There’s an element of marmite about tow floats: there are a lot of swimmers out there who either love them or hate them, often for exactly the same reasons. While some of the community love the sense of the security that they get from their float, and say it expands the swims they go on, others believe a ‘sense of security’ is not substitute for actual security, and by becoming short hand for ‘safe’ floats are cutting off a sense of vulnerability that would lead to deeper analysis of a swim’s actual risks. Similarly, some love swimming into the middle of a remote tarn and bobbing about with their floats like otters, and credit their floats with getting them closer to nature. While others think they’re garishness is entirely at odds with the connection and immersion with nature they seek.
So, what are they really useful for, what are they no good for, and what is up for debate? Tow floats were not introduced to the UK until 2012. They are intended for two purposes only: as visibility and carrying devices. But if you look around now use has become much ubiquitous. A founding tenant of The Outdoor Swimming Society is that we are responsible for ourselves in the water, which means asking questions about our safety on every swim, and not abdicating that responsibility to other people (or objects) on personal and social swims. So rather than assume having a tow float will make you a safer swimmer, in this community feature we look at when you might – and might not – really need them.
FOR VISIBILITY – the advertised purpose of a tow float is not as a floatation or safety device, but to give add visibility to swimmers. Bright swim hats and flashes of colours on wetsuits can also help this. In areas where there are high levels of boat, jetski and windsurfing traffic a tow float increases a swimmers visibility in the water, with some harbour masters considering programmes that lend them to swimmers, and swimmers in boat-traffic lakes and waters saying they not swim where they do without one.
OSS Special Envoy Swimstaman says: “For swimming any sort of distance within Lake Zurich, a tow float is almost mandatory. As the days get longer and the weather improves, the early morning hours are a competition between rowers, sailors, tourist boaters and swimmers in a potentially lethal game of Frogger. Even a shoreside swim can involve crossing harbour mouths and ferry ports, so it’s important to be visible.”
The choppier, darker, mistier the water, the harder it is to spot a swimmer. Even with a tow float, you need to stay alert to other water users as much as they be alert to you, particularly in areas where swimmers may not be expected. There will also be places and swims where a tow float is not enough – a SUP or support kayak is needed. Wearing a towfloat can make it easier for friends, family and lifeguards as well as boats to follow the progress of a swim.
FOR STORAGE – tow floats can be used to store car keys on a swim (other options are a key safe attached to your car or van, or a small dry bag tucked into swimwear). They can also be used to keep food, drink, phones, or inhalers on longer swims.
Swimstaman and his Swiss friends use theirs for exactly this reason. “In the winter we have no lockers or storage so usually one of us will take the short straw and carry the whole groups wallets and keys,” says Swimstaman. “I also use one to carry water and food, usually for swims over 1.5 hours and, of course, my GoPro!”
Be wary not to overload them as the additional weight could encumber you. Make sure that the storage section of your float is secured properly, particularly if taking electricals in your float.
FOR CHILDREN – who are starting out on their open water journey anything that floats can increase their confidence in the water. SUPs, lifejackets, buoyancy aids and inflatable toys fulfill the same function – provide a handy body weight support and giving them a rest. However, nothing is a replacement for one-to-one adult supervision in the water.
FOR SHORT SHORELINE SWIMS, OR SWIMS CLOSE TO BANKS – for swims where you could make land quickly, what eventuality is your tow float is for? If you are close to the shore or banks, what is the intention behind taking a float? Have you properly assessed both the swim and how you feel that day, or just put on a towfloat and felt ‘safe’?
SENSE OF SECURITY – Pro argument: By giving people a sense of security, tow floats get more people into the water to share the swim love. Con argument: to be safe swimmers need to build up their true security in the water, rather than their ‘sense of security’, by getting to know the risks of outdoor swimming and own resilience. The Survive section of this website is designed to help swimmers understand more about open water, how it moves, how it responds to weather, and how their bodies respond to distance and cold.
IN CASE OF COLD AND CRAMP – Pro argument: gives swimmers something to hold on to if they get cramp, reducing risk. Con argument: not sold as a floatation device, and swimmers are generally able to float by themselves, on their backs, without any device. If suffering from cramp, doing this and then making a plan to get yourself out of the water may keep you warmer and safer than suspending yourself in water holding a tow float.
EVENTS & SWIM HOLIDAYS – this is a topic that splits event organisers with some making tow floats mandatory whilst others outright ban them. On the ‘for’ side, the argument is they increase visibility for all swimmers and can aid safety teams in assisting anyone in need. On the ‘against’ side, is the argument that the purpose of safety teams is to look after swimmers and doubling the number of items in the water makes it harder for safety teams to spot those who are struggling and may require assistance, not easier. And – to put it horribly plainly – anything that was so cataclysmic that a swimmer sank instantly with no prior signs of distress visible to a safety crew would mean a tow float is marking a body not altering the course of a fatality . Don’t go against the advice of an event organiser, just factor this into your preparation.
AESTHETICS – in situations where they are not being worn for safety, do you need to be that visible to everyone you share the land with – or could you, slip quietly, noiselessly by, unseen, but seeing? Many outdoor swimmers swim for the beauty of it, for the closeness to nature, because they like seeing and being in the lake, river or sea. These people would argue that for them and others around swimmers – dog walkers, rowers, cyclists and climbers – tow floats are ruining the view. Users would argue it the other way: that it is because of their tow float they are able to appreciate the aesthetics of remote places.
The decision of whether you take a tow float is down to you, unless in a situation where it is specifically demanded of you or forbidden. Common sense is something we try to apply in all situations where you are swimming outdoors and making your own assessment about risks, and getting to know the water you’re in.
And, like all floats, tow floats can add fun to a swim. “We call it ottering about!” says Gilly McArthur, “When we are in a river, drifting downstream, we lie on our backs, wrap our arms around the float and quietly enjoy the nature around us.”