Tows can be broken down into short or long tows. A short tow is usually only a few hundred feet. It's used to move the person out of danger or back to their lost paddle. It needs to be quick and efficient. Long tows are the most common. The distance can be a few hundred feet to a few miles.
There are two short tow categories. One uses a short tow line which is just long enough so the bow of the boat being towed doesn't hit the stern of the tow boat. The other type of short tow is called contact tows and doesn't use any equipment. These tows are used to get a person out of a bad location quickly. An example would be a capsize in a boat channel. You need to move that kayak a couple of hundred feet quickly. The short tow is the answer.
Everyone should practice and know how to do contact tows. Unless the two paddlers have practiced contact tows it will be a hard tow to pull off. The key is to keep the bow of the boat being towed, as close to the tower boat as possible.
Some of our guides are installing a very short tow line on their kayaks. This is used to pick up a lost paddle or boat. This line is only a couple of feet long with a small snap link (mini carabiner type buckle). This line is attached to your boat. How many times have you seen a person capsize and let go of their boat and/or paddle? The short tow line solves the problem of retrieval of lost equipment. It can also be used in a contact tow to help keep the bows together. It runs through the deckline or toggle and clips back onto its own kayak.
The two types of contact tows are bow to bow, which has the bows of both boats in the same direction and bow to stern, which has the bows opposite directions.
Keep the two boats together. The person being towed should edge their boat over to the other boat to help keep the boats together. The drawings show the two boats upright, but the boat being towed should be edging. This is an easy tow to learn, but it needs to be practiced. If the two boats separate, the movement of the water will pull the boat further apart and you will have to stop and re-setup. We find that different boat combinations work better with the different contact tows. Experiment with different combinations to see what works best
Long tows are hard work, but a great workout. It is very important that the tow line is the right length. The length will vary from twenty feet in calm conditions, forty feet in moderate conditions and 50 plus feet in very rough conditions. It's easy to shorten a line, but much more difficult to lengthen it. The reason for such a long line is that in rough conditions you don't want the towed boat to surf into you as it comes down a wave. A long line does add a lot of resistance, so in calm conditions you may want to shorten it.
The key to the long tow is paddling efficiency. You need to get into a groove. Many paddlers find they feel they are at their limit, but get over the hump and into a groove and can go farther. Find a pace you can maintain for many hours. Use your full body. Good trunk rotation and pushing with your feet on the footpegs (as you should always be doing) is even more critical during a long tow.