Throw Lines!

In my previous life, before seeing the light of SUP, I used to canoe a little bit.  OK, I used to canoe and kayak an awful lot, and one of the many bits of gear you come across in the canoe and kayak world (especially if you paddle moving water) is the throw line or throw bag.

So what is a Throw Line?

Simply put, a throw line is bag with some rope in it that you can throw to a person in the water and then pull them to the bank. Simples!

There’s a little more to it than that, but not much.

The bag

The line is contained in a bag for a few reasons:

It keeps the rope contained – the last thing you need on the water is several meters of rope tangling up your board.

It allows you to throw the rope – throwing the rope and the bag is a lot easier than throwing just a rope.

It allows an easier re-throw – the bag is designed to be filled with water to help throw without repacking the bag.

The Rope

The rope in a throw line is called float rope.  It’s rope that floats.  It’s usually a man made fibre such as polypropylene.

Different bags use different sized rope, usually around 6-8mm.  The thicker the rope, the stronger the rope and the easier to grip.  The strength shouldn’t be an issue in SUP, as its only really a concern when rescuing pinned canoes in moving water, and they can weight a huge amount when full!. Whilst the thicker rope is easier on the hands, it also makes for a larger bag, so there’s always a compromise to be made.

Safety First

As with a lot of safety equipment, there’s no substitute for experience and proper training. I’d strongly recommend going on a Swift Water Rescue Course to learn more.  It a fun, if slightly scary way to practice a lot of different rescue techniques.

River Knife

If your going use a throw line, always carry a suitable knife.  Ropes and water can be a dangerous combination, and moving water is worse.  Knifes can be either fixed or folding, with or without points. Whatever you choose, it’s worth making sure it’s useable with one hand.

Clean Line Principle

Apart from the bag, the line you’re using shouldn’t contain any knots or loops.  The idea is that there is nothing to snag on the river and cause a hazard. Some lines, and we’re talking a few years ago now, had a handle at both ends.  This is now considered very bad practice as it can easily snag on rocks or branches.

Any loops on the bag should also be small enough not to get a hand through to cause an entrapment.  Usually, loops are only big enough to fit a carabiner through.

Throwing the line

So then, you’re stood by the river, wearing your BA (remember, the riverbank is the most dangerous part of the river!) and you see a fellow paddler floating in the river.  What do you do?


First things first – get their attention. Ideally, you shouldn’t need to use your throw line. If you can, get them to swim close to the shore and possibly use you paddle if needed to assist.

Throwing the Line

if they can’t make it to the bank, it’s time to unleash the throw line.  There’s several different ways to throw the line, but in all cases you need to asses your surroundings.

Are you on stable footings? Are there any hazards the casualty will hit?  Are there any obstacles you could hit with the line?

Underarm or Overarm?  Throwing underarm is the usual, recommended way of throwing.  It’s quite slow, but more accurate.  If there are any trees, overhead branches or other things in the way, you may not be able to throw underarm, in which case an overarm throw is needed.  This can either be like bowling a ball or throwing a grenade, or like throwing an American Football.

In all cases, you undo the top of the bag and pull out the loose end.  If the water is fast flowing, it may be worth passing this piece of rope around you back to give you more grip and stopping power.  Once you’ve got the loose end out, DONT LET GO OF IT!!!

Holding the neck of the bag, you are looking to throw the bag over the casualty so they can easily grab hold of it.

Once they’ve grabbed hold, you need to brace as the rope will go taut, and they will swing in towards the bank, or you can pull them towards either be pulling the rope, hand over hand, or by walking up the riverbank.

If you need to rethrow the line, quickly pull it in and fill the bag with water, then just throw the bag – the line should follow it quite easily.


Once your rescue is over, you need to repack your line.  There is no special technique needed, but it’s usually easiest to put the line over your shoulder and stuff the line a handful  at a time into the bag.

Swimming on a line

Being the casualty is something that is very often not practiced, but can make a huge difference to a rescue.

If you are on the receiving end of a line, try not to wrap it around your wrist or hand (or anywhere else) – you may need to let go in a hurry.  Ideally, you need to be swinging on your back and grasp hold of the bag on your chest.  Try and get the rope under your shoulder so the rope lifts you slightly when it goes taut.  At no point should you try and clip yourself onto the rope.

Once you’re at the bank, you shouldn’t let go until your safely back onto dry land and safe.



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