How to Select a Sea Kayak Tow Belt System

SeaTec Rescue Belt

How to Select a Sea Kayak Tow Belt

Towing a sea kayak is risky business. Ropes and boats connected to people is indelibly linked, (pun intended) to trouble. Once you have a rope connected to a boat shenanigans can not be far behind, literally. Having done more towing in the last two years than I did in my first five years of paddling combined is probably a tell-tale sign that looking into a good tow belt is a good idea.

There are three basic systems for towing available to sea kayakers.

  • Deck mounted rig: these take some epoxy work on a glass boat to get it set up but works really well the strain goes to the boat, and not the paddler. Downside is, you can’t trade off. and if you sell your boat time to epoxy up a new tow rig. My friend Jim Svensson has one on his NDK Explorer. It’s a sweet rig that he used often on our Apostle Islands trip. Also when you have to unlink, you have to depend on a good float to find your line again. The rope is behind you and restowing it is a pain at sea.
  • PFD Mounted Rig: these are great because it’s one less piece of gear to have strapped on. Problem is the strain on the body is too high for long tows.
  • Belt Mounted Tow: these systems seem to be the most flexible with the strain on the paddler coming at the right part of the body. They do have disadvantages to the deck mount. But a good belt tow can be traded off and will work really well in a variety of conditions.

One note that I always like to offer is to mention that Inuit Kayakers had a couple of things right. They put the weight on the boat, not on the paddler. So all the lines, the harpoons, the norsaq all went on the kayak. This presents its own problems, entanglement, windage etc. I am personally not a fan of deck mounted tows, despite this claim. Mainly because once you have it installed you’re guaranteed to need a belt to swap with another paddler, or you’re going to get a new boat. May as well buy a good belt system.

Here are a few things to consider when selecting a tow rope belt.

First and foremost is the storage of the rope when not in use. Believe it or not you aren’t towing most of the time. Thank God. So the storage of the rope has to be compact and flat so as not to interfere with your paddle stroke, your roll, and your general mobility. Bulk is friction and therefore resistance to all of your strokes. This said if you can make what you put on your body small and compact do it. This was my main complaint with the Salamander rig I bought almost seven years ago. Very bulky, very big, and interfered with everything, it was literally always in the way.

Second the carabiner should not have hooks, teeth, or other obstructions that otherwise interfere with cleanly clipping in to the deck lines of a sea kayak, or in the case of surf boats-the end toggles of a boat. The carabiner should be at least stainless steel, if not aluminum. We are in the Great Lakes obviously and so we don’t have to worry about corrosion of the components quite as much. The aluminum will be lighter and won’t sink the line as much. A big biner will be easier to operate in cold conditions with gloves, mittens, or cold hands. Brian Nystrom has a great web album of some modifications he performed on his Northwater rig, the picture below is of the carabiner he replaced.

Keylock carabiner

Third length of tow, a good length is probably somewhere between 30-40 feet. There is certainly some debate amongst coaches on 40 being too long, and 30 being too short, but all would agree that 50 is way too long. Longer lines than 40 presents problems for distance between the victim and the sled dog. Shorter presents problems in surf when towing a sea kayak. Sometimes you want a wave between you and the boat, but not quite two waves. If a sea kayak you’re towing is surfing towards you on a short rope less than 30 it’s not a good day.

Fourth if you can find a rig with a floating line get it. But not at the expense of the other items I mentioned. It saves time to not have to haul line up from the deep.

Fifth, make sure there is a good quick release. Being able to let go in a hurry is sometimes very critical. You may have to customize it to make sure you can find it quick. Some industrious souls have rigged wiffle balls and other devices to make them easy to find. Just make sure they don’t get in the way of paddling and cause you to release the belt accidentally.

After watching some other folks use their tow systems, and bemusedly scratching my head at my reluctance to replace my old Salamander rig, I decided to get a Sea Tec from Northwater. Its gotten rave reviews from a number of BCU Coaches, and a number of folks I paddle with use them. The bag seems big enough to re-stow quickly, (biggest pet-peeve of salamander) and when re-stowed on land it repacks small enough to be out of the way for paddling.

If I’ve forgotten or overlooked something please feel free to add a comment to the post.

Here’s to hoping I won’t have to use it-yeah right!

One Comment

  1. I received two comments from that I thought were helpful

    #1 Northwater has developed a coaming mounted tow, which is better than nothing, but only just. The coaming tow is supposed to take the stress off of your body and put it on the boat. I have not used it, but I could say that I wouldn’t trust my life or my friends life to it. If it slips off the coaming what happens? If the coaming starts to stress what happens next?

    #2 Here is a great article on the pros and cons of two different rigs.