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Tow Tether Danger Highlighted by Recent Accident

Posted: 02/25/2019
By: Charlie Walbridge

Nancy Kell, a very experienced Mid-States kayaker, died on February 24th after flipping in a Class II rapid on West Virginia's Red Creek. There were a number of strainers in the vicinity above and below the water. One of them snagged her tow, pulled her out of her boat, and held her under water. She was with a very experienced crew but they could not reach her quickly enough to save her life.

Equipment snags are a real risk. (People have been fatally trapped by their sprayskirt and life vest in other accidents!) In the light of this accident, I strongly urge anyone using a cowtail, pigtail, or tow tether to recheck your setup, and to consider whether wearing a tow tether is worth the risk.

Be certain that your tether releases cleanly at both ends. Do not attach the front carabiner to a non-releasable point, like a pocket or the quick release strap. Ms. Kell did this, and it may have been a contributing factor. Apparently many current rescue PFD designs to not feature a front release point! Do not attach the tether to the rear of your PFD with a non-locking carabiner, as that may inadvertently clip into a rope. Use a solid ring or locking carabiner.

The tether should fit very snugly, without sagging, but the photo shows that Ms. Kell did that, and was snagged despite her precautions! The harness release should be quick and foolproof. Practice harness releases under pressure before using it on the river. 

Finally, remember that any additional strap is a potential snag hazard. Ask yourself if the usefulness of a tow tether is worth the added risk, especially on small creeks with strainer hazards. Carry it in a PFD pocket or dry bag if necessary.  

Link to Accident Report in the AW Database:

Photo by Jeff Macklin 

From Evan Stafford: Definitely an important safety lesson that seems like a tiny thing until you're snagged on your tow tether. I've had issues with those things for a long time and watched a friend have a near miss from a separate issue with them, which is clipping into a boat trying to recover it in serious whitewater. He couldn't get to shore in a high water class IV+ section and by the time he tried to pull his release and realized the boat floating next to him wasn't going to provide any tension for him to release it, it was too late and he was entering the lead-in to a long class V+ rapid. He swam into a very sticky river wide hole with the boat still attached to his tether, even though he'd pulled the release almost a minute before. When he went deep on about his third or fourth recirculation he finally pulled free from the boat as it remained in the hole and he continued down swimming a 1/4 mile of extremely gnarly whitewater. I had a rope to him about 1/3 of the way down the rapid but as he grabbed it the violence of the scenario twisted him around and it wrapped around his neck so he let go and continued to swim to the bottom of the rapid. He managed to pull himself to shore before we caught up to him at the bottom of the rapid and he survived with only a bruised body and ego. I haven't worn a tow tether since. 
It frustrates me that they are sold as "serious" rescue equipment when they are really best used for rescuing gear in class II whitewater or below. I've never needed to use mine in a time sensitive situation where I couldn't have just pulled it out of my pocket to ferry a boat across a river or as an attachment point to myself. Seems like Nancy was a strong community member and her loss will be felt for a long time. I will do the rounds with your article here so that hopefully we can reach many people with your message about the dangers of tow tethers and how to use them properly. 
Stephen Wright Charlie, may I humbly point out another compounding factor in many of these underwater entrapment situations? It's almost never talked about, but I believe that it's more important than tow-tether use when it comes to over-all safety. People need to know that wearing brightly colored gear DRASTICALLY increases their chances of being seen if they're ever trapped underwater. Orange, white, yellow=more visible. As someone who does a lot of squirt boating and filming squirt boating, I know how quickly darker colors become invisible in just a little murky water. Red and black just aren't easy to see underwater. 
I wish that gear companies would stop offering rescue PFD's with large black panels in them, and that more kayakers would choose to see gear color as a legitimate safety issue. Many of these situations have occurred when a trapped kayaker just can't be located in time--even as rescuers were within a few feed of them. If we would stop buying darker gear, manufacturers will stop making it.
From Jeff Calhoun via Facebook: Please Do NOT wear tow tethers that aren’t 100% detachable from your PFD. Even with a quick release, a tow tether is vulnerable to dangerous snags in wood infested whitewater. There was a fatality due to a tow line snagging on a strainer in class 2-3 yesterday. Sorry in advance for the Monday morning Quarterbacking but I tell people about this all the time, and yet it’s still a widespread practice among intermediate boaters to wear and use a tow tether on whatever river to rescue your friends boats when they swim. Even if you are experienced in using a tether I think It is unnecessarily risky to wear one on a creek with strainers. The risk in that environment far outweighs the benefits. I prefer to have a sling underneath my skirt (definitely NOT wrapped around on top of the skirt), or in a PFD pocket because we usually have to get out of my boats to retrieve a swamped boat. Personally I almost never wear one except the rare instances teaching beginners on the safe and strainer free Potomac. I see a lot of people wearing them loose, flopping around, with the carabiner clipped to themselves or the PFD, rather than clipping back to the quick release harness. Please learn from this tragedy and check yourself, and check your friends.



Kevin Colburn

Asheville, NC

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