Safety kayaking

by Ian Tokelove
Swimmers at the British Gas Great London Swim 2011
Swimmers at the British Gas Great London Swim 2011

As a safety kayaker it’s your job to look after swimmer’s safety. Image courtesy of the British Gas Great London Swim 2011

The London Victoria Docks host two, huge swimming events each year – the London Triathlon and the Great London Swim. At each event thousands of participants swim distances of up to one mile long, in water that is roughly 9m deep. Safety kayakers are one part of the huge safety team that is there to look after those swimmers who may find themselves in difficulty.

At large events like these, safety kayakers typically work in teams of eight, with a group leader and an assistant leader, both of whom will be in radio contact with the safety organisers.

The kayakers have to keep a keen eye on each wave of swimmers as they pass by, watching for swimmers who may require assistance. Such swimmers will usually raise an arm or will swim directly to the kayak, but others may be unable to signal. Swimmers can occasionally become unconcious, requiring immediate action from the nearest safey kayakers.

The most common problems are cramps, panic, fatigue and wet suits which are too tight for the partipants. The swimmers are allowed to hold onto the kayakers, who will position themselves outside of the main channel. The kayakers also have to chase down errant swimmers who have shot off in the wrong direction – a not uncommon problem.

The kayakers are supported by rescue boats, which watch for signals. A raised paddle indicates that a swimmer needs to be taken from the water. An alarm whistle means that an unconcious swimmer needs to be evacuated for emergency medical treatment. The kayak team leaders are trained in resucitation techniques and will, if needbe, enter the water to start resucitation before the rescue boat arrives.

Safety kayaking pay at these large events is usually pretty good, with a meal and plenty of drinking water supplied. But it can be hard work, with a typical day starting at 7.30am with a briefing meeting.

There are many other, smaller events which also require safety kayakers, such as the regular events organised by the Human Race.

If you enjoy kayaking it’s a great way to spend time on the water, get paid, and contribute to swimmer’s safety. Watching the participants can also be very inspiring – the fastest athletes have superb technique and speed, but the weakest swimmers, who may be passed by two or even three waves of successive swimmers, show true grit and perserverence.

To work as a safety kayaker you will ideally have undertaken Swim Event Safety Award (SESA) training and will hold a current first aid qualification, or have equivalent prior experience and skills.

For more information see

BCU Life Guards and SESA training

The Great Swim

The London Triathlon

Swim Safety – the UK’s leading provider of water safety team management.

Human Race



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