Tow Floats and Ocean Swimming

Are tow floats always safer of Ocean Swimmers?

Swimming in the ocean can be an exhilarating experience, but it can also pose a number of safety risks. With the rise in popularity of wild swimming, many swimmers are now turning to tow floats as an additional measure of safety. But is it really safe to use tow floats for ocean swimming?

In this blog I discuss tow floats for swimmers and how they add to safety. I also talk about a couple of times when I have worn tow floats that have led to problems in my swims.

What is a Tow Float?

In the simplest terms, a tow float is a large, durable, highly visible device that swimmers can use to stay safe while ocean swimming. Most swimmers tow floats are inflatable but some are made of lightweight materials such as foam.

Tow floats are typically attached to the swimmer by a short length of webbing or rope connecting to a belt around the swimmers waist. The connection allows the float be out of the way of the swimmers stroke but still be tethered so that both the swimmer and the float stay together.

Benefits of Using Tow Floats When Ocean Swimming

Tow floats come with a number of benefits. First and foremost, they are highly visible, providing an extra level of safety for us swimmers. Other water users have a much greater chance of seeing us swimming and avoiding us and that appeals to me!

Also if we are swimming in a group or being escorted by a kayaker or support vessel it is so much easier for them to keep track of us. These are two huge benefits and could be life-saving.

Another benefit is if we get into trouble on a swim and have a tow float we may be able to use the float to attract attention. Waving a brightly coloured float around is much more likely to be seen than just waving our arms.

Tow floats can also be used as a place to store some supplies or other safety gear. Some floats have a small pouch in them that can carry a water bottle or some welcome food goodies which are great for a longer swim.

Most commonly tow floats used by ocean swimmers are inflatable. This type of float may be used as a temporary emergency floatation aid if a swimmer gets into difficulty or just an aid to rest on during a break. This may be a short term benefit, however inflatable floats can leak over time and therefore should not be relied on as longer term floatation support.

Risks of Using Tow Floats

As with many types of safety equipment, there are also some risks associated with tow floats.

I consider myself a cautious and safety conscious ocean swimmer and I often wear tow floats when swimming in areas with boats or on longer unsupported swims. However I would like to write about a couple times where wearing a tow float caused me some problems and some lessons I learnt from this.

1. Strong winds. One time I went solo swimming along a beach in a harbour with boat traffic so I wore a tow float to increase my visibility. During the swim the wind rapidly increased to blow in around 30-40 knots (55-75 km/hr). I found the tow float was causing problems. Swimming into the wind it became a significant drag and made swimming so much harder. Swimming across wind also dragged me off course and often the float was tangling up with my arms. Worse still was when I swam downwind back to the beach. The float was not only getting tangled with my arms but also there was a risk of tangling with my head and neck!

Lesson learnt. Don’t take a tow float in strong winds!

2. Surf conditions. I was swimming in a group for a 6.9 km (4.3 miles) swim starting at a surf beach. Being safety conscious I had my float and inside that a small water bottle. The start of the swim was through 1.5 metre (5 foot) surf breaking top to toe. I felt confident I could swim through the surf zone ok but I decided to deflate my tow float as I knew it would be impossible to get through the surf without being able to dive underneath the waves. Having an inflated tow float would mean it would either get ripped off me or would drag me too far back to get through the surf zone.

I rolled the float up and tucked it under the belt and started swimming out through the surf. However in the impact zone the deflated tow float came out from my belt and partially filled with water. It became a dead weight attached to me that prevented me from diving beneath the waves or swimming out during break in the waves. I got rapidly out of breath and I felt my heartbeat increasing to what felt like dangerous levels. I returned humbled to the beach utterly exhausted hardly able to stumble up the beach and wave at my fellow swimmers (not wearing tow floats) out safely beyond the surf zone.

Lesson Learnt. Don’t use tow floats in surf conditions!


For me, tow floats are a welcome safety addition to many swims. They offer a huge benefit in making us swimmers much more visible for boaters and rescuers or accompanying vessels/other swimmers.  Also tow floats can provide temporary floatation aids. However during strong winds or surf conditions, tow floats can become a danger or impedance to the swimmer and caution should be applied before wearing the tow float in these conditions.

I wish you all safe fun swimming and hope this article helps you to make informative decisions about tow floats.