Tethered to your boat?

I’d never heard of this idea until now, but it makes sense to me, especially for people who kayak offshore, and even more so for those who do that alone. Not really necessary if there is no wind, but in windy conditions a kayak (or other boat) will be blown downwind surprisingly fast. A swimmer has no real chance of catching up. Even if there is some rope entanglement, better that than stuck a mile offshore without your kayak, IMHO.

I think I like the longer line. In rough windy conditions it would not be fun to get hit by your wind-tossed boat, or held underwater (even briefly) by the pull of a short tether.

Thanks for the great ideas!

One of the worst calamities that can befall a cold water paddler is to loose his or her boat. This can happen because it blows away, it sinks, or the paddler is unable to reenter it. While paddlers should definitely “hold onto their boats” when they wet-exit, relying on that as your only safety net is a bad idea. I’ve described that here: http://www.coldwatersafety.org/Rule5.html#rule5Case2

Many paddlers cite fear of entanglement as their reason for not using a boat tether. It’s an understandable concern if you’re accustomed to using a long, small-diameter paddle leash, but for me it’s a total non-issue.

My boat tether has a working length of 25 inches (63cm), and as pictured above, one end attaches to my PFD and the other end clips into a stainless steel ring that runs on a line across my foredeck. It doesn’t impede a wet exit from my small ocean cockpit or interfere in any way with a smooth reenter and roll. For the record: you can’t get entangled in a short length of 9mm marine-grade elastic.

Since the leash isn’t long enough for an assisted rescue, I unclip when the other paddler has a firm grip on my boat. I also unclip when launching or landing in surf, but otherwise I remain tethered – and happily so, particularly in windy conditions, in tide races, and when surfing offshore bars.

Finally, some paddlers maintain that since they’ll never let go of their paddle in a capsize, they’re effectively tethered to their boats with their paddle leash. Maybe, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d want to bet my life on.

The forces trying to separate paddler from boat can be huge at times - particularly with a loaded or waterlogged boat in rough water. That really is a situation in which a paddler would be justifiably concerned about getting tangled up, jerked around, and really hurt by a long, thin leash.


Thank you for posting. I have learned much from the cold water safety site. I also agree a short leash isn’t an entanglement danger.

I have lines on the bow and stern for mooring in marinas etc. If I capsize off shore, I would use them to attach to clip onto my pfd, as I have done in Man Overboard Practise simulating the impossibility of getting back into the cockpit and swimming to shore, otherwise no. I do not use a paddle leash either as it was a royal pain in the posterior.

Tethers are not uncommon among solo outer coast paddlers in BC. Some use them though most do not. Personally, under those circumstances I have a favorable view of them.

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That all assumes that you have not lost hold of your boat. Although it shouldn’t happen in a normal situation, there are a number of reported instances where it has.

I always tether my paddle to my kayak. I learnt this from my days as a wave skier. One evening late dusk and alone I ended up with paddle in hand while my ski was being tumbled shoreward in the wash. I threw the paddle towards the shore and swam after both. Just be careful when you try to retrieve a retreating kayak by grabbing on to a tethered paddle that it doesn’t get pulled through your hands.

I didn’t use tethers for sea kayaking. I have not been using them with the ski but will be doing so next season.

The big differences are these: (1) I could roll the kayak and was therefore less likely to lose bodily contact in the first place; (2) every tipover or dump on a ski = remount, in which losing hold of an untethered ski in rough conditions would be likely; and (3) sea kayaks have perimeter lines and skis do not.

If I was in a remote location, where being separated from my boat was undesirable, I would see no problem clipping my tow system into the deck lines directly in front of the cockpit. Especially if solo.
A bomber roll would be my first choice, but if I did get knocked out of my boat, I’d want to maintain contact with it. You can train yourself all you want to hang onto your boat and paddle, but if you get hit hard enough, I’d say it’s almost impossible to hang onto a heavy boat being swept away.
I’ve had my boat pulled out of my hands in opposing wind, waves and current. I was long boat surfing a local inlet with friends who were able to reunite me with my boat. But I would not want to experience that while making an exposed crossing where I might be hours or days from help.
Sailers have tethers for blue water situations. Surfers almost always have a leash that allows distance from a board, so they don’t get hit by it, but allows a quick retrieval. I guess a sea kayak is somewhere in between. Personally I would want a setup long enough that would allow me to stay clear of my kayak until things settled down enough to be able to retrieve it. Surfers typically use a leash that is the length of the board, with the leash attached to the tail, and a velcro quick release system connected to themselves. They’ll joke about a 10 foot board with a 10 foot equals a 20 foot kill zone. But that 10 foot leash means they’re less likely to get struck by their board. Maybe set up the towline for 10-15 feet of play, would be adequate for a touring length boat, but attached in front of the cockpit where it’s easy to disconnect if needed. And the quick release on the tow belt would always be available as well.
Would I use a tether during a landing in the surf zone? Probably not, I’d just let the waves push my boat into shore, and swim in after it.


MoultonAvery has a good idea with some type of release like that is on my toe belt. This way less chance of entanglement. I will still never us e a tether but for some who like it a quick release of some type would be a good idea to have.

I’m curious as to your rationale for never using a tether. I personally would never use one in a “surf zone”, but for downwind surfing, offshore bars, tide races - I prefer not to lose my kayak like I did one time back in the 80’s: Going For A Little Swim


Simple really, I NEVER come out of my boat in the 10 years now I have been kayaking. There is no such thing as a roll failing for me. I can literally float up into a balance brace and slide up onto my boat. I can roll up over a dozen different ways including one handed. Not trying to brag just explaining my reasoning. Its very rare for me to even being flipped over unless in the big surf I get into on the Great Lakes. I have only done limited ocean paddling. Now I have seen some video of insane surfboard surfing on the ocean which I wouldn’t even try and kayak in. 30 foot plus crazy stuff.

I still don’t like tethers as I have witnessed on two separate occasions of a paddler getting tangled up in it while doing practice recuses on FLAT water. I would think much worse in real conditions. No one who I regularly paddle with uses them .


I’m curious as to your rationale for never using a tether. I personally would never use one in a “surf zone”, but for downwind surfing, offshore bars, tide races - I prefer not to lose my kayak like I did one time back in the 80’s: Going For A Little Swim"

Hi MoultonAvery
I have a question regarding your tether setup? Does it give you enough clearance from the boat if you are getting tossed around? I like the aspect that it’s not long enough to get tangled up in, which must expedite reentering the boat. It’s just that the first time I saw the setup, it looked to me to be a little close for comfort, if you are in rough conditions right next to the boat. But I don’t have first hand experience with it. So I’m wondering how you came up with this configuration? Did you play around with different length tethers before arriving at your current setup?

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Good question. Yeah, we experimented with different lengths. As I think I noted earlier, I don’t tether if I’m in a surf zone. I think you could really get hammered by your kayak in a large breaking wave. We didn’t like the longer tethers because it seemed like getting the line wrapped around some part of your body could be very dangerous. The other issue is what you do with the line when you’re just paddling. We wanted to make sure it was out of the way and easy to manage. So we went with the short tether concept.

When you wet-exit, ideally you’re going to be holding onto your kayak. The tether is just backup in case it gets knocked out of your grasp by a wave or gets blown away before you have a chance to grab it.

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You’re obviously very skilled. I agree about long tethers, which is why I prefer a very short one. My experience was similar to yours in terms of never coming out of my kayak until the day that I did. Also about getting back in with a reenter and roll, which was very reliable, until the day it wasn’t and my kayak blew away.

I think we’re all products of our experiences, and after that one, I wanted a backup plan - the tether filled need. I wrote an article about my experience here: Going For A Little Swim.

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Thank you for sharing and taking the time to reply. Looks like a good setup.

I tethered myself to my kayak today on a solo paddle using my short tow line, it is already on the deck!

Sorry, late to the party.
Greenlanders actually invented drysuits. They looked similar to a tuilik (hooded suit / sprayskirt combo), but with legs. You entered via a hole in the mid-section that was cinched closed. Suit was waterproof and breathable. My understanding is that they were used to jump in the water to deliver the killing blow to a whale and for butchering. The suits were highly sought-after by European whalers of the day.https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/b60851558e2d0504652cfaf9fac06524ea67c14a/0_283_3496_6551/master/3496.jpg?width=300&quality=45&auto=format&fit=max&dpr=2&s=426d1085550bddab729ae51eac4b1e8c

Regarding being sewn in the boat, a Greenland sealskin tuilik has a hem with a stiff leather drawcord that fits tightly over the coaming, but that said, the mantra was “roll or die”.

I use a tether (calf-leash) on my surfski in any kind of wind, and I sometimes use a tether on my 18x in the Everglades Challenge in a strong offshore wind, where the next stop would be Mexico. I use a paddle tether more than a body tether, especially for paddling at night.

Greg Stamer


I didn’t know the Greenlanders had dry suits. Thank you for correcting that assumption.

Hi Greg - What kind of setup do you use on your expeditions? Iceland comes to mind. Good to see you commenting, I miss seeing you at Delmarva. I haven’t been since Angie and I moved out to Washington State. Then the coviper comes along …

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