The Swimmer and the Kayaker – Marathon swimming is a TEAM sport!

Marathon-Swim 2014, Switzerland 3 – 155

As open water season approaches and as I prepare for my next big swims, my lovely husband and I have put together a list of basic instructions for acting as kayak support for an open water swim. Please feel free to comment, add suggestions, disagree, and to share with whoever might benefit. I know I’ve said it before, but this long distance swimming thing is TRULY a team endeavor. Swimmers like me could NOT do it without the incredible assistance and support we receive from those amazing kayakers and support crews who help make this happen.

Kayak Support for Open Water Swimming

Remember that this is a set of guidelines that are specific to one swimmer in particular (Moi!), and that the needs and requirements for each swimmer and kayaker will vary. Communication is key. Know your swimmer, and swimmer, know and thank and love your kayaker!

This list is specific to kayak support only, for distance swimming, and does not include instructions for documentation of a marathon swim or a power boat supported swim.


  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Waterproof watch and stopwatch – something that can alert you to when the feed time comes up and something to measure stroke count (stroke/minute)
  • Sun shirt – be careful about the sun. If there is no wind, you might suffer from too much heat as you won’t be moving fast enough to kick up a breeze.
  • Windbreaker
  • Tylenol or Ibuprofen because your back might start stiffening up
  • Easy to eat snacks – protein bars, sandwich, nuts
  • A whistle in case of emergency or to alert boaters or the swimmer
  • GPS device to track swimmer’s course
  • Bottle for going to the bathroom in (Yup. Sorry about that!)
  • Plastic/Waterproof bag for your personal items. (Phone, keys, towel)
  • Waterproof camera
  • Bring a change of clothes and store them in a water-proof bag. You’ll feel gross when you’re done
  • More water!
  • Possible additions: Glow sticks and waterproof flashlights if your swimmer will be swimming in the dark


(Most, if not all, of this will be supplied by swimmer)

  • Cooler for drinks/feedings & bungee cords, if necessary, to hold cooler to kayak
  • Carabiner and rope to attach to feeding bottles, or, if preferred, a feeding stick for delivery
  • Extra PDF (Personal Floatation Device)
  • Extra goggles and caps
  • Ibuprofen
  • Sunblock
  • Aquaphor/Vaseline or whatever your swimmer uses to prevent chafe
  • Care bag/kit waterproof for swimmer which may include shoes to wear post-swim, warm clothing, glasses, and whatever else the swimmer needs to have with them at the end of their swim
  • Gummy Bears! Or your swimmer’s preferred in-water treat

Safety and Caring for your swimmer

  • Know the Emergency Action Plan for the swim, and understand what happens if there is lightning, if the swim must be called for safety reasons, and understand how you and your swimmer will communicate and act in case of emergency. Know the guidelines for race communication and how race/swim directors will make decisions and/or communicate those to you. 
  • Stay on the preferred breathing side of the swimmer – know what side that is!
  • Stay level with the swimmer’s head so she doesn’t have to lean up or back to see you.
  • Feed times should be approximately every 30 minutes or unless the swimmer tells you otherwise beforehand. She might push her feed if she feels she can overtake a competitor. That’s fine but only if you have agreed beforehand that she can only push the feed for a certain amount of time – no more than 10 minutes, for example. You don’t want her to bonk immediately after a big push.
  • Know what your swimmer uses for feeds, and the composition of what is in their bottles. This is important in case you need to mix a feed for them. (Generally, you should not have to do this. But it’s best to be prepared just in case!) Some swimmers may opt to vary their feeds each time, while others prefer consistency. Know what your swimmer prefers.
  • Know and understand the feeding delivery system for your swimmer. Will you throw them a bottle? Use a feeding stick? When and how will hot feeds occur, if necessary?
  • Count the stroke rate per minute once between every feed. This will give you information to share with the swimmer when there is a break for feeding.
  • You are the boss when it comes to the swimmer’s safety. If she ignores feeds, starts to slur her words, has an erratic stroke rate that is getting more erratic over time, she might need to get pulled.
  • Know and understand the signs and symptoms of hypothermia.
  • Does your swimmer have medical conditions and/or allergies you need to be aware of? If so, have a plan for how to handle any medical issue that may arise. (For example, I have Raynaud’s Syndrome, which can cause intense discomfort and may cause my hands to look stiff or awkward.)
  • Watch if the form breaks down – be aware of arm placement, midline, and kick.
  • Talk about the best way to signal the swimmer. Her goggles might be fogged up meaning she can’t see you very well and her ears could be filled with water.
  • You might be tempted to paddle up or back or even around the swimmer because it can be boring. Don’t.
  • Be aware of who is around you – if you think the swimmer is able to overtake another competitor in the same age/sex group, be sure to offer that as an option during a feed, particularly after the halfway mark. If there’s a competitor about to overtake your swimmer, be sure to see if the faster swimmer is or isn’t in the same age/sex group. Your swimmer is going to be upset if she gets passed by someone in her age/sex group but won’t care if the person isn’t in her age/sex group.
  • If you can, take some video of the swimmer at different points of the event. This is helpful for the swimmer to see her stroke after the event. Only advisable if the water is calm and you don’t have competitors nearby.
  • Your swimmer may go through all of the Stages of Grief during the swim. Be patient with, ahem, some occasional moodiness. Think about ways to keep their spirits up during those harder moments. A well-placed smile or silly face can go a long way!


  • Before the swim, familiarize yourself with the course map, and pay close attention during the pre-swim meeting. Go over the course with your swimmer before the start of the swim.
  • At the start of the swim, there will be a lot of kayakers desperately trying to locate their swimmer. You likely won’t be able to find your swimmer for a little while. Don’t freak out. Stay cool, stay on the side, and just look up and down for her number. Your swimmer won’t really need you for the first ten minutes anyway and the field will spread out pretty quickly. If you can, wear something on your head that is easy for your swimmer to see (maybe a handkerchief around your hat?)
  • You are the boss in terms of staying on course. If the swimmer starts to change direction or thinks she knows better, let her know how wrong she is. You have a clearer perspective on the route and the swimmer should defer to you.
  • Your swimmer’s view of the water is limited so do not assume she can see potential obstacles.
  • The wind has a tendency to move the kayak more than the swimmer. Take that into account when you are navigating.
  • Don’t let another swimmer draft behind your boat or behind your swimmer. If that happens, you need to tell the competitor’s kayaker to control their swimmer.
  • There are usually a bunch of novice kayakers in the group who don’t know how to be safe around swimmers. Be sure you are aware of this possibility and have a way to either control the novice or to get in between the dangerous kayaker and your swimmer.


  • Be sure you look around and enjoy where you are. You likely would never have found yourself in a kayak in this particular body of water. Appreciate the opportunity.
  • Don’t bring music. Stay aware of your surroundings.
  • I never wear shoes when I’m in a kayak. Bring a pair in the boat, though, as you might need to make an emergency exit on shore and you’ll want something on your feet if you need to walk.
  • Know that your swimmer is filled with gratitude for all you are doing, and that this sport would not be possible without your generosity of spirit. Marathon swimming is a TEAM sport, and while the swimmer tends to get the glory and those big bucks (ha!), this is about the TEAM. Your swimmer thanks you. Truly.