Support Kayakers – A Swimmers lifeline

Support Kayakers – A Swimmers lifeline
Support Kayakers – A Swimmers lifeline

Support Crew essentials



Recently I was contacted by a prospective support crew who will be kayaking for a Swimmer in SCAR this year. She pointed out to me that there was not a lot of information regarding the role of the kayaker, and what is needed when it comes to supporting us mad swimmers and helping us to achieve our goals.

Let me start off by saying, every swimmer out there knows that a good, competent support crew is essential. Without them, we are pretty much are unable to carry out our dreams and goals. I do not know of any swimmer who can swim without some form of support for much more than about 3 – 5 hours. Over and above that, your kayaker is an integral, essential part of your team. Let them know this – once in a while – but not to often- last thing you need is a big-headed support crew, they could capsize the kayak. Help them to enjoy the journey as much as you do.

I have been involved in swims that require Crew from Big Channel crossings with bigger motorised craft to a single kayaker. One thing I have noticed is that the essentials remain the same but there are big differences dependent on boat size, weather, night or day swim, wind – to mention a few variables.

We will base this post predominantly on Single kayak Support that Audra did for me in SCAR 2015 but we will include other information with regards to different crafts. Audra will chime in when she has something to add!

 If people want to know more on bigger Ocean swim support please let me know but there is a fair amount of information out there already.

Lets Get Started

Questions that need to be asked:

  • 1 -Are you using your own kayak or will you be supplied with one by the organisers?
  • 2 – How fit are you? Believe me when I say, you probably need to be as fit as if not fitter than the swimmers.
  • 3 – How well can you kayak? Do you need a lesson in technique?
  • 4 – Do you have the ability to get into your kayak on your own?
  • 5 – Do you have enough food for YOU and your swimmer?
  • 6 – Do you have enough lighting for the night time swims?
  • 7 – Do you have need for Drugs/tablets for you and your swimmer?
  • 8 – Do you have the ability to secure everything on your kayak?
  • 9 – Are YOU equipped for the Weather?
  • 10 – Cameras and Communications
  • 11 – Toilet needs?
  • 12 – Back up plans?

Now let me answer these questions as best I can. Although I am mainly a swimmer, My kayaker for SCAR had similar concerns and queries and she ended up asking fellow kayakers about the task at hand. I will now address each question individually and hopefully in enough depth. If not, please contact me and I will endeavour to answer your queries. (And I’ll add my five cents worth too – being the REAL support crew! ūüėČ – SlimHippo (SH))

1 – Are you using your own kayak or will you be supplied with one by the organisers?

Depending on whether you are travelling internationally for swims or not, these crafts vary widely from the simple, yet stable Sit-On-Top kayak to the very advanced Sea kayak. It may involve a canoe or maybe a paddle board

Some Swims and different States will Require you to fly a flag on your craft to denote that there is a swimmer in the water.


Stand up Paddle Board



sea kayak

Sea kayak


Row Boat


In our experience – and on the basis of where the swim is, The most common form of craft that will be supplied for a single kayak support crew is the –



These are the exact Kayaks that were provided at SCAR         2015

Pros = Very stable – quite comfortable depending on whether you get one with a proper seat. These are normally provided and clip in and have a back support. Make sure that you SET IT UP CORRECTLY. Audra also used the provided life jacket (but not the prescribed use! – SH) and the famous Crochet Shorts for extra padding – and height under the seat. Seats can be adjusted whilst in use but this can be a hassle, so make sure you are comfortable before you start. Generally these kayaks are self bale so there is not an issue with TOO much water in the bottom.

Lots of places to clip stuff on and secure your belongings

Cons = Because your entire body is above the boat, You – and the boat can offer up a HUGE surface area for Wind Resistance. This is one of the most common problems with these Craft, and it showed in Apache lake during SCAR 2015, where only 4 kayakers managed to complete the whole 18 miles in 20 – 25 MPH head winds. The winner had to have his kayaker swapped out 4 times.

The issues that we had were mostly resistance where my kayaker – try as she may – really struggled to keep up with me. When it came to feeding, and Audra stopped paddling, she disappeared backwards due to the wind. My feeding plan sort of disappeared out the window and was limited to times when the wind abated enough for Audra to be able to stay static long enough to feed me. Often we would head for the shoreline which offered some protection from the howling wind.

Another aspect that can make a difference is feathered vs unfeathered paddles;

paddle typesThe feathered type are often used in more professional environments and can make a difference when kayaking in high winds as the blade in the air is not adding resistance. If you train with a feathered paddle, see if you can get your hands on one for the event, as the twisting of the wrists is different.¬† All kayaks were supplied with unfeathered paddles (I found this a challenge on the first day initially but it didn’t take long to adjust – SH).

Gloves were also a good investment, Audra had two pairs. One pair was a full fingered insulated type and the other were just cycling gloves with cut off fingers and padded palms. (I found these essential and the full fingered kind were actually the most comfortable – I definitely recommend 2 pairs. SH)


Sea kayak

Pros = less resistance as you sitting in the kayak rather than on top of it. Tracking – or steering – is a bit easier and it deals with waves or swell on the water a lot better than the Sit-On-Top. As you are in the Hull and generally covered – by a neoprene Skirt, it is unlikely that it will fill with water should it rain.

Cons =  As stuff is generally stored IN the Boat Рoften covered by rubber sealable hatches, access to stuff you might need is more difficult so preparation is more important to make sure all the stuff you need is available to hand.

Canoes/Row boats

Commonly on the 2 way and One way Windermere swims in the UK. Usually require flags to let other craft know there is a Swimmer in the water

Pros = normally provided on longer overnight lake swims and will usually have two/three people on board. They offer a little more space to move around

Cons = as it is essentially a boat, if it is raining, you need to have some form of bailer to get rid of the water. Seats can be very uncomfortable after a couple of hours and there is no back support.

Stand Up Paddle boards (SUP)

Not for the uninitiated. At SCAR, these were the first to fall.

Pros = Can either sit or Stand or lie down on them, so you at least get to move around a bit. Ideal on flat calm water or in situations where there is a tail wind and you can surf the waves. In this scenario, I am sure they are great fun and pretty easy

Cons = They have huge resistance with a head on wind and become hard to manoeuvre, or make any headway in a forward direction. On Apache lake, they were all finished after about two hours after the wind came up. In my opinion, you have to be pretty bloody fit to handle one of these beasts when paddling into a head wind.

There is no way to secure stuff to it so At SCAR, the SUP guys generally towed an inflatable bag with the essential in them for the swimmers and themselves. All adding to the resistance.


2- How fit are you? Believe me when I say, you probably need to be as fit as if not fitter than the swimmers.

You might think that this is a silly question. So let me regale you with a scenario that we were not at all prepared for and the issues we experienced on Apache lake 18 mile swim. About an hour into the Swim the wind picked up and kept picking up until it was gusting at about 25 MPH, not helped by the fact that you are in a pretty deep valley so it acts like a tunnel. This relentless wind did not let up the whole day. Being on a Sit-On-Top, Audra had maximum resistance. She struggled – as did most kayakers to keep up with me. Now the first rule of swimmers and support is “DO NOT LEAVE YOUR SWIMMER.”

Kent mentioned – rightfully so – if you lose your kayaker, you will be pulled out. With Audra struggling, I was forced to do breaststroke or very slow crawl for most of the swim. Another worry that started to rear its ugly head, was that I was not swimming hard enough to generate enough of my own body heat so I was starting to experience the very early signs of hypothermia. I very nearly tied her Kayak to me and towed her.

Whenever she stopped paddling, the wind just took her backwards. This in turn dragged me back as I was trying to feed out of my bottles that were tied to the kayak. The organisers were very helpful and often tied the kayaks to their power boats and dragged them about 500m ahead of the swimmer and left them sheltering amoungst the rock faces whilst the Swimmers caught up. This caused other issues. I will come to that later.

So fitness is a big thing if you want to kayak for 8 = 12 hours in 25 MPH head winds. Do not assume any of the following

1 – It is a lake and fairly protected from the elements

2 – It is Arizona, It can’t be that cold. We learnt the hard way. I lost my kayaker after about 7 hours and had to team up with another swimmer.

All in all, I think this was far tougher on the kayaker than it was on the swimmer. I can normally do that sort of distance in about 7 hours. It took me over 9.5 hours. REMEMBER YOU NEED YOUR SUPPORT CREW.

(And to add in my five cents’ worth – I was prepared for some hard work but not more than 5-6 hours of it – my fitness could have been better but it was also the cold that stopped me. Fitness will give you something to pull out the bag if you need it. My Pilates and upper body training was essential but more general fitness would have been helpful – as well as better cold tolerance! – SH)


3 – How well do you kayak? Do you need a lesson in technique?

If this is your first time doing support kayaking, a huge Reccomendation from Audra is to Go on a beginners basic kayaking course. This will at least teach you about technique. Remember you could be on the water for 12 hours – or more – so bad technique can lead to injuries that would not necessarily be noticed on shorter journeys.


4 – Do you have the ability to get into your kayak on your own?

This was not really an issue on the SCAR swim – unless you are Walter or Suzie Dodds, but I believe it is an essential skill that you would be good to learn.

Generally in SCAR, and some lake swims, You are never too far from the shore so, worst case scenario, you just swim your vessel to the shore and hop back in or on. For the bigger lake swims and ocean swims, I think this is an essential skill as well as then have some form of mechanism to get all the water out of your kayak should it fill up. Usually, Sea kayaks travel with a pump to pump the water out.

5 – Have you enough food for YOU and your swimmer?

Swimmers will usually (some may not adhere to this ethos) have their own food sorted out in the form of energy drinks/gels etc. MOST swimmers will expect their kayak support crews to have their own supplies so assume that you will be on your own in this regard.

As the swimmer, I will generally have three bottles – 1 for normal energy drink, 1 for double strength energy drink and 1 for my special brew of half coke half water. Other things I will eat whilst swimming is fruit, orange segments, apples, mangos, bananas, melon slices and breakfast bars or chocolate logs (cake rolls covered with a bit of chocolate),and a swimmers favorite – jelly beans. All of these can be cut up fairly small and put in a Tupperware that my kayaker can just hold out and I will dip in when I am feeding. All swimmers nutrition varies. For the long swim at Apache, The Apache Motel breakfast team were great in supplying most the fruit that I took at breakfast. They were also very helpful in giving us sealable bags to put the fruit in. You may want to bring your own though.

For  Audra, she ate much the same as me with regard to the fruit, nuts, chocolate logs and breakfast bars Рprobably try and steer clear of anything that has a yoghurt or chocolate covering as it could melt in the sun. We also took crisps for her and some wraps Рif we could get our hands on them otherwise Biscuits would do. I think on Apache lake in particular, eating was the last thing on Audras mind, she was so intent on keeping up and not letting me go unattended. Kayakers may also require energy drinks and gels. A word of warning, I try not to use gels as you then have to have something to wash them down. On the other lakes, we were only on them for about 4 hours so not a huge deal to go without food.

More important is hydration rather than food. For this we took bottled water on the kayak for Audra.

Storage and distribution of food

For my bottles we just went off to Wal-Mart and purchased a small square Cold box (btn 10 and 20 USD) Walmart Cooler box  that fitted perfectly in the back of the kayak This was used to store my main energy drink and some water and ice to keep things cool like the hard food.

My bottles were tethered to the boat with string that was tied and secured around the bottles with tape and secured to the kayak. Audra just used to drop the bottle in the water and they would float and I would pick them up then just dump them in the water for her to pull them back in.

For the hard food, it was in a Tupperware that Audra used to hold out and I just used to put my hand in and take what I wanted. She also had a bag in the front of the kayak with bits and pieces and some extra food and what she wanted to eat.

With regards to bottles, Swimmers will usually have their own but if not, most common are the ones with a slighlty bigger opening so you do not have to suck at them or squeeze them. However, this is a very individual choice.

6 – Do you have enough lights for the Dark?

In general, quite a few 12 hour plus swims will entail some swimming at night, be it channel swimming or longer lake swimming. For these occasions and, The 10km night-time swim at SCAR it is imperative that you have enough light to light your swimmer and your kayak and yourself.

These lights come in all shapes and forms from the Glowsticks which are chemically based and activated by cracking or bending the casing, to the battery-powered lights/glowsticks. In my experience, GREEN is the best, and most effective colour, but you can make things interesting with other colours.

For the swimmer they should have – at a minimum – a permanently lit glowstick attached to their rear end and a flashing light which attaches to their goggle straps.

For the kayak, Lights at the Front, Back and along the side. I find it better – as a swimmer, if some of them are beneath the surface for me to see the boat better

For the kayaker – possibly a glowstick or light around their neck and around their wrists. A good investment is also a Headlamp just in case you need extra light on board – TRY NOT TO HAVE IT SHINE INTO THE SWIMMERS EYES. At SCAR – Roosevelt lake you will need this to navigate your way back to the launch site. Kayakers at SCAR generally have to find their own way back to the start¬†or where the kayaks need to be once they’ve finished escorting their swimmer, and Roosevelt lake is no exception. Generally it is about 2km from the finish of the swim to the launch site, which is a challenge in the dark.

7 – Do you have the need for Drugs/tablets for you and your swimmer?

I am very fortunate that I have never had to use any drugs in any of my swims but I always make sure I have Ibuprofen, paracetamol and Imodium on board just in case. Another set of drugs which could be useful for the kayakers or support crew is Sea sickness tablets. These were generally stored by Audra in a waterproof bag in a Bag in front of her with other bits and pieces (easily accessible).

8 – Do you have the ability to secure everything on your kayak?

Generally try to have everything planned before you leave the shore, all fruit cut up and stored, all bottles secured to the boat, all lights secured and ON before you leave if needed. There will always be things that you need to do so anything that is on the boat, make sure it is tied on or, in the case of GoPro/waterproof cameras, has their float attached, to avoid unexpected loss.

One thing that will be very useful is Bungee Chords. These are used to strap the coolerbox in and also the bag in front of Audra and also a place for my mascot Harry to hang onto.

Safty pins are also very useful to attach things to yourself or the boat.

Another very useful device I have seen for feeding swimmers is those retractable dog leashes attached to the bottles and then can be let out by the kayaker. This saves excess string floating around the boat that will need to be tidied in between feeds

9 – Are YOU equipped for the Weather?

This turned out to be ours, and many other teams downfall on Apache lake (Remember the one with 20 Р25 mph head wind for the whole day? That one.) Whilst Audra was kayaking, she was fine but the problems arose when she was strapped to the side of the pontoon boat and moved forward Рahead of me. The wake of the boat caused her to get soaked through. When they left her, she had a change of clothes to change into but, the damage was done. She was now cold and the howling wind sapped what remaining energy she had. About an hour after this she was history and had to be rescued by the organisers and wrapped in a  Hypothermia blanket.  WTF!!! We are talking ARIZONA HERE, Desert!!!

Personally I would suggest a simple plastic over coat for this occasion – the ones that you get handed at festivals. this can be put on whilst you are being dragged forward and give you some protection at least. Then you can take it off and it wraps up into a small package.

Dress in layers that can be added to or removed as and when needed. I find a good underlayer that can wick the sweat away from your body then a waterproof/windbreaker, if needed can be added. Personally, I try to steer away from anything totally waterproof as I find I sweat a lot so this basically builds up inside soaking my body.

It is also a good idea to have a pair of LIGHT waterproof trousers otherwise you will have a wet butt for the whole day. If you are lucky, the sun will be out and this will not be a problem but something to keep your rear end dry is a good thing (very desirable Р4 consecutive days with a wet rear-end was not ideal! -SH)  As well as light, it would be a good idea to be able to get these off easily as you might need to Рexplanation to come.

As you are in Arizona, There is also the possibility that it will be HOT and SUNNY so be prepared for that as well. As most sunscreens will not protect you for the whole day, nearly ALL swimmers used SudoCrem which has 15% Zinc Oxide which is a great sun protector  and 79% water repellant so it stays on. I did find an equivalent in Walmart which had 40 % Zinc Oxide but it played havoc with my skin.

For kayakers, even in the sun, a lot used SPF 40-50 sunscreen, or sun block and also had those great long sleeved hoodies from Patagonia that protect your arms and head from the sun. (The last thing I thought I would want to wear was long sleeves but they made all the difference to my sun protection and ultimately warmth РSH).  I think Kent has a deal going with them. All in all, a good hat, good suncream, sunglasses and layers plus a change in clothes are a must have for this trip.

10 – Cameras and Communications

Waterproof cameras are generally the norm nowadays. Make sure they are secured to the boat of attached to a float. GoPros are fairly common but did not afford us a good picture of the Bullhorn sheep on the Canyon lake swim (too wide angle) with a normal waterproof camera fairing much better.

Some swimmers like lots of photos and video whilst others are not too bothered. Some may also have GPS tracking devices that are generally waterproof and can just be stuck to or strapped to the kayak. Others like Smartphones, are not waerproof but you can get plastic cases that will afford you the ability to still use them as cameras/ Music players with separate earphone РWaterproof Phone cover . I generally do not condone using Music or earphones as this will not allow you to hear any abuse your swimmer has for  you. The ones we used hang around your neck and have a plastic cover so you could still use it as a camera, and also use it as a phone or something to send texts. (My advice here is whatever you carry electronics wise, keep it simple and accessible. The last thing you need when you are paddling against the wind is to be fiddling about with technology and struggling to keep it dry, and chances are you may not have time to do more than press a few buttons. I struggled to find decent quality headphones anyway, and boredom was never a problem! -SH)

Another thing that is becoming more and more popular in open water swims are Swim Floats that can store quite a few things. These are waterproof bags that float behind the swimmer and can be used as a flotation aid or just to store stuff in. I have never used them but am sure I will have to soon.

11 – Toilet needs?

A question that seems to get skirted a lot in Open water swims. But reality is that we are Humans and nature does call occasionally, for both swimmer and support crews

Having a pee is easy for swimmers but for kayakers, especially ladies, it is a bit more of a challenge. One thing some ladies do is wear incontinence aids for the elderly; these are very absorbent but not to everyone’s liking – and could be uncomfortable if your rear-end gets wet. Try not to fall in whilst wearing these. We do not want you to affect the level of the lake!!!! Another option which Audra tried was the SheWee or the Whiz Freedom. Effectively a funnel type contraption to enable ladies to Pee like a man. Something all woman have wanted for generations! (Mmmmm! – SH) Again, these are not for everyone and should be (well) tested out before the event in the bath or try writing your name in the snow.

You could however use a method that has worked for years – head to the shore and just get in the water and do what the swimmers do. Pee in the water. It will also give you a short opportunity to stretch your legs.

12 – Back up plans?

Even when you have a support crew Like Audra and you abide by the “6 Ps”¬† – Perfect Planning Pevents Piss Poor Performance – inevitably, things can go wrong or be overlooked.

Also, you are a team and YOU SHOULD NEVER LEAVE YOUR SWIMMER. It is very easy to lose swimmers in the water that do not have a kayaker, especially at night. The odds of losing a well lit swimmer at night are increased with big swells on ocean crossings. I have experienced this during an English channel crossing.

Back Up plans are generally made up on the fly, as and when you are forced to make them. My first back up plan I was willing to adopt was to tether myself to the kayak and tow them along with me. Fortunately this did not have to be adopted, but I was very prepared to do it (I was very tempted too!! But perhaps against the rules… – SH).

In any back up plan make sure you are all in agreement – Swimmer, Support crew and Organisers. COMMUNICATE WHAT IS BEING DONE so everyone is in the know. Agree that you AS A TEAM are happy.

This is what happened to me. After Audra had succumbed to the elements, I stayed with her and had a big feed. Then another swimmer appeared with their kayaker. I stopped them and ASKED the kayaker if they were happy to have another swimmer. I then hailed the organisers and ASKED if they were happy for me to tag onto another kayaker. By this stage in the event, Kent and his team have a pretty good idea of your capabilities.

Once I was happy that Audra was Safe and the kayaker and swimmer were happy to have me tag along and the organisers were happy, I tagged onto them. Now with this there is a bit of etiquette involved. NEVER SWIM AHEAD OF THE SWIMMER THAT YOU ARE TAGGED ONTO. This may upset their rhythm and cause them to swim faster – or slower than they are comfortable with. I WAS THE ONE BEING HELPED OUT, NOT VICE VERSA. If any adjustments were to be made, I had to make them NOT the swimmer I tagged onto.

As I was slightly faster, when we got to within 1,5km of the finish, and I could see another kayaker ahead, I let the Kayaker I was with know that I was going to have a bit of a blowout for the end of the swim. I then swam out wide so as not to affect the swimmer that I was with and went off on my own to the end.

I had left Audra who had joined up with another kayaker, Lilian, in a sheltered rock face so they were away from the wind and cold. They then had to wait about an hour for the organisers to take them forward, but they were pretty busy trying to keep track of kayakers and swimmers, bearing in mind that the swimmers had by this time spread out over a pretty big distance. By this time, whilst the leader was finishing, the tail enders were still about 8 miles from the finish.

As it turns out, Audra and Lilian were sheltering was only about a mile or so from where the motel and accommodation were. If Audra and Lilian had wanted to, if they had paddled out into the wind, it would have carried them – pretty swiftly – back to the marina. In essence, be aware of your surroundings and where you are in relation to the start, the finish and where you want to end up at. There was no way to inform the organisers and they wanted to see their swimmers finish though, but it was an option.

Audra Wrapped in a space blanket - Apache lake

Audra Wrapped in a space blanket on Apache Lake – Brrrrr!!

I hope this helps for those Support crew, both veterans and those that are just starting out on the supporting role and may be too embarrassed to ask some of the questions which we know all of us want to ask. For some, it is best to be prepared, for others like us – me more so than Audra, we choose to learn via life’s hard Knocks. We hope our expereinces will make your journey more enjoyable. (Signing out, and good luck! – SH)

About the author

Ameteur Endurance athlete and marathon swimmer Having taken up marathon swimmng in 2008 with the challenge of the English Channel, I then continued on to Cycle up Britain, Kayak across Scotland and run a few marathons. None of those held the draw that marathon swimming held so in 2014 I was back in the water to Swim one of Switzerlands iconic endurance swims, lake Zurich. In 2015 I opted to take on my biggest swim to date. SCAR challenge.- 4 lakes in 4 days with distances Ranging from 6 miles to 18 miles.

4 Comments on “Support Kayakers – A Swimmers lifeline

  1. Kent Nicholas Reply

    I cannot thank you enough for this valuable insight Graeme and Audra. Often times an organizer concentrates on the swimmers and misses the point of educating the crew as to their role – which is critical to the swimmers success. After Apache Lake last year, I vowed to make 2016 the year of the crew: encourage swimmers to recruit their crew, assist in educating the crew, share the wisdom and knowledge that more experienced crew have gained in their adventures. The beauty of the open water community is that people are so willing to assist others.

    It was last summer that I, for the first time, jumped in a kayak for a channel crossing. I felt pretty prepared but was unprepared for that whale that tipped me over at 2 a.m. in the pitch black. I was glad all the gear was secured and was able to get back on track. It was a whale wasn’t it . . . I swear it was a whale that rolled my kayak . . . it couldn’t possibly be that I just rolled it myself right ?

    Your insights and wisdom are appreciated. It will assist all those that follow you. Thank you.

    –Kent Nicholas

    1. Graeme Schlachter Reply

      Yes Kent, it was a whale, a Big Sperm whale. Just like the last time the loch ness monster oveturned my kayak whilst kayaking up Loch Ness.

      It is a pleasure to be able to share a bit of knowledge and hopefully make Support crew aware of what it takes as I think a lot of people go into that area a bit gung ho.
      I am sure sad to be missing SCAR this year but I am certain that, like last year, it will be a truly amazing adventure for all involved. Just one word of advice. If you park a boat on Roosevelt lake then try to remember to put an anchor down. And try not to lose any propellors

      Stay well Kent and Good luck with SCAR 2016

      Fondest Regards The Zim and Slimhippo

  2. Stephen Key Reply

    Nice job, Graeme! I surprised you did not mention the importance of keeping a pair of hand-knit knickers on board at all times. Sorry you won’t be at SCAR this year, you will be missed!


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