Its a toss up: KwikTek for daysailing, West Marine for offshore cruising.
Late last year, Practical Sailor published its initial report on the crew overboard trials that took place in San Francisco in August 2005 (“COB Recovery—Making Contact,” Nov. 1, 2005). Our correspondent for that article, John Rousmaniere, offered several pieces of important advice in the conclusion. The primary recommendation he made was to “buy a throw bag and practice throwing and repacking it with your crew…” The importance of this cannot be overstated.
Another participant in that four-day trial was Captain Henry Marx, an offshore safety specialist and the proprietor of Landfall Navigation, which sells throw bags as well as a full spectrum of safety gear. Regarding throw bags and safety lines, Marx explicitly states that many of the participants in the trials found these devices to “have a very limited effective range.” That immediately prompted some questions on our part. We wondered: Are some throw bag devices more accurate than others? Do some deploy more easily? And are some of them easier to reuse quickly?
Since only two actual throw bags were examined in that earlier report (along with two similar but more sophisticated products—West Marine’s Inflatable Lifesling and Switlik’s Techfloat), we felt that a test was in order. So, to get a better grasp on the full spectrum of throw bag products, and to offer more explicit recommendations, we tested eight throw bags from seven manufacturers.
The KwikTek Life-line is by far the least expensive and lightest bag in our test ($11). It comes with a quick-release buckle and cinchable drawstring opening as well as instructions printed on the bag. The line is only 50 feet long, so it is not intended to reach as far as the other products PS tested. The polypropylene line inside the bag passes through two donut-like floats made of closed-cell foam.
On the first throw, the Life-line traveled the full 50 feet with perfect accuracy. Our testers were impressed at how smoothly the line paid out of the bag. Coiling or gathering the line is somewhat difficult because of the inherent behavior of the polypro line; it doesn’t coil easily without twisting, and those twists create friction and the possibility of tangles as the line pays out. We weren’t surprised when subsequent throws didn’t travel as far.
The instructions dictate leaving water in the bag for rethrows so that the weight of the water will help the bag fly farther. This worked, but it wasn’t always easy to keep the water in it during the throws.
Throw bags aren’t meant to be repacked in the heat of an emergency, but in order to prepare them for the next man-overboard situation, you should carefully repack them. The KwikTek is easier to repack than most of the other test bags despite its narrow diameter and the line’s stiff nature.
The Life-line averaged 35 feet with Good accuracy.
Marsars makes several sizes and models of throw bags. We tested the 75-foot 2-in-1 Water Rescue Throw Bag. This bright-yellow bag has a quick-release buckle and a cinchable drawstring opening. A large plastic ball about the size of a softball is threaded on a soft, braided polypro-nylon line. On the initial rescue toss, the rescuer is meant to hold the ball with the non-throwing hand while using the nylon straps with the quick-release buckle as a handle to throw the bag to the victim. On the rethrow, the rescuer holds the bag in the non-throwing hand while tossing the coiled line and the ball to the victim.
Our testers initially threw the Marsars incorrectly, assuming that the ball was meant to be thrown on the first toss. Bill Davis, Marsars’ president and owner, told us after the fact that the ball is intended only for rethrows.
In our tests, the Marsars bag averaged 43 feet with Good accuracy. The ball did slip out of a tester’s hand on one throw; having a different texture on the ball’s surface would improve handling, in our opinion. And if you upend the bag after removing the ball for the first throw, much of the line will spill out of the bag prematurely.
The ball does offer the potential for greater distance and better accuracy on rethrows, but only when we took time to ensure that the line was neatly coiled prior to throwing. The line on the bag we tested also retained a fair amount of water, making it heavier and more difficult to throw. Davis said Marsars has already begun replacing the poly-nylon line with an all-poly version. This likely will improve the product’s performance. Davis also said the company will begin including instructions with this product.
NRS Rescue / Pro Spectra
NRS makes more than a dozen models of throw bags, but PS opted to test the two most appropriate for use on board sailboats: the NRS Rescue and the NRS Pro Spectra. Both are fitted with quick-release plastic buckles for mounting; both have cinchable drawstring openings and flexible plastic tubing covering the loops at either end of their respective lines, as well as mesh panels for faster drainage.
The NRS Rescue averaged 35 feet with Good accuracy. This bag comes with more than 70 feet of line, which isn’t necessarily an advantage unless you’re throwing from a large vessel with significantly high freeboard, or you intend to trail the line astern as you circle the boat around the victim. When you retrieve all of that line for subsequent throws, it takes several seconds longer to coil than the products with shorter lines.
The NRS Pro Spectra, the most expensive product in this test, flew 32 feet in our first toss, but then stopped abruptly. We discovered an overhand slip knot had kept the remainder of the line from paying out of the bag. Subsequent throws achieved an average of 40 feet with Good accuracy. After repacking the bag, the Pro Spectra flew 48 feet with perfect accuracy.
The line on this product is Spectra, so it absorbs no water, but because of its small diameter (1/4 inch), it’s more difficult to grip and would likely be harder on the rescuer’s hands once the victim’s full weight was at the other end. Also, both NRS products have long drawstrings that on one occasion got tangled in the line when we coiled it for successive tosses. Both products have lifetime guarantees.
Plastimo Rescue Line
Rescue Line comes with a rigid plastic float threaded on the line near the end that is rove through the bottom of the bag. The school-bus-yellow bag is PVC-coated nylon, and its opening closes by way of a hook-and-loop strap. There are also diagramed instructions printed on the bag. At almost 19 inches in length, this is the longest device tested, and one of the most narrow. According to Steven Paley, president of Navimo USA (Plastimo’s U.S. distributor), this is a one-toss product. “It is designed to be thrown only when fully packed,” Paley said. It is meant to be thrown once to a victim while the boat circles around to pick the victim up, much like a Lifesling is operated.
Our testers’ first toss was right on the money, and the bag flew a full 50 feet. Disregarding Paley’s words, our testers gathered the line and attempted to rethrow the Rescue Line. Those unpacked tosses weren’t accurate because the empty bag and the line are quite light, meaning that it won’t travel very far, even with the plastic float inside. Also, the polypropylene line tends to twist on itself naturally, creating some friction.
The manufacturer claims that this product can be thrown accurately, even in strong winds. We didn’t get the opportunity to test that assertion, but when we repacked the bag and threw it on land, the Plastimo Rescue Line sailed right at the target, covering nearly all 50 feet each time. Repacking the line into this bag is somewhat more difficult than the other products because the bag’s opening is considerably smaller than most, though just a half-inch smaller than that on the KwikTek. Plastimo also makes a rail-mounted stainless-steel basket for storing the Rescue Line.
Seattle Sports Slant Six
The Seattle Sports Slant Six Throw Bag has two enhancements not found on other products. The plastic buckle used to affix the bag to a rail or elsewhere on deck is also a shrill whistle. And the mouth of the bag is fitted with finger loops to facilitate repacking. Our testers found that practice is needed to make good use of this feature, but ultimately it can speed up repacking time. This bag also has the largest line loop of any we tested, which we found made it easier for the receiver to grasp.
(PS previously reported on this product, see “Slant Six Throw Bag” Chandlery, Nov. 15, 2005.)
The Slant Six averaged 40 feet of distance in our tests, whether it was thrown packed or unpacked, and had Good accuracy. The line didn’t pay out smoothly on our initial toss, which affected the distance, but on subsequent repacked throws, the product worked smoothly. The line—16-strand, polypropylene plait with a single core—has a soft hand, and is easy to coil, which means quicker rethrows.
Stearns Rescue Mate
Stearns’ Rescue Mate throw bag comes in three different line lengths (50, 70, or 100 feet). This bag has a quick-release buckle and a cinchable drawstring opening, along with a reflective stripe and built-in foam flotation. The line is 3/8-inch, braided polypro.
On our first toss, the line inside the bag tangled at the bag opening after traveling only 15 feet, and actually pulled the bitter end out of the tester’s hand. After hitting a few more snags and repacking the bag, we pulled the line out and found a significant tangle, one that would not pass through the opening.
We repacked the line and tried again. This time, the bag traveled 45 feet, and the line paid out smoothly, though the accuracy was only Fair.
The initial performance is disturbing, and though we’d like to regard it as an anomaly, we found the same issue with one of the other two Rescue Mates that Stearns sent us for testing.
Rescue Mate did perform well after we repacked its line, averaging 40 feet with Fair accuracy on throws both packed and unpacked. There is a clear lesson here: Practice with these devices before they’re needed; doing that will ensure that you pack them yourself.
West Marine Deluxe
West Marine makes its Throw Rope in two sizes: one with a 50-foot line and one with a 70-foot line. We tested the latter, the Deluxe Throw Rope. The bags on both have a cinchable drawstring opening, a quick-release buckle on the strap for mounting, and SOLAS reflective tape sewn to the bag for nighttime visibility. The 2006 models have bright yellow bags, and have printed instructions sewn onto the bag. Unlike most of the other test products, West does not use metal grommets where the end of the line comes out of the bottom of the bag, so there’s nothing to corrode or rust.
On the first toss, the Deluxe Throw Bag traveled 55 feet and was right on target. The line paid out smoothly. Successive tosses didn’t travel as far, but the accuracy was always Good or better. Our testers found this line the easiest to handle, and by using the bag’s quick-release buckle and strap as a handle for tossing, this bag performed most consistently in terms of accuracy and distance. West’s choice of line is the largest diameter (product literature states 3/8 inch, but the line we tested measured 7/16 inch), so it does retain some water, but that didn’t hinder its performance.
Due to its design, this bag offered the least resistance when pulled back to the boat. In rescue attempts, that’s significant as it cuts down on rethrow time.
The Seattle Sports Slant Six, Plastimo, Marsars, and NRS Rescue all performed well overall and have specific features that we like, but the KwikTek and the West Marine Deluxe were the standouts.
Those with lines that deploy most smoothly out of the bag—the KwikTek, Plastimo, and West Marine—do offer an advantage in accuracy and distance, but mostly on the first toss. On subsequent throws, all of the products suffer a loss of distance, and most a loss of accuracy.
Some throw bags are better suited to certain boats. If you own a small boat, or you primarily use your boat for day trips, the inexpensive KwikTek Life-line would be the best product for your use, in our opinion. It consistently deployed well out of the bag and threw reasonably well when unpacked. It lacks drainage and doesn’t have any reflective material, but at $11 it’s a good value and our Budget Buy.
If you’re an offshore boater, or your boat is longer than 30 feet, we think you’d be better served by a throw bag with mesh drainage and reflective material. Several of the bags we tested worked well enough, but we found West Marine’s Deluxe Throw Rope to have the most consistent performance. Yes, it’s the second-most expensive, but we think it’s worth it.
• KwikTek, 800/624-1297, www.kwiktek.com
• Marsars, 800/341-9500, www.marsars.com
• NRS, 877/677-7370, www.nrsrescue.com
• Plastimo, 866/383-1888, www.plastimousa.com
• Seattle Sports, 800/632-6163, www.seattlesportsco.com
• Stearns Inc., 800/697-5801, www.stearnssafety.com
• West Marine, 800/685-4838, www.westmarine.com