Piloting Open Water Swimmers

pilot_boat_swimmingIn mountain climbing the unsung heroes are the sherpas/porters. In open water swimming the unsung heroes are the pilot boats.

Typically I’m a swimmer, and pilot boats protect me. Today I had the opportunity to switch roles. I piloted a swim with 25 swimmers. There were 5 other pilot boats including me.

Role of the pilot boat during an open water swim:

  • Protect swimmer from boaters and wildlife
  • Guide the swim path
  • Feed and motivate the swimmer during swims lasting more than 1 hour

What I learned. First of all I learned what a pilot boat does (see above). I also learned what a powerful affect the tidal current has on a swimmer. From the vantage point of our pilot boat Reuben and I saw several swimmers get swept by a swift tidal current. The current was faster than they were and caused them to literally swim in place. A good pilot can help a swimmers navigate currents and win the race!

Pilots from the Dolphin Club use plastic kayaks, motorized zodiacs, fiberglass paddle boards, and wooden Whitehall rowboats. The Whitehall rowboats at the Dolphin Club are pretty awesome, and most of over 100 years old. During the swim walkie-talkies are used to coordinate maneuvers. Two or more pilot boats lead the front swimmer and sweep the rear swimmer. Other pilot boats serve as course markers and guide points for the swimmers along the course.

Some stats about today’s swim.

  • 52F … water temp
  • 1:3 … ratio of swimmers to pilot boats
  • 1.5 miles … course distance
  • 1897 … year that my wooden rowboat was built
  • 3 … donuts/bagels consumed pre & post (yummy!)

And of course, photography from today.

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