— Brinestorm

Kayak Escorting for Swim Races

Wayne Horodowich published a guest post on the Tsunami Rangers blog about being a kayak escort or safety boater for swim races or triathlons. Wayne asserted that kayakers are often untrained and unprepared to serve as escorts, at least in a way that can make a difference and not make the kayaker him/herself a liability to the race organizers. I agree. I’d also like to address the problem by helping paddlers understand what’s involved, what can go wrong, and how prepared you need to be.

I’ve done several escorts for full swim races and triathlons, and have enjoyed every one. The intense gratitude shown by the swimmers afterwards is powerful. They can be cakewalks, or filled with drama, so are as variable as any other kind of paddle you might take. However, if you’re considering doing so – or if you’re a race organizer who wants to optimize the escorts you’ve assembled on race day – here are some observations and tips based on doing escorting in and around the San Francisco Bay.

Be a sheepdog. Your primary goals are to herd swimmers (acting as a perimeter on the edge of the pack), ensure none are drifting too far off the main course, help individual swimmers adjust their headings, provide a platform if they need to rest, and to raise your paddle if they need more help from a motorized craft just as a jet ski or a Zodiac (e.g., are hypothermic, injured, or slow enough that they need to be repositioned).

Anything can happen. Escorts are told to watch out for swimmers who are tired, cold, scared, or hungry, and all that’s true. But anything can happen. I’ve seen swimmers jump on top of other swimmers at the start, leading to injury. One swimmer got all bent out of shape over losing a bootie mid-race. Just recently two swimmers (understandably) screamed when their feet brushed against something slimy in deep water (likely a jellyfish, fish, or a ray), and it took them a minute to regain their cool. Ferries and fishing vessels can cross into the race’s path. Or, as seen below, the boat the swimmers launch from can even put them in danger (more on that below).

The boat carrying the swimmers to the starting line never stops where you think it will. This is a fact, so stay attentive to visible action as well as radio chatter (more on radios below). There will always be a last-minute sprint to where the swimmers get dropped. This can be for any number of reasons, from boat traffic to pilot inexperience to surprise conditions once on the water. In the photo above, for example, the swimmers released from the boat (left) were dumped right into the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, splitting the pack and causing minor abrasions and lacerations to some swimmers.

Swimmers can generally not see or hear well. Goggles get fogged. Some swimmers use earplugs on race day. Waves and swell create huge amounts of audible noise and visual occlusion. Getting a swimmer’s attention is hard. Some tips:

  • Approach a swimmer on the side they’re facing when taking breaths; this can change, but take your best guess.
  • Get really, really close.
  • Yell “Swimmer!” in your best drill instructor or gym teacher voice when the swimmer takes a breath; one ear will be out of the water (granted, it will be filled with water and under a swim cap). It may take many calls before you are heard. Most of the time swimmers aren’t ignoring you on purpose! Be loud and firm, and give clear and explicit instructions if needed.
  • Slap your paddle on the water surface or pound the hull of your kayak.
  • If all else fails, get in front of the swimmer and stop. Once a swimmer runs into your boat, you’ll have their undivided attention. Do this only if you must interrupt a swimmer for safety reasons.

Swimmers may follow the pack, not landmarks. This is fine on a lake, but not in ocean current. The swimmers in the lead are probably sighting more often, aiming off, and adjusting for conditions, which less-experienced or weaker swimmers might not. This can lead to swimmers in the middle or rear of the pack over-adjusting their angle, which can pull them into eddies or other hazards. Be sure to reinforce the landmarks they’re supposed to sight on if they start to stray, and ask the race organizers if they have landmarks picked out ahead of time that they’ve informed the swimmers of.

Swimmers may follow escorts. As an escort, you’re there for support, but swimmers will follow you if they can see you. This is even more true for brightly-colored boats and large visual targets like Zodiacs and stand-up paddleboarders. It’s your responsibility to know the course and conditions to not endanger a swimmer by being inattentive.

There are never enough escorts. This means those that do show up are all the more valuable. The smallest race I’ve escorted had maybe a 1:3 escort to swimmer ratio. The biggest race I’ve escorted had a 1:50 ratio. Race organizers can never have enough escorts, so put the word out to friends you think are qualified…especially if they’re in proper sea kayaks that can maneuver, respond, and move quickly, and won’t become a liability to others in choppy conditions.

Hound the race organizers for details. These people have tons on their minds and often aren’t great with follow-through on the little details: Where to park, where to launch, where you should be positioned, even where the finish line is. Don’t be shy ensuring you have the information you need, and don’t be surprised if it’s more work on your part than it probably should be.

Carry a VHF radio. This is the one piece of equipment I’d love to see every single escort craft and pilot carry, but few seem to.  This is how you’ll know where the pack isn’t well covered, if there is boat traffic threatening to enter the race course, and all manner of other critical information. If you have a radio and many others do not, if you can spare the time, be a verbal relay for instructions for those that do not have radios. I’ve had to chase down many a SUP paddler in order to relay guidance from the race organizers.

Carry a water bottle and energy gel packets…for the swimmers, not you. It’s not common for races to issue food and water to kayakers for swimmers’ benefits, but having seen it done, it’s an awfully nice thing to have. It’s a huge morale boost, energy boost, and could help stave off hypothermia.

Swimmers may capsize you. Tired or panicked swimmers will grab onto any part of your boat near them. Be firm and clear that they should only grasp your front toggle – and call it a rope or loop or handle, not a toggle. Don’t use paddler terminology on someone who’s exhausted and needs clear guidance. Have a solid brace or, even better, a roll.

Keep your head on a swivel. Never get complacent or zone out. This is actually the hardest part of swim escorting: You’re in a kayak, paddling slow or barely at all, bobbing around, few moment to moment emergencies…it can be tricky to stay focused for a solid hour or two, especially if the race course is scenic. Scan the water for swimmers at all times.

Don’t cross the finish line. Turn around and go back out to escort more swimmers. You’re there to be as helpful as possible, and you know what? The early finishers probably don’t need much help. It’s the people that are in the back that are in the most need. They often drift, so they’re covering more distance and tiring more. They have been in the water much longer and that’s incredibly draining. If they’re in the water too long, they will need to be repositioned so they can finish the race (all races have a time limit).

Be there for other escorts, too. I’ve seen swim escorts paddling in jeans, wearing ski gloves, and even bikinis, all in waters that are 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the range of craft and dress, I’ve never had to rescue another escort, but that possibility absolutely exists when such a range of experience and craft assemble at once. Do everyone a favor and still carry your tow rope. (You do own a tow rope, right?) Also, be aware that if you’re decked out in serious gear with a proper sea kayak and look like you know what you are doing, other escorts will assume you’re a leader of some kind. This can have pros and cons, as you might imagine. But if you’re a trained sea kayaker, you have more skills than most other escorts, so be responsible and set the best example you can.

Be a cheerleader! You’re the only people out there with whom a swimmer can converse, so give ’em the thumbs up! Tell them they’re rocking it. Answer questions about how far along they are. Encourage them! Whoop and holler! Don’t just wait for trouble to happen, celebrate every moment trouble isn’t happening!

Swim races are imperfect, like any human endeavor. There’s never enough time for the safety briefing. It’s too early in the morning (I usually need to get up between 4am and 5am in order to make it to the safety briefing on time). Conditions change and shit happens. But keep all these things in mind and you’ll be a better escort, which gives the swimmers around you a lot more confidence that you’re watching out for them. It’s a great way to help out others while still getting some quality time in the saddle!

Have you had any other hard-won knowledge from escorting swimmers in a kayak? Share in the comments below!

[Thanks to Krista Fechner for help in polishing this article.]

  1. Dave Littlejohn says: October 8, 20124:55 pm

    I will add to the points: Learn to be comfortable with rough water conditions (bracing, boat control skills) and be competent at self-rescue (rolling, cowboy, reentry roll, etc). I have been on some escorts where certain paddlers were not up to the challenging conditions and capsized, then required assistance from those who should have been watching over the swimmers.

  2. nathan says: October 10, 20127:33 pm

    Dave, I wholeheartedly concur with your detailed addition of qualifications. If you, as an escort, become a liability either due to conditions or being capsized by a swimmer, then you’re doing far more harm than good!

  3. PeterD says: December 12, 20127:36 am

    I put some info on the California Kayaker Magazine blog with some other hints on swim supports (specifically the large Alcatraz ones), and a little to help someone self select on whether they should be doing the swim supports. http://calkayakermag.blogspot.com/2012/09/safety-kayaker-for-alcatraz-swims.html

    Also added into the comments there a link back to this post.

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