Tower
It is a fact that towing requires energy. However, I don't believe that it is as strenuous as one may think, especially if the towee is paddling at their touring pace. When the paddler being towed cannot maintain a steady pace or is injured, then the drag is greater and the tower will work harder. Yet, the energy needed by using a tow rope under normal touring conditions will not be as radically different to the energy needed by the faster paddler if they were in a double trying to keep the same pace. Towing should be a regularly practiced skill for all paddlers.

Good judgment should be involved in your decision of when to tow, who to tow, where to tow and into what conditions. Be sure your experience and abilities are truly reflected in that judgment. Don't let your beliefs write checks that your body and abilities cannot cash. The only way you can know for sure is to work up to the distances, conditions, pace and drag of the tow.

Group Paddling Dynamics
How do we address the feelings of paddler's associated with the varying paces within a tour group? Let's look at a typical tour group. I have often heard about the feelings of the slow person in the group. The slower paddler feels bad being at the end and does not feel good being unable to keep up. When the slower paddler arrives at the rest area the faster paddlers are already rested and are ready to go. I often hear recommendations from instructors/guides, that the group members should wait until the last paddler into the rest area is rested before the entire group continues. While I appreciate the concept, I feel that the whole group is being paced by the slowest paddler. I don't believe this is fair to the majority of the group. That logic is just as faulty if we ask the entire group to keep up with the fastest paddler. I rarely hear anyone come to defense of the faster paddlers. Fast paddlers find it just as frustrating trying to go slow. By the time the slower paddler is rested, the fast paddler has actually cooled down. How do you meet the needs of the extremes in the group?

Using Energy Efficiently
When a group has both fast and slow paddlers, the time is perfect to use the tow rope for team towing. Use the energy of the faster paddlers. Most groups have a core of paddlers that maintain the same pace. The dilemma arises when we have a couple of speed demons and a couple of paddlers trailing. This is when one of the kayakers in the group needs to become a self ordained kayak minister and marry the couple at sea to bring both extremes back into the fold. They need to tie the knot. Many fast paddlers will not mind towing someone. Especially if it allows them to get a good workout and keep a faster pace. All this having been said, we have not addressed the negative feelings of the trailing paddler.

Emotions Attached to the Tow Line
I find it unfortunate that such a bad reputation has been attached to the tow rope. While I understand the feelings and see how a slower paddler could feel bad, the fact is, if you chose not to paddle solo, then you will regularly face the possibility that there are people that paddle faster or slower than yourself. Being towed means you are being pulled. How you choose to feel about it is totally up to you. There should be no reason for the negative feelings that come with being towed. Paddling pace is an indication of speed, not a reflection of the quality or worth of a person. Since towing is traditionally used when a person is at a point of not being able to continue on their own, the emotions of not being able to complete the goal are real and justified. However, are those kayakers setting realistic goals when they paddle? Are they setting themselves up for disappointment before the tour begins?

Regardless of one's paddling pace, if a paddler wishes to join a group then they should consider a quote from Star Trek's Spock, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one." The faster paddler should realize they have a valuable resource that is needed in the group. Being far in front of the group, does not fit the definition of group. Nor does trailing behind. Both extremes need to examine their reasons for paddling in a group and be willing to accept the responsibilities they have to the group.

Tow Rope as a Training Method
Perhaps the focus should be for the slower paddlers to think of some group outings as training periods. In weight training there is a method of lifting heavier weights so you can eventually lift the weight on your own. The technique is called spotting. Consider the tow rope as a spotting method. My hope is that we can collectively change the attitudes of the towee not to feel less than.This concept of towing is not to give the towee a free ride. They still have to paddle at whatever pace they can maintain. The tow is a means of adding extra energy without the benefit of a double kayak.

If we are going to tow, then let's quickly review towing systems. The features I have found for an effective, reliable, versatile and comfortable towing system are:

2) A quick release mechanism.
3) A carabiner at the end of the rope to easily clip on and off of the kayak being towed. (Rinse and lubricate the carabiner regularly.)
4) A bungee cord connected to the towing line without significantly affecting the breaking strength of the line. The bungee will help reduce the jerking effect.
5) A pouch to easily store the rope when not in use. The pouch should also allow quick access to deploy the tow line.
1) A tow rope ranging from 20-30 feet. It should never restrict or bind your paddling movement.
6) A handy, adjustable belt to hold all of the above so the tow rope can be used by anyone without special deck rigging. It is very nice to hand the tow rope to another just by pulling a quick release buckle and passing the belt to the new tower who then slips it on and continues paddling.

There are commercially made tow ropes with the above features.* I personally use a tow belt around my waist. Some find it comfortable to have the towing belt around their PFD's about half way up instead of around their waste. Some paddlers with rescue vests equipped with quick release cowtails have connected the tow ropes to their cowtails. They feel it distributes the pulling load over the padding of the vest. While others prefer to have the tow ropes attached to deck rigging. The only way you can know your preference is to give it a try.

Rules for Towing
Regardless of your reason for towing, please keep some rules in mind:

1) Do not tow in the surf zone unless you have the experience to do so. Towing in surf is a specialty skill for only critical situations.
2) Towing in swift water and/or tide races can be very tricky. Again, only in critical situations by very experienced paddlers.
3) Have the quick release mechanism within reach at all times. Know how to use it when upside down. Never tie the rope to yourself or your kayak without a quick release.
4) Do not roll while still connected to a tow rope; you could become entangled in the rope.
5) Consider the length of the tow rope. A tow rope that is too short could lead to your towee passing you in following seas. The larger the following seas the longer the rope needed.
6) When you begin to tow be sure not to pull your partner off balance. Start slow until they are comfortably behind you.
7) Practice towing many times before you need to use a tow in an emergency.

When to Tow
I wish to express my concern that most people wait FAR TOO LONG before using a tow rope. It is much more beneficial to the paddler needing the tow if the tow begins at the first sign of fatigue. It appears many people wait until exhaustion and/or muscle cramp before the tow rope goes on. By that time, you end up towing dead weight rather than assisting a still functioning paddler. Why not have the towee help you and themselves by starting the process sooner. By using the tow rope proactively, we will probably reduce the incidents of emergency tows, and the towee will not have the negative physical effects from working hard to keep up.

We all know when someone starts falling behind. Encouraging him to keep up is not the answer. If he could keep up, he would. Start the towing when he begins falling behind so they can complete the day's paddle and still lift their fork at dinner time. This is an especially critical point on multi-day tours. Overuse injuries can haunt the entire trip. Prevention is the best cure.

When paddling in a group of two or more, it is highly likely that the paddlers in the group will have different abilities, strength levels, equipment and paddling paces. If the paddle plan calls for the group to stay together and cover a certain distance in a given time, then the tow rope should be considered from the onset of the tour. Let's try to eliminate the towing stigma by setting realistic expectations, supportive attitudes at the beginning of the tour. The tow rope is merely a tool. Think of the tow rope as a bond that helps keep a group together. It is a link between the group members so they can share their energy. The tow rope allows you to become a part of the group.

Remember, the tow rope is your friend.

* For additional information regarding towing systems and techniques refer to Roger Schumann's towing articles in the October 1995 issue of Sea Kayaker(Vol. 12 No. 4.)


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