Sunday, October 14, 2012

Volunteering can be an Adventure

Yesterday we volunteered to help out with a five kilometer open water swimming race. Unfortunately, there was a strong wind and the water was rough. There was some discussion but they decided to go ahead with the race, warning the swimmers that the conditions were for experts only.

Shelley and I were in kayaks, accompanying swimmers. The guide for our upcoming kayak trip had asked if we wanted to help since they were short of volunteers and we said sure. We imagined a nice sunny calm day of paddling but that did not happen.

Just launching the kayaks was a little rough (at least for us) and I spent the first few minutes pumping the water out of the kayak from waves breaking over me.

From our experience with adventure races, we know how hard it is to get everything coordinated. This race was no different. The kayaks were supposed to wait in a group and pick up the swimmers as they came by. But it wasn't clear where we were supposed to be and several groups of kayaks developed, none of them really in the right place.

To their credit, the race started on time at 8 am. I picked up one of the first swimmers, partly because he was wearing a florescent green cap that I figured would be easy to spot (and it was). (If you want to be seen bright colors are definitely a good idea - people in black wet suits are very hard to spot.) It turned out to be a lucky match for both of us since he spoke English (he was from California). Shelley and I had been a little nervous about how we'd communicate with Spanish speaking swimmers.

The hardest part of the kayaking was keeping in position beside the swimmer. I've never tried to follow a swimmer in a kayak and it's a little tricky. Most of the waves weren't breaking, just big swells, although the occasional one would soak me and add more water inside the kayak. I heard someone said the waves were about five feet.

It would have been a lot drier with a spray skirt, but because some of the kayak volunteers were inexperienced they decided not to use them. Trying to stay within about ten feet of my swimmer didn't leave any breaks to eat or drink, or even to pump out the kayak. He only stopped once, briefly, about half way. He asked for water and I gave him some of mine. I'd wondered whether they got anything to drink during the race. Certainly in a two hour running race there would be water stations.

From a kayak, low on the water, it was hard to see to navigate. For the swimmers it was even tougher. The route was quite simple - from Picazon to Coronado Island. But in between there is a small island that you can go around either side. Last year the course had gone around the south side since it's slightly more direct. But they had run into a strong current so this year they had stressed to everyone that the course would go around the north side. Except somehow the markers ended up leading to the south side - confusing.

My swimmer ended up depending on me for directions which wasn't really my role and made me uncomfortable because I wasn't sure the best way to go. I made a judgement call and led him around the south side. The wind was from the north so if nothing else it was slightly sheltered. Luckily there was no current this year. It was a toss up, Shelley followed instructions and went around the north side. From later reports it sounds like south was possibly slightly better.

One treat along the way was a bunch of dolphins that probably came to see what was going on. They never got too close, but they hung around for a while. The swimmers saw quite a few sea turtles, probably because they were looking down into the water. I didn't spot any.

My swimmer was tenth to the finish, in just under two hours (out of about 100 swimmers), which was pretty good since he was 67 years old. I have nothing but admiration for the swimmers, young and old - I wouldn't be up to it in calm water, let alone in these conditions.

One of the kayakers was the son of a swimmer. He lost sight of his father (easy to do in these conditions) and in the process of looking for him he got flipped over by a wave and was unable to get back in his kayak, not surprising as it can be tricky in the best of conditions. As he was bobbing around, he was joined by a swimmer who was throwing up. (Either sea sick or from swallowing sea water, or both.) They were picked up by one if the motor boats and he was fine, but he felt bad for failing at his duties and was quite worried until his father made it to the finish.

As the morning went on, the conditions got worse and they decided it was too rough to kayak back from the island. We waited quite a while as the swimmers straggled in and then as boats ferried all the swimmers and kayakers back. One women was missing and Shelley and I went out in one of the boats looking for her. It was very difficult conditions to try to find someone in the water. The boat was rocking and rolling and we were getting drenched in spray and waves. We didn't have any luck. They still hadn't found her when we went home. The next day we heard they had found her on the wrong side of the island after five hours in the water - yikes! I've never had anyone lost for that long on any of the adventure races I've organized, but I can imagine how stressful it must have been for the organizers.

Even the boat trip back to shore was exciting. Again we got bounced around and totally drenched from waves and spray. It's a good thing the water and weather were warm. It was too rough for the boats to land on the beach so we had to jump out and swim the last 100 feet through the surf. A bit of a challenge with a hat and sunglasses on and a dry bag in one hand. Luckily the waves pushed you in so swimming wasn't really required.

Although we only kayaked for a few hours (albeit in rough conditions) we were exhausted by the end of the day. Liberal doses of ice cream and beer pulled us through :-)

For Shelley's viewpoint, and some photos see: 2do Cruce a Nado

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