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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

At the End of Your Tether?

The Pros and Cons of Paddle and Boat Leashes

By Tamia Nelson

August 28, 2007

Ever found yourself up a creek without a paddle? If you have, you're in good company. Many paddlers lose their grip from time to time. Rocks, wind, and waves are always waiting for you to falter, and even on Golden Pond it's easy for your attention to wander long enough for your paddle to slip away. Maybe you stopped to snap a photo, or shoot a roll cast under an overhanging limb, or grab a snack. It doesn't matter what the reason was. You balanced your paddle on the gunwales or the deck — just for a second. You turned your head. You heard a splash. And then you watched as your paddle drifted away. It's times like these when you're very glad you have a spare paddle in your boat. (You do, don't you?)

Of course, losing a paddle in heavy whitewater or while you're battling a near gale in the middle of an open-water crossing is a very different affair. You may not have time to grab a spare before you go over. And if losing your paddle is no fun, it's far, far worse to lose your boat. Think it can't happen to you? Good luck. It happens to someone, somewhere, almost every day, and someday it may be your turn. Things don't get much worse, particularly if you're on your own. Self-rescue techniques are hard enough in calm conditions, with your friends standing by, but if you're alone in rough water, without a boat …. I'm sure you get the picture.

Edmund Burke said it best: "Early and provident fear is the mother of safety." That's why prudent paddlers don't venture out alone, and why they also seek ways to insure they never part company from either paddle or boat. Unless they need to, that is. You don't want to swim a rapids alongside a swamped canoe that holds a ton or more of water, do you? I know I don't. In situations like this, you simply can't have too much space. At other times and in other places, though, a lot of us look to strengthen …

The Ties That Bind

Most paddlers call them tethers or leashes, but they're really just another kind of lanyard. They tie paddles to paddlers, boats to paddles, and paddlers to boats. In my experience, canoeists rarely use them — though Nessmuk said he did — but they're common sights in kayaks and sit-on-tops. Outfitters sell them ready-made, but some folks prefer to adapt jet-ski kill-switch lanyards, or they buy surfboard tethers. You could easily make one yourself, of course, and many paddlers do. A length of nylon line, shock cord, or nylon webbing serves as your umbilicus. How long is long enough? Experiment, but remember that the longer the line, the greater the risk that it will entangle your gear — or you. Once you have your tether, you can make connections with knots, snap hooks, mini-carabiners, or hook-and-loop closures (aka Velcro® and its many imitators).

Simple, right? So why don't all paddlers use them? Well, Edmund Burke had the answer: "Early and provident fear." That's the reason. So let's ask ourselves …

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A lot of nasty things, as it happens. I've already noted that you don't want to be tethered to your boat once the two of you part company in whitewater (or in the surf zone, for that matter). Going through the spin cycle in one of nature's washing machines with a one-ton companion at your elbow isn't a recipe for comfort. And there's danger on Golden Pond, too. A long lanyard can easily become a lethal noose. If you've ever twisted a hank of dental floss around your finger and then found it impossible to remove, only to watch your fingertip get redder and more swollen by the second, you'll appreciate the many unpleasant possibilities. In fact, even short lanyards can turn on you without warning. Wedge your blade in a rock crevice at the end of a vigorous stroke and your lanyard may dump you then and there. To add insult to injury, lanyards can also complicate subsequent self-rescue and re-entry maneuvers.

Some commercial lanyards are fabricated from a springy coiled line not unlike the cord on old-style telephone handsets. This reduces the snagging hazard — the lanyard contracts when it's not under tension — but as anyone who's ever twisted a telephone cord knows, there's a downside: the coils can kink, effectively shortening the lanyard and requiring that you spend several tedious minutes untangling things. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

OK. That's the pros and cons in brief. Any …

Parting Thoughts?

Sure. Let's look at it this way. Yes, the ties that bind can bring peace of mind. But they can also strangle you. So if you opt to tether yourself to your paddle or boat, or even if you just tie a paddle to your boat, always be ready to untie the knot. Or cut the tie. And be prepared to do it at a moment's notice. A sharp knife can be the paddler's best friend in a hard chance, but only if it can be deployed with one hand — and with either hand, at that. (You can't be sure that you'll have two hands for the job, and you can't know which hand will be tied up.) A warning: Your knife, though one of the Ten Essentials, is also a constant danger to its user. Above all, keep the edge sharp. Paradoxically, a dull knife is more likely to injure the wielder, in part because it requires that you use excessive force in cutting. And then make certain that your sharp blade is safely sheathed. You might also want to follow the lead of the many divers and sailors who buy a knife with a blunt tip.

Pay attention to the small things, too. Test your snap-links. Do they open smoothly and close securely? If not, look for the reason. Damaged or deformed links should be replaced, though a light dab of grease will cure most lesser ills. Do your hook-and-loop closures hold tight yet still release easily, even when you're wearing gloves? Tired Velcro® sometimes does neither. Test yours by tugging (it should hold) and peeling (it should yield readily). Now eliminate all the little nuisances that will quickly grow into major pains. Shorten overlong lanyards — this is essential for safety — and lengthen those that are too short. Anchor your paddle lanyard so it doesn't slide down the shaft with each stroke. And then quiet any clicking or clanking fittings with foam pads.

You get the idea, I'm sure. But as important as looking after your gear is, it's even more important to heed the familiar adage:

Practice Makes Perfect

The best way to learn if a lanyard (whether paddle or boat or both) is for you is to take it for a test drive. Better yet, try living with it for a while. And don't just paddle. Go out with your friends on a day when the weather smiles and try a few dump-and-recover drills. Is the lanyard more help than hindrance? Or is it more of a pain than a pal? You can't know for sure until you put it to the test, and it's better by far if that test doesn't take place on a wild and windy day on some remote backcountry lake. 'Nuff said?


Maybe not. I suppose I also ought to add a few words about my own take on the ties that bind. So here goes. I've been a believer in tying things to me since I first climbed. (Drop your ice hammer halfway up a frozen waterfall and you've got problems. Moreover, your climbing buddy does too.) I like lanyards, in short. But my love of lines isn't blind. I never use lanyards in whitewater or surf, for example, though when running rapids in an open canoe I lash my spare paddle(s) — I've been known to take two — to a thwart with a short length of Velcro. On the other hand, I almost always tie my working blade to my kayak on open water, and on blowy days I usually clip my boat to my bod, as well. In fact, if I'm paddling an inflatable, I never fail to clip in. (Once again, rapids and surf are the exceptions.) I've learned the hard way that nothing scuds away from you faster than an overturned inflatable, no matter how light the breeze.

What's the bottom line? Am I suggesting that you follow my lead? Nope. This is one place where each reader has to do her (or his) own benefit-cost analysis. It's like Jim Davidson and John Rugge said in The Complete Wilderness Paddler: If you're going to make mistakes, it's best to make your own. And nowhere is this truer than when you're taking the measure of the ties that bind.

The twinge you get when you watch your paddle drift out of reach is nothing compared to the despair you feel when you see your boat blowing away from you faster than you can swim. Carry a spare paddle, by all means. That's only common sense. But weigh the pros and cons of tying yourself to your gear, too. There are no guarantees, of course. The ties that bind can be shackles as well as servants. But there's no disputing one thing, at least: if you're at the end of your tether, it can be mighty comforting to know your boat's at the other end. Think about it.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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