When Conditions Go South In The Open Water

MIAMI, Florida. April 23. CONDITIONS do not always cooperate when open water swims are held. This places a huge amount of pressure on the race directors, safety personnel and volunteers.

When rains, winds, waves, marine life, thunder and lightning invade the venue and corrupt the competition, open water swimming becomes roughwater swimming and swimmers face Mother Nature.

But race directors have to make decisions all based on the safety and well-being of the participants. This weekend's Swim Miami presented by Nike ran headlong into a storm system in southern Florida. This is what was considered and decided by race director Jonathan Strauss:

Open Water Source: When did you know that the weather would not cooperate?

Strauss: We knew the forecast the entire week before the event. The forecast for the weekend was terrible. The day before, towards the end of the day, it cleared up a bit, but then storm clouds started to come so we knew we were going to have problems.

Open Water Source: Who was part of this decision-making process?

Strauss: Our safety team. In terms of rain, we were not going to cancel and all of our safety staff was paid until 2 pm so we knew could wait out the rain. We had 8 ocean rescue guards on paddle boards, 3 additional lifeguards and our 8 safety boat crew members – who were all experienced sailors – and 2 safety coordinators, one responsible for onshore and one responsible for offshore, all had input. We discussed the possibility of cancellation and other options.

Open Water Source: What happened on race day?

Strauss: I arrived at the venue at 6 am. It was a downpour so there was no one we could we set up the course. No way. We waited until 7:15 am and suddenly there was a window of opportunity where we could set the course up.

Open Water Source: What unexpected things happened?

Strauss: The currents and tides had shifted. Our original plans, based on safety, were designed so the swimmers could swim with the tides. We wanted the currents to help get the beginners to the finish faster. But everything that morning was all backwards. The winds were strong, causing the water on the top surface to move fast. It was moving so fast like a flume, so we had to modify the 800-meter course. As a result, we changed the course to a modified 300-meter triangle course. This new course was easy to monitor and the swim was safe within those new confines.

Open Water Source: When did you make the final decision to postpone and modify the races?

Strauss: We made our announcements right away. With everything originally designed safely for those newcomers and less experienced swimmers, we made some quick decisions. We knew a bad storm system was coming so at 7:30 am, we announced the race was officially going to be postponed. None of the lifeguards on paddle boards had wetsuits and we knew there were 15-20 swimmers who would have taken 3-4 hours in the 10K course due to the heavy winds. I thought the lifeguards on paddle boards could not handle [the rain and wind without wetsuits] for 4 hours, so we decided to modify the 10K to a 5K course. We also know the conditions would deteriorate later in the day so it was an easy decision. So we left that initial safety meeting and decided to modify everything which we announced. In the break in the rainfall, we set the four corners of the course even though the winds were still up.

The 10K swimmers were informed that their race would now be a 5K, but then thunderstorms started at 8:30 am. Because we are required to stay out of the water for a minimum of 30 minutes after the last lightening, we knew the race would not start until at least 9 am. But at least the course was set up. But at 9 am, another lightening hit which meant we had to delay until 9:30 am.

At that point, we decided that everyone [in the 5K and 10K races] will swim a mile. Everyone would be awarded in the mile race as if they were swimming in their original race (1 mile, 5K or 10K) in a modified course. I knew the most elite swimmers could have possibly made it, but we also had a lot of first-timers who would have had a hard time under these conditions. So we decided to make those announcements. When we made that decision, you could tell there were many who showed a sign a relief. We knew people wanted to still swim because they had trained and traveled to attend the race.

Open Water Source: And the final outcome?

Strauss: The 800-meter race started and finished. Then the 1-mile race started and the entire event was finished by 10:30 am when another rainstorm hit. Everyone seems very happy and I was happy because it was not as big of a risk with the modified shorter courses. We didn't face complaints from the swimmers and received compliments how we handled the situation.

Safe and sound. Splendid.

Courtesy of Open Water Source

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