Patrolling open-water triathlons

The view from the safety kayak


Ever wondered what it is like to be in the water safety kayaks patrolling open-water triathlons? Andy Garlick (Meridian Canoe Club) and Martin Suzan (Swim Safety) tell all…

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The increasing popularity of open-water swimming means that we are asked to provide safety cover for more and more events each year.

All of us are skilled kayakers in our own right, some with decades of experience, and our National Governing Body the British Canoe Union requires us to keep our first aid and rescue skills updated, and periodically checks that we are doing this.

Some of us have also undertaken the recently-introduced Swim Safety award from the BCU Lifeguards in order to better understand events from your viewpoint, which includes a short cold water swim alongside a kayak.

The different teams and roles involved

For large competitions and mass participation events there will usually be a swim safety co-ordinator, who oversees the various safety elements such as land-based staff, medics and paramedics, safety boats, kayakers etc, although for smaller events this role may be allocated to a race director. 

At larger events kayakers are normally divided into teams, each of which wear the same coloured tabards (coats). There is normally a lead kayak, who is there to help to guide you around the course, and we also provide lots of cover for the last few swimmers at the rear. This is partly to give you help and encouragement, and partly to prevent the wave behind running into you!

Sometimes it can become a pretty long commitment, and we have been known to stay with competitors for as long as 90 minutes for a 1500m swim on occasions. The last swimmer is referred to as “Charlie”, which is our code for the tail-end swimmer.

Common problems in the swim

The problems we see most often include wetsuits which are too tight around competitor’s necks, cramp due to over-stretching a muscle, and coughing and spluttering due to taking on a mouthful of water. If this happens, all you need to do is to tread water and put a hand in the air, and we will be with you as quickly as we possibly can. 

You are allowed to take a break and use our kayaks for support while we help you to take remedial action, although we cannot paddle you along the course as you rest, because this is classified as outside assistance.  

Most kayaks have a grab loop at either end which makes a useful point for you to get hold of, while others have deck lines which are serve a similar purpose. Don’t worry about us, we can support ourselves by balancing your additional weight using our bodies and paddles, and even if you do manage to capsize us, we can quickly righten ourselves.

If you do not wish to (or cannot) continue swimming, we normally ask you to hold onto our kayaks while we paddle you forward or backwards out of the main course. We will then raise our paddles to summon a safety boat which will take you to an evacuation point or to medical personnel.


If we need to get to a swimmer in need of assistance in the middle of a pack we will always approach from the rear and carefully position ourselves to prevent boat or paddle contact with those still swimming.

If the swimmer is motionless then we will probably want to get to them as rapidly as possible, so we may well paddle across your path – apologies for this, but our priorities are clear at times like these. 

Normally kayakers will be deployed around the course to ensure that you are never more than 50 metres from waterborne safety. We aim to cover the water close to you with kayaks and have powered rescue craft available in the background, which we can rapidly summons for help.

If you are swimming way off course, we do try to correct you back onto the straight and narrow. We know from experience that shouting at you is not going to generate any response (!), so we have to find other more subtle ways to communicate with swimmers.

We hope this gives you a flavour of the effort that we put into keeping you safe. If you do get a few minutes spare as we are coming off the water, please come and say hello, it kind of makes our day!

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(Photo: Swim Safety)