A week ago Saturday a bunch of us provided safety boat coverage for the Point to LaPointe Open Water Swim. It seemed like a reunion of blog characters with the VOR, Gurney Granny, CleanDeckKate, GreenThumbChef, Podman, KingOfIronwoodIsland, Professor LIchen, ManFromSnowyLegs, and RangerMark all crawling out of bed at dark o'clock to make the safety meeting at 7am under the big Willow tree on Trek & Trail beach in Bayfield. There were plenty of local folks in kayaks as well and over 400 swimmers registered with 38 safety boaters in the mix. The weather was beautiful, cool and dry, and the lake started out placid with no wind at all. That would change a bit by mid race as we shall see.
The start is always impressive and the sound of 400 people splashing through the water at once is some audio that can only be heard at a unique event such as this. Swimmers are all wearing bright neon swim caps which really helps the safety folks keep track of everyone. In the end our mission is just that, to keep track of everyone and make sure that tired, cold, or cramped up swimmers are taken care of by the power boat crews and their medical staff. Kayakers are given zones that correspond the five large orange buoys that mark the course and we are supposed to unfold like an accordion as the lead swimmers cover the two miles to LaPointe on Madeline Island. On the back end, the folks in charge of the sweep are making sure the last swimmer is covered and that the cordon of safety boats slowly closes up and heads for Madeline Island. The lead swimmers cover the distance in roughly 45 minutes. The course is shut down at 10pm, two and a half hours after the start. Forty five minutes into the swim, when the leaders were stepping out of the water was also about the time the wind and current kicked up with interesting yet predictable results.
Those big orange buoys are tethered to the bottom, a bottom that is over 100' down in a couple of instances, by a cable and anchor. They provide a rough guide for swimmers as they cross the channel. When the wind and current pick up they will drift. The primary function of the kayaks is safety; the majority of time however is spent making sure the swimmers are headed for Madeline Island and not Basswood Island or Ashland. The north to south current this year made for many Ashland bound swimmers.
I'm a lousy swimmer but a guy who can get stay afloat and get from point A to B most of the time. I did complete the Mile Swim BSA in Boy Scouts but that was during Lyndon Johnson's administration. Unlike we Scouts following a rowboat for a mile, alternating between crawl, backstroke, and side stroke, these swimmers were focused on one stroke and kept swimming relentlessly. Once the current started the relentless swimming continued, just not always in the direction of the finish line. There are a number of techniques for getting folks back on course. Most of the competitors have goggles and many also have earplugs. Yelling does not work worth a damn. Pounding on the side of the kayak can work but the best way to get a person's attention is to poke them with a paddle, a technique that race director Scott Armstrong refers to as being kayaked. All are startled, some are pissed. We then explain that if they continue in their present mode they will circle back to Bayfield; we point toward the finish line, a goal that we paddlers with our eyes 30" above the water can see clearly. About a quarter mile from the finish line, a line marked with balloons, banners, and cheering spectators, I poked a guy and pointed to the finish line and asked him if he could see it. "I can't see anything, my goggles are fogged up". Hmmmmm. Maybe take em off? I asked another guy how he made sure he was going in a straight line. "I just key on the splashes of the guy in front of me. The theory of lemmings blithely jumping off a cliff had been debunked but the idea of distance swimmers following each other, perhaps in a circle is apparently alive and well. I found that if I aimed 17' of brightly colored fiberglass at the finish line like an arrow that worked the best for the swimmers to key on. I would then paddle alongside for awhile and that seemed to work. Once I moved on to the next group of swimmers though, all bets were off.
I've had fun with this little story and have had fun with the race for the last several years as well. There is no way in hell I could swim two miles, and I applaud everyones effort. As my buddy Eric Iverson pointed out, the guy that finished dead last still beat everyone that didn’t swim, including Eric and I. For the most part the swimmers navigate the crossing without much trouble and although the main pack tends to expand and contract in all directions things go pretty smoothly. The main goal is to be alert for tired or cold swimmers, a mission that RangerMark fulfilled when he helped two swimmers out of the water. There is always room for improvement though, and at 7:20am both swimmers and safety boaters can be a bit groggy and sometimes information can go in one ear and out the other. LIke most endeavors that are worthwhile, constant improvement is the goal. I have some kayaking contacts out in the Bay Area that have safety boated the Alcatraz swim as well as other ocean events and I hope to get some tips from them. While we don't have a 3 knot ebb tide like they have in the bay, there are certain constants to the safety boating mission. If any readers have any good suggestions or insights, please comment or email me. As the swim grows larger, and it has grown geometrically over the years, more experienced and organized safety boat volunteers are a necessity. The Coast Guard has a sizable presence as do the volunteers in the Coast Guard Auxiliary and medical volunteers. Good coordination and communication between all parties can make this an even more fun and keep this very popular event safe and efficient as it grows. It's a great day on the water for everyone involved in this cool community event and it can only get better.