How To: Escort Kayaking for Open Water and Marathon Swimming

Kayaking Jellyfish Alley

Kayaking through Jellyfish Alley

I just have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not really a kayaker.  I have spent maybe eight hours total escorting swimmers on a kayaker and my total kayaking time is only about twenty hours as I write this. I’ve done so little kayaking that I can estimate the total time spent. However I am a swimmer, and have been supported as such by kayakers and boats of various sizes and crew of various skills. This amount of time I cannot estimate. It is from this viewpoint that I wanted to discuss what I as swimmer or indeed any swimmer would like from a kayaker or support small craft.

It’s very true that swimmers rely on the assistance and forbearance of volunteer kayakers who put with and enable our stupid ideas. So on behalf of all open water swimmers, I’ll issue a voluminous Thank You to kayakers and escort boaters everywhere once again!


It will benefit most non-swimming kayakers to understand what’s going on from a swimmer’s perspective:

  1. The swimmer can’t see much more than two metres away, and they can hear nothing.
  2. The swimmer (usually) has no idea where they are going.
  3. The swimmer has absolutely no idea what you are doing, but we assume that you know.
  4. The swimmer has no idea what you are trying to get them to do.
  5. Most swimmers have a preferred breathing side.
  6. Most experienced swimmers will have a preferred distance and location where they feel it is best for a kayaker to be positioned.
  7. A novice kayaker can move faster than an excellent experienced swimmer.

Points one and two may not be universally true, but as a kayaker it’s worth assuming that they are. Swimmer’s eyes are submerged more than they are above water. Breathing is typically every two, three or four strokes. The fraction of time a swimmer is breathing doesn’t allow them to see forward (unless they are swimming breaststroke or butterfly).

Looking forward slows down a swimmer so we try to reduce the number of times we do it. Doing so from every three to only every 20 strokes is normal. Our viewpoint is a mere couple of centimetres to only a couple of inches above the water. Small waves means our horizon might be only a dozen metres away, while the ‘yakker can see for miles. Swimmers like me who normally wear spectacles may not be wearing prescription goggles. For example I can see distant things, but without a prescription those objects aren’t sharp. And the time we look forward is very quick, less than a second, and used only for large scale navigation until we get very close.

With regard to hearing, in the cool waters of Northern Europe and many other locations, most experienced open water swimmers wear ear plugs to protect ears from cold. Add to that the sound of breathing and moving water and a swimmer can’t hear anything else. Even if they are stopped and looking at you, unless you have a clear indication that they have heard you, you should probably assume they haven’t heard you. All the swimmers can hear is their own breathing and sounds of water. Even when the swimmer is stopped and talking to you, they may have ear plugs in and find it difficult to know what you are saying.  If they don’t know that what you are saying is important, they may just nod to be polite and then carry on.  So if you want to convey important information verbally, you need to be sure they have heard it. The best way to ensure this is happened is to ask a question or require some specific feedback. There’s also no point asking for this half way through a swim if the swimmer has already been giving a thumbs up anyway with no prompting.

The swimmer may or may not know where they are going. They may be aiming for a certain landmark they can see, indeed they may know the destination or location better than you. But they cannot see things like boats, seaweed, jellyfish pods, buoys, reefs, and local currents often until they are practically on top on them and sometimes not even then. The higher viewing position of a kayaker is a huge advantage for a swimmer and along with their greater visibility, is the most valuable asset a kayaker can provide to avoid dangers or obstacles. Of course a kayaker’s vantage point also allows them to simply plan or follow a more direct or a faster route. So the swimmer will trust you and follow you.

The swimmer also really has no idea why you may be on one side, then on the other, or why you have gone ahead or off to one side, or what the hell you are doing behind them. You should aim for a consistent position and if possible you should check with the swimmer beforehand what their preferred side is. An inexperienced swimmer might not remember to tell you, and even experienced swimmers like myself may also forget. If you haven’t had this quick conversation kayak on the side that you see the swimmer breathe to. If they are breathing to both sides, then the right hand side has the odds of the being the preferred side, but isn’t as critical as if the swimmer only breathes to one side. I don’t want to be overbearing about this, just to explain one of the most common misunderstandings amongst swimmers and kayakers. As example, I was a couple of miles offshore this year with Dee kayaking. We came across some seals, which don’t bother me. But I didn’t know what was going on when she rapidly paddled off into the distance in panic, showing her priorities!

Dee's first kayak capsize caught for posterity

Dee’s first kayak capsize caught for posterity

Another visibility factor to consider is that of sun glare on the water. If the kayaker is between the Sun and the swimmer, they’re often almost invisible. You may not even be a silhouette. Glare off the water’s surface combined with goggles and water movement is as good a cloaking device as any Sci-Fi McGuffin. If you are on the preferred side and the Sun is low, then you”ll have to remember the swimmer’s view of you will be poor, so the closer you are the better. I recall on the aforementioned swim with Dee than when we were starting out on our eight kilometre mid-day swim/kayak, that the Sun was directly ahead while she was ahead to my right. At ten metres distance she was completely invisible unless I stopped to check for her with my eyes shaded by my hand.

Most swimmers will follow your every move assuming you know things they don’t. If you are moving around them you may cause the swimmer to swim extra distance as they try to match you. A sudden excursion off to look at something interesting to you might lead a swimmer to change direction to follow you. Even if the course was known to be a straight line beforehand. Because the swimmer will assume you know something they don’t. Other swimmers will do the opposite and may consider they know the way better. If it’s their local waters, they may even be correct.

It is sometimes assumed, both by novice swimmers and by kayakers new to swim escorting that you might be able to assist a swimmer by towing them. In most cases such as where a swimmer may be tired this isn’t a good idea. As soon as a swimmer stops swimming they start to cool down. Being towed behind a kayak will further exaggerate that, rapidly leading to hypothermia. Don’t try to tow a swimmer except in extremis. Instead provide encouragement and support and only very brief support if required.

Finally, regardless of proficiency, a paddle is much larger than a hand, so even fairly new or inexperienced kayakers can easily outpace a swimmer. You can agree with a swimmer that you are going to look at something and will be back quickly but make sure the swimmer understands (and agrees) this.

Simple advice for kayakers escorting a swimmer:

  • If possible agree beforehand that the swimmer will give you thumbs-ups (or other sign) if they get verbal instructions from you.
  • Stay in a preferably agreed position with respect to the swimmer.
  • Stay a consistent distance from the swimmer.
  • Use your height to anticipate navigation changes or obstacles and make changes gradually rather than suddenly.
  • One easy way to get a swimmer’s attention is to wave your paddle in the air until you are sure they’ve noticed.
  • Putting yourself between an obstacle and the swimmer to force them to divert will as often as not make you the obstacle into which the swimmer will crash. Hitting a kayak isn’t the worst thing in the world, but can cause swimmers to get angry, especially if they don’t know why it happened.
  • In most cases don’t try to evacuate or tow a swimmer in trouble with a kayak. As soon as swimmer stops swimming they will start to get cold. Inexperienced swimmers may not understand this. Kayaks alone are insufficient safety craft for extreme open water swimming such as ice Mile swimming.
  • If you are carrying a hot drink for a swimmer, the temperature should only be lukewarm. If you’ve been keeping it covered to retain heat, let it cool for a few minutes before giving to swimmers, as their mouth will be quite cool and can burn surprisingly easily.
  • Think of any swimmer as a kind of large stupid helpless baby whom you must carefully shepard and look after, and you will be well served!

And thanks again!

One of my other regular kayak support crew

Scout The Doglet, my other regular kayak support crew poses for his profile in summer evening light




13 thoughts on “How To: Escort Kayaking for Open Water and Marathon Swimming

  1. Thanks; This is exactly what I was looking for; a first hand account of the needs of a swimmer to educate and enlighten support paddlers. May I use the content of your article (with a link) as part of an educational document for support paddlers on Windermere?
    Simon Mc


  2. Great article thanks. I’m kayak escort for girlfriend, useful information there. I really must stop taking photographs of the scenery and pay more attention!
    Mind you… I had already sussed the sun in eyes theory.
    An interesting observation that we had during her last swim was a tidal flow issue. The kayak on the surface isn’t as affected as the swimmer in the water. In choppy conditions, it’s quite difficult to spot any current flow but she certainly felt it more than me! We learnt a lot that day.


  3. Sending to my awesome kayaker. He is most of those things, but I do think he thinks I a hear him all the time…I tell him constantly I can’t hear him….yet he continues to chat. I’m blessed with him as he has patience takes the sitting on my right shoulder seriously…. He’ll love the “large stupid baby” commentary!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.