Many people are excited to get involved in Open Water swimming, either for a new twist on training or to take advantage of the expanding competitive opportunities. There are some potential risks and hazards, but with thoughtful planning in advance, Open Water swimming can open up whole new worlds for both athletes and coaches. Let’s look at some of the things you, as a coach, must do in order to plan Open Water training or an Open Water event. First, identify the factors that you will be dealing with to eliminate unforeseen risks. The known factors are age, experience, physical ability and athlete to supervisor ratio. Plan an experience that is appropriate for your athletes and staff!
The need for efficiently organized safe swims is imperative. The swim, either for training or competition, may follow several different course types:
1. Parallel to a shore
2. To or around a fixed point or landmark such as a rock, island or pier
3. Around a closed course marked by buoys
4. Point to point
Direct supervision, adequate coach to swimmer ratio and thorough instruction are key elements in open water swimming. If you are ill-prepared, you could find yourself and your athletes in trouble. Plan how you will account for every swimmer who enters the water. Make sure that you have enough escort craft, with you for the size of your group. For example, you may have three kayaks, one in the lead, one tailing and one to respond to emergencies. If you have to stop for one athlete, you do not want to leave the others unattended. Develop clear signals for athletes to let you know if they need assistance. Also develop signals to let the athletes know that they should look up or stop.
Be familiar with water conditions such as temperature, water clarity, waves and currents. Be aware and warn the swimmers of any natural or manmade hazards such as rocks, piers and submerged objects. Monitor weather conditions for any possible storms or abrupt temperature changes. Be prepared to terminate the swim at the first sign of foul weather.
It is also important that swimmers be prepared and physically able to complete the swim distance. Your athletes might be able to handle the distance going out, but might struggle coming back. Swimmers should complete several short swims in controlled areas before attempting a longer more challenging swim. Some swimmers may have very real fears of swimming in open water and may need to be gradually encouraged.
In addition coaches need to be well prepared to deal with potential hypothermia, dehydration and deep water rescue. In spite of the additional risks encountered outside of a pool, open water swimming provides great training and diversion from swimming laps in the pool. Proper planning can reduce or eliminate these risks.
Open Water Meet Safety
1. Define the course with a clearly marked start area, turn markers and finish line
2. Design the course to minimize confusion and avoid head-on traffic patterns
3. Eliminate changes in course direction where the course is likely to be congested, such as at the start
4. Seek the advice of local experts such as the Beach Patrol or Parks Department, the Red Cross, the USA Swimming Local Swim Committee (LSC), the Coast Guard and the Harbormaster.
5. Have a clear emergency action plan and medical evacuation plan
6. Set up safety monitor stations with first aid supplies and emergency signaling devices
7. Be prepared to cancel the event in case of inclement weather.
8. Account for every participant who enters and exits the water
9. Have a public briefing to go over rules and procedures with all participants.
10. Line up escort and pilot boats