Ropes for Throwing

Throwing bags are best in an emergency, but an old jib sheet can cover a lot of water.


We all know the drill. A new arrival pulls toward an unfamiliar marina or fuel dock with a breeze blowing, and they can’t quite get in. An inexperienced crew is rapidly dispatched to the bow and instructed to throw a line to a helper on the dock. They grab a coil of line, heave it . . . and it lands in a tangle in the water, scarcely halfway to the dock. Confusion erupts and the boat kisses a piling or nearby boat. If and when the line is successfully thrown, it’s a wet tangled mess aimed at your head.

Or perhaps there is a person in the water and you need to deliver get a line to them or a throwable (Type IV) flotation. This presents the same challenge, except the weather may be worse and the thrower even more stressed. What will work the first time?

What We Tested

We started by tossing a -inch double-braid line. We then tested ring buoys, horseshoe buoys, and a Lifesling II. Finally, we tested pure throwing devices, including a monkeys fist with a floating line and a whitewater rescue throw bag.

We’ve tested many of these devices previously, but never in this context. In previous tests, we tested at a variety of improved throwable aids. We also carried out a comprehensive report on-the-water tests of man overboard retrieval techniques. These and other reports on man-overboard equipment and procedures are also covered in our eBook Man Overboard Prevention and Recovery, available in our online bookstore.

Ropes for Throwing

Photos by Drew Frye

How We Tested

First, we tested for pure distance in a parking lot in calm conditions. Each device was graded for distance and average accuracy (without practice). We then took them out on the water near a swim platform in a 15-knot breeze and repeated the testing, both downwind and in a crosswind.


Always flake the line out in front of you and watch your feet. (The rescue bag does not require this). Although the extra deck elevation (5 feet on the test boat) added range, working around the rigging and keeping their balance still put testers at a disadvantage.

Dock Line

Technique matters. An experienced hand can dependably cast -inch line 50 feet in a breeze and 70 feet in calm conditions with good accuracy. An inexperienced hand, without instruction, often fails at 20 feet, the line wrapping itself into a huge tangle.

The advantage of a thick line is that it is large enough to pull the boat into the dock, whereas thinner lines might only work as a messenger for a larger line. The disadvantage is the skill required and the risk of the line sinking, where it could get caught in a prop or rudder if the slack is not controlled. Additionally, an MOB would have trouble getting to it before it sinks, unless the throw is very well-which it often was).

Would we use it in an MOB situation? Yes, in a heartbeat when range and accuracy matters. We would use the single coil method and pay close attention to not get it caught under the boat.

Against our instincts, we would not put on knot in the end, since the knot or even a splice can jam in the rudder. (See Tips and Techniques sidebar.)

Bottom line: This is the Best Choice for getting a line to a dock, though practice is required.

Monkeys Fist

The greatest benefit is that everyone is comfortable throwing a softball. Unfortunately, a monkeys fist is not meant to be thrown as a softball. Spun around our head as a bolo, as it is supposed to be done, we could heave it 60 feet downwind, but we could only reach about 30 feet with a beam wind.

A monkeys fist works best with thin line, and skinny line offers little for a person to grip. Also, the fist can be a hazard when thrown at a dock full of boats and people.

Bottom line: Recommended to have on board. One of the best tools for use as a messenger line.

Taylor Made Fender (3- by 13-inch)

At the suggestion of an ice fisherman, we combined this with 50 feet of floating line and gave it a whirl, much like the monkeys fist. It was awkward to handle on deck, but it flew about 40 feet, was more accurate than the Type IV devices, and floated well.

Bottom line: This is a good trick for small boats.

Life Saving Equipment

Given the difficulty that our novice testers had throwing lines, we decided to take another look at throwing bags-commonly used for a variety of shore-to-water rescue scenarios.

In both controlled shoreside tests and in real-world mock rescues at sea we found these devices to be a very effective means of making contact with person in the water (see Throw Bags, PS May 2006).

NRS Rescue Bag Wedge

Designed for whitewater rescue, this device is little more than a bag with a handle on each end, a little foam for flotation, and 55 feet of 950-pound test floating line.

A -inch line is impossible to hold onto, but there is a loop at the end. Like throwing coils of rope, the whole weight of the rope is thrown, which adds distance, but there is still friction as the line feeds out of the bag.

There is no need to flake the lines on deck, saving time and tangles in an already chaotic cockpit. Of course, on the second throw, it becomes an ordinary rope with more limited range.

Filling the bag with water to add weight aids throwing. The handle for the swimmer is relatively easy to hold.

NRS also makes a Rescue Bag, loaded with 100 feet of 3/8-inch line, very similar to the Kent Rescue Throw Bag.

Bottom line: Although the wedge is too small for sailors needs, the larger size bag line should serve well.

Kent Rescue Throw Bag

Much like the NRS Wedge, but scaled up to fit the needs of sailors; 100 feet is the length you need, and 3/8-inch line is easier to hold on to.

Bottom line: Best choice for getting a line to an MOB.

Horseshoe and Life Rings

To our surprise, our range with the horseshoe buoy and ring-type buoy of about the same weight was similar. In a 15-knot wind, the accuracy was similar-poor. We couldn’t pitch either farther than 35 feet in field conditions.

The ring will give more of a wallop if it hits you, but the horseshoe was more likely to be blown off course. We also found the horseshoe easier for the swimmer to get into, whereas you can only cling to the smaller rings (large rings are very good this way).

A throwable device should never have a line attached to it. In our trials, it reduced throwing distance, and in the case of a MOB, the boat is moving away from the person and the line would almost certainly pull it away from them before they could reach it.

A better and well-proven approach is to get the flotation to them, and then use either a Lifesling or floating line to make contact after the boat is under control.

The Lifesling is ineffective as a throwable. It is to be used as the instructions depict-dragged to the user by approaching on a spiral course, so good throwability is not a required attribute.

The type IV cushion went where ever the wind took it and barely counts as a throwable if there is wind. It also drifted down wind nearly twice as fast in the water.

Bottom line: You should not count on being able to cast a Type IV accurately or any meaningful distance in rough conditions.


Keep a minimum 60-foot -inch line readily available, not buried deep in a locker; it can be handy both docking and in MOB situations. Properly pitched, there is no better way to quickly get a line ashore up to 40 feet away. However, any toss over 30 feet is difficult and the skipper needs to give instruction for any toss at all.

The range of the Type IV devices was so poor you should assume they are flotation aids that the MOB must swim to. Anything else is wishful thinking. We have no preference for ring versus horseshoe; the ring is better to throw, and the horseshoe is handier for the swimmer (in the smaller sizes that yachts typically carry-large rings that can be entered are different).

Steer clear of inflatable throw devices. Not a season goes by without a company approaching us with an offer to test an auto-inflating throwable device-we do, and discover the same thing each time.

First, these devices don’t throw markedly better than their always-buoyant (non-inflating) counterparts. Second, the inflatable mechanism presents one more potential failure point. Because the inflation mechanism is often exposed to weather for long periods, the skipper has to abide by stringent inspection routine to ensure it will work when you need it-and even then there is no guarantee.

The monkeys fist is the tool of choice for sending a messenger from shore, but on the boat it is awkward to use.

Without question, the throw bag was the winner for MOB recovery. Best range, accurate, fast, and easy to understand. And while throwing a line is better for docking-type situations, this device might come in handy at the dock as well.

Ropes for Throwing

The test items included, from left: a 3/8-inch rope, a seat cushion, a monkey’s fist, a ring buoy, a horseshoe buoy, and the Lifesling II.

Drew Frye
Drew Frye, Practical Sailor’s technical editor, has used his background in chemistry and engineering to help guide Practical Sailor toward some of the most important topics covered during the past 10 years. His in-depth reporting on everything from anchors to safety tethers to fuel additives have netted multiple awards from Boating Writers International. With more than three decades of experience as a refinery engineer and a sailor, he has a knack for discovering money-saving “home-brew” products or “hacks” that make boating affordable for almost anyone. He has conducted dozens of tests for Practical Sailor and published over 200 articles on sailing equipment. His rigorous testing has prompted the improvement and introduction of several marine products that might not exist without his input. His book “Rigging Modern Anchors” has won wide praise for introducing the use of modern materials and novel techniques to solve an array of anchoring challenges.