In order to tow you will need to be equipped. The basic equipment is a tow line and a knife. We have been testing many different types of tow systems, and have not found the perfect system. The four basic systems are tow belt, over the shoulder tow bag, PFD with tow harness, and boat attached tow system. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages.
The tow belt is the most popular system. Many companies offer variations of the system. What they have in common is a quick release belt, 30-50 feet of line with a carabiner at one or both ends. The danger of this system is the belt can get turned around so the quick release is out of reach or that the quick release gets buried under your clothing or PFD. For this reason, it is good for both ends of the line to have a carabiner and to have a knife attached to your PFD. The disadvantage of the tow belt is you are towing from a low point and the line has a tendency to get caught on equipment on the stern deck and/or the stern itself. The bag and line opening should be large enough so it is easy to repack the tow line quickly.
Salamander has the largest line of throw bags and tow systems. The Keel Hauler Pro is the tow belt that most of our staff have used, but in late 2003 Salamander has changed the carabineers from stainless steel as pictured to anodized, wire-gate carabineers. These carabineers are large and does not hold up as well in salt water. The indent where the closed wire-gate sits also interferes with hooking and unhooking the tow line. The old carabineers also had an eye so that the line could not fall off the carabineer. Atlantic Kayak Tours will now move to another tow line. Lets hope Salamander will change back to the stanless carabineers.
For easy conditions the Keel Hauler works fine. It is a compact system at a reasonable price. We went to Salamander in 1996 and asked them if they would build a professional tow belt system. We had a prototype at the time but for the next two years we continued to test it, refine it and have Salamander build another prototype until we got it right. Finally in 1998 it came out (but didn't make it into the catalog). For anyone paddling in open water, rougher conditions or working as a professional guide the Keel Hauler Pro was the best waist warn tow system on the market until Salamander changed it in 2003. The unique feature of the Keel Hauler Pro is it has two tow lines (of different colors), one short (15'), one long (43'). The reason for two tow lines in one belt is that under many situations you only need to tow a short distance or to recover lost equipment after a wet exit. This tow belt has many small but good features not included in the Keel Hauler including; quick release knob, adjustable d-rings to hold the carabiners near the front of the belt, bungie cord at the neck opening. Salamander tow belts are of very high quality.
When we started towing we used the over the shoulder tow bag. The advantages of our over the shoulder tow bags are it is small (so it fits in a PFD pocket), it's inexpensive, it tows from a high point (so it does not to get caught on equipment, rudder or the stern of you boat), and it's easy to pass to another paddler when you get tired. There is no a quick release on this system. To remove it you must lift it over your head. It is dangerous in rough conditions. Over the shoulder systems should only be used on easy flat conditions. Some of our guides carry a over the shoulder tow bag as a backup to their other tow system. Many times on long tows we will trade off towing and with this system you just pull it over your head and hand it to another person. If this is your only tow system you are now left without a tow line, which is unacceptable. If it is your backup system you are all right. Its other disadvantage is that it puts more stress on the paddler than the other systems, and some people have complained the line cuts into their shoulder or neck. No one sells this system but it is easily made from a mesh bag forty feet of line, with a carabiner at one end. The loop of line should be sized so when it is over the shoulder you can reach the end of the loop.
It is becoming more common to see PFDs with tow harnesses built in. These were first designed primarily for river paddlers, who only need a short tow line. The advantage of the PFD tow line is you always have it and the quick release is in front of you. In addition, many of them tow from a higher point on your back which helps to keep it from getting caught on equipment, rudder or the stern of the boat. Kokatat (see photo below) and Lotus has PFDs with tow systems designed for both river and sea kayaking. Most of these are Coast Guard approved as Type 5, which is for special use. The following is a quote from the Kokatat catalog.
"The ProFIT is a "special use" PFD, intended for people specifically trained by certified instructors in swiftwater rescue. We encourage you to ask your dealer about training in rescue technique before purchasing any rescue equipment"
Remember towing can be dangerous. You need to practice in varying conditions. You must be comfortable with capsizing and release your tow system while underwater. If you tow you need to have a knife available to cut the line in case of entanglement.
Deck mounted tow systems are very popular with British paddlers and are gaining in popularity here. It uses a quick release cam cleat, fairlead, a bag with the tow line and carabiner (see photo at right). This system puts the least stress on the paddler and may be the safest because the tow line is not attached to the paddler. Its disadvantages are; it stays with the boat, so if you switch boats you don't have it, it rides low so it easily gets caught, and it is hard to repack on the water. Deck mounted systems have longer lines (55 feet) than other systems. Some manufacturers offer this system factory installed as an option.
If the kayak to be towed has deck lines then attach the tow line to the deck line, otherwise you need to attach it to the carrying toggle. Deck lines are usually stronger and in better conditions then toggle lines.