Swim Safety for USAT Triathlon National Championships

I borrowed this image from last year's race to show what the start of a wave looks like as athletes swim from the Discovery World pier and swim south toward the footbridge at Lakeshore State Park on Milwaukee's lakefront.

I borrowed this image from last year’s race to show what the start of a wave looks like as athletes swim from the Discovery World pier toward the footbridge at Lakeshore State Park on Milwaukee’s lakefront. That’s me in the kayak at upper left.

For the third year in a row Milwaukee hosted the USAT Age Group National Championship triathlon this past weekend. And for each of those years I served as kayak captain for about 30 volunteers who brought their kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to help more than 5,000 athletes make it safely through the swim portion of the events. You’ve never seen a triathlon swim race until you see it close up from the water, either as a competitor or as a kayak safety boater. It’s an exciting and rewarding experience to be out there with the athletes, providing safety and encouragement. Our weekend began Thursday evening with an on-water training session for all the kayak and SUP volunteers. Prior to coming to Milwaukee, USAT did not always conduct a kayaker training session at its other venues, but based on my experience at other triathlons, including Wisconsin Iron Man, I knew it was important to get everyone on the same page on safety protocol so I recommended the training session my first year as kayak captain at USAT Nationals. USAT officials readily agreed. Each of the past three years we held our training session on Thursday evening prior to the weekend races. On Friday kayakers provided on-water safety during a two-hour practice swim for all athletes. Then on Saturday morning the races got underway, starting with the Olympic distance races. 1500K swim, 40K bike and 10K run. On Sunday the “sprint” distance: 750K swim, 20K bike and 5K run. Once again the weather was nearly perfect for the event. The water in the lagoons of Lakeshore State Park was cooler than normal for August — around 64 degree F. I heard some of the athletes from warmer climates commenting on how cold the water was but most of them seemed to take it in stride. In fact a number of them chose not to wear wet suits, which seemed pretty crazy to me. Both days we had a few incidents that required our quick response to extract swimmers from the water due to cramping, asthma problems, or other non-life-threatening reasons. Each of the three years we heard nothing but rave reviews from the athletes about Milwaukee as the venue — the beauty of the lakefront, huge crowds, great views of the race for spectators, and the hospitality of the city. USAT National Championships are moving to Omaha for the next two years. So Omaha, you’d better be ready. You have a tough act to follow.

Arriving just before sunrise Sunday, I had to pause for a few photos and take in the beauty of the Milwaukee lakefront.

Arriving just before sunrise Sunday, I had to pause for a few photos and take in the beauty of the Milwaukee lakefront.

Sally relaxes on her SUP before the start of the first wave on Sunday.

Sally relaxes on her SUP before the start of the first wave on Sunday.

The view from my kayak as swimmers head under the footbridge. Fog rolled in Sunday morning but it didn't interfere with the race.

The view from my kayak as swimmers head under the footbridge. Fog rolled in Sunday morning but it didn’t interfere with the race.

Kayaker Connie R. escorts two swimmers toward the exit ramp.

Kayaker Connie escorts two swimmers toward the exit ramp.

The last swimmer in the final wave exits the water at the conclusion of the USAT Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee.

The last swimmer in Sunday’s final wave exits the water at the conclusion of the USAT Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee.

Large crowds of athletes, volunteers and spectators gathered at the Milwaukee lakefront for the USAT national championships.

Large crowds of athletes, volunteers and spectators gathered at the Milwaukee lakefront for the USAT national championships.

Some of the 30 kayak and SUP volunteers pose near the volunteer tent after the USAT Triathlon races on Saturday.

Some of the 30 kayak and SUP volunteers pose near the volunteer tent after the USAT Triathlon races on Saturday.

For others planning to organize kayakers as safety boaters in upcoming triathlons, you might find helpful tips in the following information I prepared for our kayakers.

USA Triathlon Kayaker Training Session, Aug. 6, 2015, 6 p.m. Lakeshore State Park

Role of kayakers and paddleboarders

Kayakers and paddleboarders will be stationed at positions along the swim course to serve as directional guides for athletes and for safety purposes. You must be confident in your ability to keep your kayak upright if an athlete needs to hold onto your watercraft. Kayaks are often the first responder to an athlete in need of assistance. If an athlete is in need of further assistance/rescue, the kayaker will signal for lifeguards stationed along the course.

What to do when you arrive before your shift:

Check in at the Volunteer Tent by the Art Museum and receive your volunteer T-shirt. Once you have checked in at the volunteer tent, drive onto the Lakeshore State Park “island” from the south end under the Hoan Bridge (drive slowly and stay on the concrete walkway). Unload your boat and gear at the Lakeshore State Park beach. Park your vehicle on the grass across from the beach. Make a bathroom stop at port-o-potties located near the beach. See Ken at the beach to learn your assigned position for your shift. You should be on the water and at your designated position at least 15 minutes prior to the start of the first wave of your race. For the Friday practice swim, be in position by 10:15 a.m. For the Saturday morning race, be in position by 6:45 a.m. For the Sunday morning race, be in position by 6:15 a.m.

What you need to bring:

Kayak, paddle, PFD (must be worn at all times while on the water), whistle, drinking water, snack, sunscreen, hat, waiver form from the volunteer manual that was emailed to you. Dress for immersion! That is, be prepared to get wet. Have dry clothes on shore or in your vehicle. Wear your volunteer T-shirt at all times at the event. If you wish to wear additional clothing such as a rash guard or windbreaker while on the water, be sure to wear your volunteer T-shirt as the outermost layer immediately under your PFD so you are easily identifiable as a registered safety boater.

Overview of the swim course, maps, point out start and finish areas from the beach

Four scenarios that may require your assistance:

  1. Swimmer is veering off course. Swimmers are allowed to swim left or right of the main swim lane if they wish to avoid other swimmers. However they must swim around the outside of all buoys that mark the turns. If they appear to be going significantly off course (for example at a 90-degree angle to the swim lane) you may need to establish visual contact with the swimmer. First, point in the correct direction with your outstretched arm and hand, or point with your paddle. If after a few seconds the swimmer does not appear to notice your visual directions, try yelling to him or her, such as “Swimmer, you are off course!” and continue pointing in the correct direction. Don’t use your whistle unless there is an emergency.
  2. Swimmer needs to rest. Whoever sees the swimmer first should move in to assist. Other kayakers nearby should monitor while continuing to scan the area. Make contact with the swimmer. Offer the bow (front) of your boat to the swimmer, not the side. This lets you keep an eye on them and they are less likely to capsize your boat. If the swimmer merely needs to rest or adjust goggles or swim cap, there’s no need to signal lifeguards. Remain in place or back out of the swim lane if possible, but do not advance the swimmer forward along the course. Offer words of encouragement.
  3. Swimmer in distress. If the swimmer is panicky, try to get them to calm down before they grab your boat or you. Even though they may need assistance, if they are able to wave their arms in the air it means they are not in immediate danger of sinking. Shout to them and tell them to look at you. Again, offer the bow (front) of your boat. Maintain control of your boat using low braces or sculling strokes. If, after you reach the swimmer you see he or she is having a medical emergency, blow three loud tweets on your whistle and raise your paddle straight up and down to alert the lifeguards. Stay with the swimmer until the lifeguards arrive to provide assistance.
  4. Unconscious swimmer. If you see an unresponsive swimmer floating face down, blow your whistle three times to alert the lifeguards. If you reach the swimmer before the lifeguards, attempt to roll the swimmer onto his back by grabbing both hands, holding them close together and using them to turn the swimmer over. Prop his head and arms up onto the deck of your kayak if possible, so his face is out of the water.

Additional Tips

  • Communicate with volunteers around you at the start of your shift. Get to know each other’s names so you can address each other throughout the morning if you need their help/attention.
  • Always be vigilant and keep scanning your area.
  • If you have verified that another volunteer has responded and has a situation covered, resume scanning your area. Other swimmers may need your assistance.
  • Don’t get distracted, it’s fun to watch, but remember your safety role.
  • Don’t bunch up, keep spaced apart for good coverage.
  • After the race, wait for the “all clear” from the kayak captain or swim director before leaving the course and returning to the south lagoon beach. Check out at the volunteer tent to receive your gift card.
  • Have fun! Be helpful at all times. Make it a great experience for the athletes!

On the water

Thursday evening we will demonstrate and practice:

  1. Low brace, sculling, draw strokes, sweep, reverse stroke
  2. Paddling up to a swimmer and stopping suddenly
  3. Having swimmer rest on bow of your boat
  4. Rotating unconscious swimmer

USAT 2015 video from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

What do you think? Please comment!