Paddlecraft rescue and towing

Jim Greenhalgh


In The Ensign Spring 2022, I discussed capsize recovery and stressed how important it is for a paddler to hold onto the boat during a capsize. How do you handle a capsize when you are in the water and separated from your boat? Although capsizing doesn’t happen often, an unexpected capsize can surprise paddlers, causing them to lose their grip on the boat and paddle. This often happens in rough conditions where paddlers cannot retrieve their boat, which quickly drifts away. This situation requires a compound rescue involving additional paddlers and towing to reunite the paddler and boat. First, I’ll discuss towing equipment and techniques. Then, I’ll cover how to reunite paddlers separated from their boats in open water.


Paddling groups occasionally need to employ a simple tow for a paddler who has become exhausted, is unable to keep up or has been injured. A paddler with a serious injury or illness or who has been separated from the boat requires a more complicated tow. To ensure everyone returns safely, smart paddlers carry towing gear and routinely practice different ways to handle these situations.

Towing equipment

You can tow a paddlecraft with a simple piece of line or purchase a more intricate towing rig designed for comfort and safety. Some paddlers make their own using basic parts purchased at any marine supply or hardware store.

Tow belt: The commonly available tow belt shown below has a quick-release buckle. On a long tow, paddlers often switch off the tow belt to rotate between paddlers. The belt, which can be removed quickly in case of emergency or entanglement, includes a small bag where the line is stowed, ready to pay out. A shock cord at the line’s upper end takes up much of the shock incurred when towing another boat, especially in waves. Most towlines have 20 to 50 feet of floatable line terminating with a hook and a small float if needed. The rescuer hooks into any strong rigging on the towed boat’s bow.

Short tow: A short tow, sometimes called a “pigtail,” is a small piece of rigging stowed on a kayak’s deck that can be used for a contact tow. Although you can buy one, most paddlers make their own using a piece of line or strap with carabiners at the ends. Most paddlers create a line three times the width of the deck and secure it to the lifelines. In addition to using it for rescue, you can also use a short tow as a painter, paddle holder, safety tether or something else.

If you make your own towlines, use carabiners designed for salt water made of plastic or marine-grade stainless steel. Don’t use aluminum carabiners as they must use a steel spring, or gate, to operate. When used in salt water, these dissimilar metals cause galvanic corrosion that will clog the carabiner quickly. (Trust me. I speak from experience.) To learn more about galvanic corrosion, take the ABC Marine Electrical Systems course.

Photo demonstrating a single tow used for paddlecraft rescue and towing
Single tow

Towing rescues

The most common tow, a simple single tow, is used when one rescuer tows another paddler using a regular long-line tow rig. It’s usually used when a paddler, maybe a child, has become exhausted, sustained a minor injury or simply can’t keep up with the group. The rescuer hooks into rigging on the bow of the towed paddlecraft. Although each boat is different, typically a rescuer can hook into a bow toggle, handle, lifeline or other available rigging. It’s best to hook into the strongest-looking rigging. Next, the rescuer paddles forward until the line pays out and begins to tow the other boat. In a group, rescuers can change out to rest when the tow covers a long distance.

In a long-distance tow or when towing a paddler who needs assistance, a group can employ a series tow. A series tow is when two or more paddlers hook up their towlines to each other in a daisy chain to provide more power and reduce exhaustion. If a paddler becomes ill or sustains a serious injury and cannot keep the boat upright, the group can use a rafted tow. One rescuer hooks up the injured paddler’s boat using a short tow or pigtail and restrains the individual and boat while other paddlers do a series tow. The injured paddler can also lay over the rescue paddler’s deck if needed.

Contact tows

In a contact tow, the rescuer hooks directly to the boat needing a tow using a short tow or pigtail. Use this type of tow when you need to tow an empty boat back to a capsized paddler quickly or to stabilize an incapacitated paddler during a rafted tow. A pair of paddlers can also use this tow if one becomes exhausted, injured or incapacitated.

Towing a swimmer

Occasionally, you may need to move swimmers from one place to another to get them out of danger or reunite them with their boats. You can do this in several ways. Probably the most common is the bow rescue, often called a “bulldozer.” During this maneuver, a swimmer wraps both arms and legs around the rescue boat’s bow. The swimmer can remain in this stable, safe position while another rescuer retrieves a runaway boat or while you paddle them to a safe location. You can also tow swimmers from the stern of your paddlecraft by having them grasp a handle or rigging.

When a swimmer becomes injured or suffers extended cold water exposure, you may need to get the swimmer out of the water and onto the rear deck, where the swimmer can hold on or be paddled to safety. Unfortunately, the higher center of gravity can cause the rescue boat to become more unstable and make it harder for the rescuer to maintain stability.

Even though all three rescue scenarios decrease boat speed while towing, they are good to practice. Many beach swimmers caught in rip currents or blown away from the beach have been saved by nearby paddlers using these methods.

Three for sea

It’s always much safer to paddle in a group as any rescue involving a tow requires at least one other paddler. In remote open water, a lone paddler has no towing options and could become separated from the boat during a capsize, which could prove fatal. Once separated from the boat, a paddler’s survival time is limited to how long they can swim and hold their head above water while wearing a typical Type III or V (Level 70) paddling life jacket. Without outside intervention, this situation can become fatal for an exhausted paddler.

While paddling in pairs offers a little more safety, it’s still not ideal. If one of the pair capsizes and loses the boat, the remaining paddler, now the rescuer, has a serious decision to make. Who or what do you rescue first, the swimmer or the boat?

Common thought would be to rescue the swimmer first; however, in high winds and rough seas, an empty boat will blow away much faster than a rescuer can paddle while towing a swimmer. In this case, the rescuer should go for the boat first and tow it back to the swimmer. The downside is the possibility of losing the swimmer while trying to recover the boat. In calm conditions, the paddler can rescue the swimmer first and tow the swimmer to the boat. Either way, this tough situation can be avoided by having three or more paddlers.

photo showing paddlecraft towing a paddler on the rear deck.
Towing a paddler on the rear deck causes the paddlecraft to become unbalanced, making the paddler work harder to maintain stability.

A group of three—“three for sea”—is the minimum number needed to effectively manage a rescue situation at sea. This leaves one paddler to tend to a person needing help and another to round up equipment, assist, or call or go for help. When a capsized paddler is separated from the boat, one paddler rescues the swimmer while the other rescues the boat. The paddler rescuing the swimmer has the swimmer hold onto the rescue boat or tows the swimmer to the boat. The other paddler goes to recover the boat. If it’s upside down or filled with water, the rescuer can perform the T-Rescue to dewater and right the boat. Then, the paddler can use a contact tow or a regular towline to return the boat to the swimmer.

It’s easier to tow an empty boat back to the swimmer than to tow the swimmer back to the boat; however, both rescuers can paddle to reunite the swimmer and boat. Afterward, one rescuer can help the swimmer get back into the boat using a heel hook or other re-entry technique while the other retrieves items lost in the capsize, which may include the paddle.

All paddlers—whether using a kayak, canoe, stand-up paddle board or another paddlecraft—should carry towlines and safety gear and regularly practice these rescue skills. Paddling groups can expect to use these skills with a paddler who has capsized, become exhausted or been injured. Although most capsizes aren’t serious, they happen quickly in less-than-ideal conditions and require an immediate response. Smart, well-trained and practiced paddlers should have no problem dealing with these situations and ensuring that everyone comes home safely.

Jim Greenhalgh

Jim Greenhalgh of St. Petersburg Sail & Power Squadron/22 is a senior navigator, vessel examiner, and instructor, having taught boating safety and navigation since 1991. He draws on his vast sail and powerboating experience as a lifelong boater and avid sea kayaker. Jim leads trips for the Kayak Adventure Group, a sea kayaking club based on Florida’s west coast that he co-founded. He also wrote Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft, a must-read for all paddlers.

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