Let us celebrate the love the open water swimmer has for their kayaker! Your kayaker is kind of your bodyguard, and kind of your handler, and kind of your bridesmaid, without the dress and the matching shoes. If you’re swimming a race with a kayaker, that means you’re going a long distance: you’re going to have to swim it yourself, but you don’t have to go it alone.
Any open water race will have kayaks and motorboats out on the course, directing and giving aid where needed. But when you swim a longer race (such as the three 10 mile swims I’ve done or the 9.2 miler I just completed), you are required to have your own kayaker with you. That kayaker has one purpose: to keep you alive. This is something to take seriously. If you, like me, are used to being self-sufficient — or to thinking of yourself as self-sufficient — having a person beside you, someone who has given up a day or a weekend and woken up at the crack of dawn to paddle for hours to keep you alive — well, it’s a humbling experience.
The kayaker protects you in a number of ways. If something goes wrong, they are your first responder. The kayaker can call or wave down a rescue boat for help. But even when nothing goes wrong, the kayaker takes care of you, carrying your nutrition and keeping track of how long you’ve gone between feedings. They are your second pair of eyes, able to see signposts and landmarks long before you can. On my first 10 mile swim, at Lake Minnetonka, I could not see the turnaround buoy at the halfway point: I knew there was a great big orange buoy ahead of me, but from the water, surrounded by orange kayaks piloted by kayakers wearing orange PFDs, I couldn’t tell one orange thing from another. My kayaker steered me in and kept me on course. He also talked me through the tenth mile, the longest mile I’ve ever swum.
The kayaker not only helps you see; they help you be seen. In a big race, boat traffic will be stopped or rerouted for the event, but in a training swim in an area with motorboats and jetskis, the kayaker serves as a great big “Keep Away” sign. A friend paddled for me for the first time this summer; after a mile or so, she said out of the blue, “I’m here to keep you from getting hit by a boat!” I hadn’t thought to say it that way, but that was exactly why she was there. And because of her, I did not get hit by a boat.
Swimming with kayakers is not always trouble free. At the start of Swim the Suck 2016, the weather was rough. The race begins with the kayakers out in the water; the swimmers have to swim out and find their own kayakers, and then each pair proceeds together down the course. But the kayaks were being tossed around in the waves as the swimmers were swimming among them. For the first time, I worried that a kayak would hit me. In the midst of the craziness, I couldn’t really enjoy the irony that I might get run down by a person who had kindly volunteered their morning to keep swimmers safe. But due to our good planning — the yellow duck strapped to her kayak — I found my kayaker quickly, and I set off, trusting that she would keep an eye on me. And though she had to work hard to paddle through those conditions, she followed me, and we made it clear of the chaos.
The funny thing about swimming with a kayaker is that I worry about them. I find myself looking up at them, sitting in their little bright pieces of plastic, and thinking about how unprotected they are. What if they fall in the water? Of course, I am actually in the water while I have these thoughts. I don’t know what it means that I don’t worry about myself in the middle of a lake, but I never do. I worry — just a little — about my kayakers.
Swimming long distances with a kayaker is like taking a long train ride with an old friend. When you’re traveling for hours and hours with a person you know well, you don’t have to say much. You don’t have to be clever. You can pass some snacks between you and say, “Hey, look at that cloud,” when you see a nice one. And you know that if anything goes wrong, you’ve got a friend beside you. Under the circumstances, it’s not a surprise that I tend to fall in love — just a little — with my kayakers.
Blessed are the kayakers who make long distance open water swimming possible. May they have clear skies and smooth waters wherever they go. May they eat well and drink well and sleep the sleep of the just.