Swimming in open water is a very enjoyable experience, but there is a safety aspect to consider compared to pool swimming. You have probably heard about swim buoys (also called tow floats) which are bright inflatable devices that you tow behind you while swimming. Their design intent is to practice open water swimming safely. But does that mean you should own one?
Using a swim buoy is highly recommended for Open Water Swimming. They provide you with visibility, storage capabilities, and a means to hold onto something. Towing a swim buoy does not hinder your stroke nor slow you down.
In the paragraphs below, I will detail the reasons you should buy a swim buoy. I will describe their pros and cons to give you enough insight.
Why shoud you buy a swim buoy?
The first intent of swim buoys is to give you visibility. Indeed, in open water swimming, you can be sharing the space with motorboats, sailboats, jet skis, etc. As a swimmer, most of your body is underwater, making you very vulnerable as you aren’t easy to spot. This is why swim buoys are very bright and colorful to be seen from far away and contrast with the color of the water.
The picture below was taken during one of my swims from the shore. I am wearing a red swim cap which you can barely see in the water. But the buoy definitely sticks out and is visible from far away.
Swim buoys generally include a built-in dry bag storage compartment where you can fit in your car keys, your wallet, your phone, etc. Depending on the size of the swim buoy you can carry more items. Just be careful when closing the bag to ensure it is really waterproof.
Safety is a very important aspect when swimming outdoors. There aren’t any lifeguards to come save you if you start drowning. Of course, a swim buoy can’t protect you from all situations where you might end up drowning but it is definitely a good thing to have around.
Most swim buoys are able to give you a way to rest by holding onto them. This is very useful if you need a rest during your swim, if you swallow water and need a quick stop to recover or if you get some cramps.
But you need to understand that a swim buoy doesn’t act as a life jacket. Open water swimming can be dangerous. Please be careful to always check the weather conditions before going out. Thunderstorms, strong winds, big waves and strong currents can put your life at risk: the swim buoy is not designed to help you in these conditions.
- A swim buoy is a safety device that does not alter your swimming capabilities. It doesn’t help you float nor does it hinder your stroke.
- It boosts confidence, especially when you are starting with open water swimming. It can help you try open water swimming if you are worried about it.
- In group swimming, it helps you see where the others are. In one glance, you can easily see the direction you need to follow and how far you are from the others.
- It is a great device for children safety if they enjoy swimming in open water.
Do swim buoys slow you down?
Towing a swim buoy will not slow you down. The buoy uses the draft generated by your swimming to move naturally forward with you. And since most of the buoy is floating above water, it is mostly facing air resistance rather than water resistance. Air resistance on such a small surface is not important.
The physics behind this comes from Bernoulli’s principle. The swimmer as it goes forward moves volumes of water behind him. The water needs to fill the gap appeared and this creates a forward-moving current just behind the swimmer, what we call draft.
From my experience, swimming with a buoy is very enjoyable. I have never felt the buoy holding me or slowing me down. Actually, my swimming speed is the same with and without buoy in open water.
Can swim buoys be annoying?
Depending on the weather conditions, if there is a lot of current, waves, or wind where you swim, it may happen that the buoys bothers you by going in your way.
It happened to me this summer in a lake. The wind was quite strong and generated some waves. I was following the shore: so I swam against the waves at first – no issue towing the buoy – but on the way back the waves were pushing the buoy on my right side close to my shoulder. It was very annoying to swim as my arm was hitting the buoy at each stroke.
So swim buoys are very useful but there are cases where they are more of a pain to carry around than they are helpful.
Can you use a swim buoy in a Triathlon?
Swim buoys are great for triathletes to practice swimming in open water. But during triathlon races, they are not allowed.
According to World Triathlon and Ironman Triathlon rules, “flotation devices” are not permitted:
The use of snorkels, fins, gloves, paddles, or flotation devices of any kind (including pull buoys) is prohibited.Ironman.com
Swim buoys as of today are considered flotation devices even though they do not help you float while you are swimming.
How to choose a swim buoy?
Swim buoys are an essential piece of kit for open water swimming and it is best to own one. But there are plenty of brands, sizes, and colors available on the market for them. How should you choose your buoy?
I really enjoy the swim buoy I use: the Zone 3 28L buoy, which includes a large dry bag where you can fit a towel and some smaller items. The quality of the material on this buoy is really good: thick orange fabric made of heavy-duty nylon (very strong) with solid seams.
I have had it for 3 years now and it is still in the same condition as when I bought it. Also, this buoy is great because it is quite big in size, so really good for visibility and it can really hold your weight without issue if you need a rest.
Factors to consider when choosing
You can find plenty of buoys online, some much cheaper than the one I bought. But in terms of quality, they are not all at the same level. You should look for a buoy with:
- a strong material (thick enough fabric which doesn’t look like it is going to be torn off)
- solid beams (to prevent it from breaking)
- high visibility color (orange is the most visible on water but feel free to pick pink or yellow if you prefer)
- a dry bag (even if you don’t need it everyday it will come handy for sure at some point, especially for your keys)
- an adjustable strap and waist belt
How to care for your swim buoy:
- Always rinse your swim buoy after use
- Let the buoy dry
- Deflate the swim buoy
- Store the buoy in a dry safe place away from direct sunlight (if you don’t want its colour to fade away)
Be careful: if you store it inflated, you might get the surprise on a hot day to find your buoy damaged with its seams broken. Heated air tends to expand, this is why it could damage your buoy.