Painters, Swimtails and Swimlines
What rope or tape do we want attached to our canoe for different types of touring or "trad" boating?

Although we might use one piece of line for multiple functions, there's a difference between using a rope as a painter, as a swimtail, and as a swimline. Our outfitting for these scenarios adds a "personal touch" to our boats, and helps us match our canoe to how we like to operate.


What rope or tape do we want attached to our canoe for different types of touring / "trad" boating? Here we look at why classic options have become popular, including:

  • Painters - as appropriate for tying our boat up, and maybe for rafting

  • Swimtails - short grablines for use whilst swimming with our boat

  • Swimlines - usually throwlines, to be deployed in a self-rescue situation

We might not need any rope or tape on our boats, or we might be happy to add a painter, but secured so that the only bit showing is a short swimtail. At other times, we might even improvise a super-long painter from a swimline. More serious whitewater canoeists might just head out with a swimtail. 

Some cannot imagine using their canoe without a painter, and use their painter all the time. Others see swimlines and swimtails as essential outfitting for self-rescue or for helping others. Others prefer a bare boat, but might carry a way of improvising. Preferred solutions vary!


Painter - a floating rope or tape that is attached to the bow or stern of a canoe (or other boat) and which is used for mooring, transporting, rafting canoes together - or for whatever else springs to mind!

If we routinely transport our vehicle on a roofrack or trailer, a painter can be a blessing... or a curse. If we've got a tie down point which works well with them, great. If not... we've got a lot of tying up and untying to do... and if we forget one time (tying or untying)... we've created a hazard.

Our top tip? If we're outfitting the same way for hugely diverse trips... we're probably missing a trick! 

Once we're afloat, we generally want our painters at least "to hand" - and some canoeists do take a chance on a longer painter staying out of harms way in the end of the canoe, especially if that is down the side of an airbag. The downside? If our painters can trail as far as our feet they are a potential entrapment hazard.  

One alternative to a fixed painter: carry a rope or tape sling with a carabiner (in a pocket or stowed in the canoe) and just clip it to whatever serves our purposes as and when the need arises - which might be amidships in a rescue situation, or even on someone else's canoe.


In many situations where we see them... they're an irrelevance. Others go in more challenging environments without them. So who needs a swimline?

Swimline - a line fitted to a "trad" canoe - stowed ready for deployment - and used in the final seconds of a self-rescue to the side of a river or lake.

In reality, a length of rope attached to our canoe is only going to be serving as a "swimline" in a place where we might want to swim to safety and then either haul our canoe in, or secure our canoe from being swept away.

Many use a 15m or 20m throwline as a swimline. This may be set up to stay in the thowbag unless released. We may be able to swim with our boat using a swimtail, not using the swimline. If we decide to swim for the bank and want to take a line, we pick our moment, then release the swimline from the bag.  

Keeping a swimline secured until we set off for the bank means we are NOT swimming down rapids with 20m of floating line adding to entanglement hazards (for ourselves, but also for anyone coming to our assistance.


Very few of us spend lots of our time lining our boats down rapids, or using tracking-lines to get our boats up and around features… but sooner or later, most of us have to at least improvise some sort of solution. 

If we simply have a long painter on one end of our canoe, our lining and tracking options might be limited, right up until we re-deploy a swimline…

Textbook solutions typically involve a line attached to a bridle (under the canoe) and another line attached to the stern: easiest on a canoe with a dedicated bridle, but not complex to improvise.

If we're just playing at it, or we're in a favourable environment, lining and tracking might work well with swimlines made of 2x ~15m (50') of floating rope. If we're working our boats down rapids on tree-lined ditches, the lining might require nearer 25m (80') of floating rope. Bridles can be improvised with additional length on the bow line, but 3m (10') of 1.8kN (400lbf) static cord as a sacrificial bridle adds versatility and minimises wear on the floating rope.

Some who like swimlines minimise the entrapment hazard by daisy-chaining the floating rope, but that does go against our usual clean-line principle. Others tie them off, leaving a loose end as a short painter. Either way, many of us would recommend also carrying a knife!


How do we stay safe when swimming with our canoe, and when helping swimmers from our canoe?

 In the classic training-example, we find ourselves swimming down a rapid with our canoe. Do we want 20m of floating line wrapping around our legs?

Clearly not - so in the midst of any serious white water, we want a swimtail: a short length of rope or tape which just allows us to keep hold of our canoe and guide it past any rocks or other hazards. .

If we're solo canoeing, we might opt for something between a swimtail and a painter, using a rope which doesn't quite reach the paddling station from either end of the canoe. Unfortunately, that's still a lot of line to trap us if we swim, but we can tie off a longer painter nice and tight and just leave a short swim-tail (photo).

Swimtail (noun) - a short grabline (rope, tape) for use by when we are swimming with our canoe, especially in fast flowing water. Also: a safe and easy grab-point for a swimmer we might be assisting.


A training scenario might involve us helping a swimmer to the bank from the middle of a flowing river, or from close to the shore of a lake.

We could get the swimmer to reach up for the gunwale - but that's potentially challenging for the swimmer and might lead to them pulling us over. 

One answer could be… a short "tail" of rope or tape that allows the swimmer to bob along next to us: a swimtail - and this could be useful for pretty much any canoeist, pretty much anywhere.

If we're tandem canoeing, we may be able to safely stow a long painter by routing it from a rear grabhandle to one side of the back seat and then back to the rear grab handle. When looped repeatedly, then pulled tight and tied off, this can limit entrapment risk, and can be finished to leave a short swim-tail (photo).

Larksfooting a short length of webbing on an endloop as a twin-swimtail allows easy removal and re-purposing in camp or in rescue scenarios. Larger-diameter floating rope (11mm or more) and tubular webbing (19mm or more) is easier to hold than many alternatives.

Painters, Swimtails and Swimlines
Consult Design Create, Greg Spencer 2 March, 2023
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Outfitting a Canoe for Rivers and White Water
Tried and tested options for varieties of river touring, journeying and tripping

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