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Paddling for a Swimmer: The Team Sport with Lots of Silence

Updated: May 28

When I first started marathon swimming, I had a friend offer to kayak for me. Every single time we went out together, I had to keep reminding her to stay close to me, next to me, and not paddle in front or behind me. YEARS later, she swam an open water event that required a kayak to be next to her to part of the swim, and she finally understood why I had been harping for her to stay next to me and be the decision-making route guide.

I've also been swim support (kayaker, stand up paddleboarder, and on a motor boat) for quite a few events, both as event support and one-on-one swimmer support. After having been on both sides of the fence, I afford my paddlers a little extra patience and a lot more trust when I swim, and I'm able to empathize with swimmers as they complain about seemingly little things.

Types of Paddle Support

Events with support paddlers typically have paddlers in one of 3 capacities:

  1. Traveling paddlers along a course that are spotting groups of athletes and travel along the pack

  2. Stationary kayakers along a course that are spotting groups as they swim into and out of their safety section

  3. One-on-one paddler to swimmer ratio, where paddlers are personal escorts/guides

The goal for the first two types of paddle support is to monitor swimmer progress and act as an incident spotter. Those paddlers keep everyone on course, and if a swimmer begins to have an emergency, can respond and alert backup paddlers to assist quickly. The third type of paddler, the personal escort paddler, is what I'll cover in this article.

Why do swimmers need escort paddlers?

Most events that are on an open course, are longer distances, or are more complex require a 1:1 swimmer/paddler ratio. Most paddlers use kayaks so they can bring nutrition (feeds), emergency supplies (PFDs, whistles, marine radios, etc.), sun protection, changes of clothes, and anything else the paddler or the swimmer may need before, during, or after the swim. Paddlers are also the primary safety personnel for the swim.

Paddlers are the first line of safety for a swimmer. They're able to monitor stroke rate, level of alertness, and irregularities that may signal that a swimmer is in distress. They're also the first point of contact if a swimmer needs anything - ranging from reassurance to rescue. Paddlers wearing PFDs may need to be prepared to enter the water if they see a swimmer becoming unresponsive, or to respond to a sudden onset injury or illness.

The paddler is also the primary navigation method, as swimmers are low to the water and often can't spot a far away buoy. Paddlers, sitting higher up on the water, are able to stay on the correct course by sighting the buoy line, using binoculars, navigating with a compass, or referencing a map. Paddlers can see and plan for avoiding obstacles, like alerting a swimmer that a ferry is crossing the path and to either slow down or speed up.

Paddlers can also be responsible for managing the timing and dispersion of nutrition (feeds). The paddler managed readying feeds and getting snacks or medication ready, and then alerts the swimmer when it's time for a feed. Some swimmers prefer to manage their own feed schedules, and rely on their paddlers to hand or throw them their meals. Either way, the paddler has all the snacks. (Questions about feeds? Check out our article on nutrition)

Finally, paddlers can make or break your swim. Having a paddler that communicates the way you need them to and knows how to motivate or calm you can make all the difference on a long or difficult swim. As I've learned as a swimmer, you also can't be a jerk to your paddler, as they can just leave your sorry butt out there, or not give you the good stuff. They're your crew and support system, but they're also human volunteers, and being a crankypants and treating them poorly isn't going to go well for anyone.

General Overview Video

How to Paddle Next to a Swimmer

As a paddler, you want to be directly next to your swimmer, between 10-15 feet away. You should be eye-to-eye with your swimmer, or slightly behind them, depending on how your swimmer breathes (directly to the side, or looking slightly back to their shoulder). If there's wind pushing you forward, you'll need to paddle backwards, put your feet in, or find another way to slow your vessel down so you don't drift ahead of your swimmer. You never want your swimmer to have to lift their head to sight ahead of them, as that's tiring on their neck and back.

If you're paddling into a headwind, you'll likely have to paddle harder to keep up with your swimmer. If you're falling far enough behind that the swimmer is having to stop and look back for you, you may need to alert the event director. Having a swimmer swimming alone ahead of you is very unsafe, as they're not visible to other boats that may be crossing the course. Communicate what's going on with your swimmer (they may not know how much of an issue a wind is causing, as they're not feeling it in the water) and assure them you're doing your best. You may have to postpone feeds until you're out of the worst of the wind so you're able to stay next to your swimmer. Being clear in your needs as a paddler, and offering firm instruction on "the plan" is key.

If you're paddling through a crosswind, you may need to overcorrect for the wind and paddle/swim in an arc to reach the next point or buoy. The wind will push you in one direction, so you may need to change the point you're aiming towards with your vessel. Again, you may need to communicate your plan to your swimmer, as well as postpone feeds/do quick feeds until you're not being pushed off course and out of the worst of the wind. In situations where I've experienced harsh crosswinds, I've paddled away from the pack of swimmers/paddlers that were attempting to go buoy-to-buoy directly without correcting for wind. I altered my aim to swing farther to the right (winds were pushing left pretty hard), and end up paddling almost sideways for about 3/4 mile with my swimmer, paddling a much more direct route than the pack that was now drifting pretty far off course. My swimmer and I ended up catching several of the swimmers that had been 1/2 mile to 1 mile ahead of us because we corrected aim while they drifted quite a ways.

The Paddler is in charge of:

  • Knowing where everything is in the vessel (kayaker should pack the feeds and the vessel)

  • Knowing enough about the swimmer that they can distinguish normal and abnormal behavior

  • Timing and preparing feeds (the swimmer shouldn’t be watching the clock)

  • Knowing the navigation and intended course

  • Knowing all emergency procedures, emergency action plans, how to contact additional support

  • Making the final call on whether to pull a swimmer due to unsafe conditions or other circumstances

Helpful Paddling Equipment

  • Second life jacket

  • Butt pad

  • Feed rope (10-12 ft long), clips on both ends

  • Watch or timer

  • Carabiner clip rope to create a sliding "feed line" to clip your swimmer's feeds to and throw the feeds off either side of the vessel, allowing you to paddle through winds while your swimmer feeds without losing the feed rope

  • Hydration/nutrition for the kayaker (I've found that a hydration bladder helps me paddle and drink at the same time, versus digging for a bottle)

  • Packed mylar blanket

  • Extra anti-chafe

  • Sunblock

  • Extra rain/warmth layer

  • Marine radio

  • Thermos of warm water

  • Insulated cooler that has “fast access” flap

  • Quackpacker to hold extra feed bottles, water, spare snacks, dryboxes, or anything else you can't comfortably fit into your vessel. If you're limited on space, nothing is stopping you from clipping on some extra space to fit more junk in your trunk! I found having an extra bit of space is very useful for all my spent containers, as I no longer need to access them, and instead, need to make room for my aching legs to stretch out. I put all my trash, empties, and extra safety equipment in a clipped on Quackpacker, which is clipped to the end of my kayak, and accessible via a rope. My swimmer is also able to identify me easily during a mass start.

Emergency Action Plan

The swimmer and paddler should have discussed an emergency action plan before the event. Ultimately, the paddler makes the final call on whether to pull a swimmer due to unsafe conditions or other circumstances. The swimmer may not be aware of the circumstances of the environment that are high risk, like lightning, unsafe boat traffic, marine life, etc. The swimmer may also be in a state of altered consciousness and be unable to make sound decisions.

  • Save the phone number(s) of race director

  • Know exit points in case of storm or exigent circumstances

  • Have a plan on when/how to pull swimmer

  • What radio channel to be on with marine radios

  • Don’t expect to retain instructions from same-day safety meeting (or for your swimmer to remember race-day instructions, have a plan developed ahead of time)

  • Discuss your swimmers needs with them well in advance, and talk about “what ifs”

  • Adjust feed plans, course, communication methods based on conditions

You may be reading this and laughing to yourself, "I don't need to worry about all that stuff. I'm a good paddler, know what I'm doing, and my swimmer is a seasoned athlete. We'll be fine."

You probably will. But in a situation where you're not, don't be unprepared. Plan and train for worst-case circumstances, like a swimmer becoming hypothermic, nasty conditions (rain, wind, cold), or a buoy getting stolen. Believe me, I'm a pretty experience swimmer, and all of those have happened to me during different swims, both as a swimmer and a paddler.

As a paddler, watch your swimmer for signs of hypothermia like: 

  • Confusion

  • Slower stroke rate, sluggish movements (know their stroke rate!)

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Blueish lips, nails, or skin

  • Shivering or numbness

  • Clenched jaw, difficulty speaking

As a paddler, it’s your job to decide when to pull a swimmer

  • You can radio/flag down help from a motor boat to stay close to you while you decide next steps

  • Have pre-determined questions with your swimmer to evaluate communications and decision-making abilities, like "What city are we in? What color is your car? What is 13 plus 5?"

If you're a swimmer or paddler looking to be paired with a swimmer or paddler for an event, a grassroots group on Facebook could help, called Swimmer & Kayaker Open Water Connections:

To the swimmers reading this:

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