Swim PilotingNavigating Swimmers

Shepherding Swimmers

The pilots duty is to help the swimmer get to their destination with the least possible effort, and probably more importantly to help them avoid being swept somewhere where they’ll need rescuing. 

Because the swimmer is limited in their visibility and situational awareness, it falls to the pilot to help them find the best course. This will draw heavily on your understanding of Bay currents and how to navigate them. 

It can be difficult for swimmers to spot landmarks, especially in rough water. This is when you must ‘pilot’ the swimmer back on course. It may be necessary to place your boat in front of the swimmer to get their attention. You are their eyes and got the same briefing about the course they did. A common mistake new pilots make is to assume the swimmer knows what they are doing. Some do, some don’t. Talk to them and make sure. It is not a good idea to allow a swimmer, even if they insist they know what they are doing, to get too far away from the rest of the swim. They will lose the protection of the perimeter established by the other pilots and require you to focus only on one swimmer, leaving two others unattended. Use obvious gestures and hand signals.  We are there to pilot swimmers, not just escort them.

The plan is to ensure that the currents are providing the most assistance to the swimmers is to place them far enough from shore to catch the current, but not so far out that they will have trouble hitting the opening without the need to be repositioned. 

For Eastward bound swims, the current is stronger north of a line drawn from Ft. Point to Coughlin Beach and continuing to Ft. Mason Pier 2 (farther North the current will only get stronger); Swimmers should start aiming toward the Aquatic Park opening somewhere around Gashouse Cove.

For Westward bound swims, the current is strongest between Alpha and Bravo towers of the Bay Bridge, but to hit Aquatic Park, care must be taken to avoid being pushed too far North as one curves around the city-front. Excellent results have come by cutting close (50-100 yards) to Pier 27. Again, avoid dead zones, like south of a line between Pier 39 and the Pier 45 breakwater (Creakers), but don’t get too far out and miss the opening.

There could be a separate class for both Alcatraz and the Golden Gate swims. Listen to the lead pilot and attend the pilot briefing. 

Upon reaching the opening, pilots can check on the radio or with someone who has a radio to find out if they are needed further back in the swim. Entering the cove amongst a swarm of swimmers is not advised, it’s best to stay outside and let the main body of the swim clear the water before heading in.

Keep an eye on swimmers in the cove. There have been many cases of swimmers flagging and running into trouble in the last stretch between the opening and the club. 

judge swimmer’s course and strength to make the opening

Report an uncooperative swimmer to a swim commissioner. (note their arm number)

Each pilot needs to also maintain ‘situational awareness’, in other words, all pilots need to be constantly scanning the horizon looking for potential threats, checking the wind, looking for ‘current lines’ (that may indicate different water conditions nearby) and checking that the current is doing what you are expecting it to do. It may be necessary to adjust course or change the overall strategy when encountering unexpected conditions.

This swimmer will be relying on your greater visibility (both to see and be seen) and your ability to carry cargo (sometimes that includes the swimmer themselves).

The most dangerous situations could be stationary objects during strong currents swims (isn’t that what swimmers are looking for?) The most dangerous are piers, ancored barges, boats, pylons, and buoy. You probably heard about pier 27, during the strong ebb when swimmers could be sucked under. It is difficult to extricate someone from under the structure.

Aquatic Park pier also could be a danger with possible injuries or occasional missing the opening.

Pilots should learn to judge swimmers’ ability to avoid an obstruction. The best way to judge the speed is to use GPS. If the swimmer’s speed is too high – better to stay away from stationary structures.

Unfortunately not too many Dolphins are using GPS routinely for continuous monitoring speed and distance. It is a great tool for learning the Bay and helping to avoid dangerous situations.

Repositioning Swimmers

Occasionally you may just need to reposition a swimmer to help them out of a difficult situation. Common occurrences are to get a swimmer out of a shipping lane. Ask the swimmer to kick, so you are pulling the swimmer horizontally.