Swim Piloting

Swim Piloting

“Piloting improves swimming. Swimming improves piloting”

The Dolphin Club uses a variety of watercraft to assure the safety and success of the swims. These craft are referred to as pilot vessels and your participation as a pilot is an essential part of the success of the swim and the safety of the swimmers

Dolphin Club craft may only be used to pilot on club-approved swims:

  • Official Club Swims
  • Independent Swims (Approved by Swim Commissioner & Boat Captain)
  • Officially sanctioned third party swims (Swim Across America, Baykeeper etc)

Club boats may not be used to pilot on third party commercial swims.


To pilot effectively an understanding of how the currents and conditions in the bay affect moving throughout the bay is essential. You should have gone through the Bay Safety Guide, and have had an orientation to use the craft you are using.

We welcome all boaters at the club to come out and join us on club swims. It’s a great way to see how they work and help us keep an eye on swimmers. Be aware that some swims are tougher to pilot than others. If you’re uncertain if you have the skills necessary to pilot a longer swim, talk to the lead pilot or chief pilot in advance.

We differentiate between ‘escorts’ and ‘pilots’ – Any member may be an escort. But those who have experience and demonstrated swim piloting skills may be considered ‘pilots’ – Certified pilots may pilot swimmers in Club Resourced Independent Bay Swims (CRIBS). Certification may be done as part of piloting a swim under the supervision of the Chief Pilot, Boat Captain, or other designated senior pilot. 

Taking Care of #1

Your first responsibility as a pilot is for your own safety. Do not pilot in conditions that are above your ability. Do not be shy about letting the lead pilot know if you are uncomfortable. Try to do this before the swim. Know your own limitations and that of your craft. 

A lightweight rowing shell is unlikely to be a good vessel in choppy waters. SUPs struggle in windy conditions. If you are piloting beyond your comfort zone, you become a liability for the swimmers and the swim organizers. Kayaks, the Liteboats and Whitehall rowing boats tend to be best for swim piloting. 

<< Sidenote story of of kayakers or SUP’s or rowboats getting into trouble and being a liability on the swim. >> 

What  to wear

In rowing and kayaking training, you will have figured out what clothing works best for you. But as a pilot, you will likely be generating much less heat than if you were rowing or kayaking for exercise. To enjoy piloting you will need to dress warmer than you might do otherwise:

  • Kayakers
    Consider wearing a wetsuit for swim piloting, especially in the winter. Windproof outer layer and synthetic under layers are advised too.
  • Rowers
    For whitehall rowers, dress warm and in layers. If you’re in a shell, remember to bring a splashproof outer windbreaker, and layer up significantly more than you would normally.
  • Standup Paddlers
    While swim piloting, you will often experience rougher conditions than you are used to, and you should be prepared to fall in, and get back on your board without becoming uncomfortable. Recommend wearing a wetsuit or drysuit, and/or windproof outer layers.
  • Motorized Craft
    When the wind blows, or the boat is moving at speed, you can quickly get wet and cold on a motorized craft too. Dress to stay dry and warm. This typically includes ‘foulies’ (waterproof outer layers) and layers underneath.

Club Swims (What to Expect)

The club hosts a dozen or so large group swims every year. Some of these swims have almost 100 swimmers. Strong pilot support makes them possible, and we aim to keep a 1:3 swimmer to pilot ratio. (1 pilot for 3 swimmers)

Club-organized events are generally scheduled for optimum current conditions for the swim. If the jump is to the West of Aquatic Park, there should be a flood, and an ebb if the jump is to the East.

Roles on a Club Swim

A smooth functioning swim comes together when everyone knows their role:

  • Chief Pilot, Boat Captain & Swim Commissioners
    These are official club roles approve and provide advice on the preparation of a swim. Once the swim is in progress, all defer to the leadership of the Lead Pilot. 
  • Lead Pilot
    The lead pilot is the person who is nominated to be responsible for the success of an individual swim. The Lead Pilot will co-ordinate with Vessel Traffic and oversee the structure and safety of the swim. On large swims, the Lead Pilot will typically be a passenger in a motorized vessel. The lead pilot has the final say on who can pilot, and who can swim on that particular swim.
  • Motorized Pilots
    Motorized pilots are typically experienced Dolphin pilots. Their increased visibility and maneuverability makes them well placed to manage parts of the swim (lead, sides, rear etc). Motorized craft will intercept vessels that threaten the swim. Typically a motorized vessel will cover the lead, another the rear, with two either side of the swim.
  • Whitehall & LiteBoat Pilots
    Whitehalls and LiteBoats are excellent boats for piloting swims. They are large enough to rescue swimmers in a pinch, and safe enough to stay close with swimmers. Liteboats have an open transom that makes repositioning swimmers easy. Typically these boats form a perimeter around swimmers.
  • SUP & Kayak Pilots
    Pilots of these craft can mix it up and get in close to support and observe swimmers. Great for checking on swimmers’ health. The kayak and SUP pilots have the ability to maneuver among the swimmers in a way the Whitehalls cannot and can provide assistance to swimmers that may be otherwise difficult to reach.

Kayakers and SUP pilots should take extra care to judge the sea-worthiness of their craft and/or appropriateness for the conditions. It is not only embarrassing, but an avoidable redirection of resources to require other pilots to rescue a pilot in distress. Common situations include: leaky kayaks and SUPers being blown downwind.

The Dolphin Club is a diverse coalition of personalities, many of whom have strong opinions about the best way to approach any particular challenge. Know your place in the hierarchy of the swim. Don’t be afraid to speak up when something is awry, but also be self-aware on when it’s appropriate to give others instruction vs suggestions vs keeping quiet.  

Preparing for the Swim

Swim Commissioners will post the signup sheets in the weeks in the lead up to a swim. All motorized, whitehall and kayak craft are reserved for swim support on the day of an official club swim. 

Many swims have very early sign-in times. Gather clothes, prepare to be wet and prepare for the wind.  Remember it’s easier to unzip than not have proper protection. 

Suggested equipment: watch, hat or visor (bright orange is very visible), radio, paddle leash, compass, sunglasses, croakies, snack, sunscreen.

When you arrive for the event:

  • Sign in at check in desk.
  • Sign out your boat.
  • Prepare your boat: Oscar flag, life jacket, paddle. Optional to take a second life jacket for rescues.
  • Attend the Pilot Briefing.  Understand the briefing & reasons for the instructions.
  • Get to start: Be aware that you might have to fight the current to get to the starting point. 

Boat Positioning 

Once the swim starts the pilots form a perimeter around the swimmers and establish that section of the bay as DC territory. 

Observer Vessels

  • SUPs & Body Boards (Note about suitability)
  • Kayaks
  • Specialty Rowing Craft (Vikings, Wieland, Shells)

The kayak and SUP pilots have the ability to maneuver among the swimmers in a way the Whitehalls cannot and can provide assistance to swimmers that may be otherwise difficult to reach.

Whitehalls & LiteBoats

These boats are well suited to maintaining the perimeter of the swim as well as observing swimmers. In a pinch, they can be used to reposition or pull a swimmer.  

Rescue / Interceptor Vessels

On larger swims, motorized pilots have the main responsibility of spotting and intercepting incoming traffic but will respond to swimmers in need of assistance when summoned by a non-motorized pilot.

  • AB’s (Stack, Moon, Spirit)
  • Larger RIB (Arias)

On a large group swim, all pilots should keep an eye on the distribution of the other pilots. All too often the front and the back of the swims sees too much coverage while the middle can be sparsely monitored. If you find yourself covering more swimmers than you think is safe, get on the radio and request assistance. 

Upon reaching the opening, it is important for pilots to 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.

Independent Swims (What to Expect)

Independent swims are typically much smaller. They will also have a Lead Pilot who is responsible for the overall success of the swim. In the case of a single swimmer, the lead pilot may be the only pilot. In swims of up to 15 swimmers, there may be a variety of craft participating. 

Should we allow for pods?   Swimmers to be same speed. Pods are OK, too. (Think Bay to Breakers)  Still need 1:1 coverage. Swimmers need to have swum together to know they are the same speed.  Someone told me that as of last year (or so) we need special CG approval to go west of GGB.   

Unlike the large organized swims, it is unlikely an independent swim will be establishing an area of the bay as our ‘zone’ or territory. Kayaks and rowboats should stay close to swimmers so as to give other vessels a visual cue to the location of swimmers. 

Individual Swimmer Piloting

On an independent swim, kayakers and rowers should be piloting just one swimmer. You should discuss the swim with your individual swimmer on dry land before the swim. Ask them how they would like to be piloted. Some swimmers prefer you to lead them, some prefer you to be alongside them on their breathing side, and some may prefer you to stay behind them.  

If you want the swimmer to adjust course in the direction towards you, you pull away some and the swimmer will have to close the gap, thereby changing course. Likewise, if you want to adjust their trajectory in the direction away from you, you close the gap between you and they will have to change course to reestablish the proper distance. Obviously, this method and hand signals should be agreed upon in advance.

On longer swims they will likely want to feed, so chat with them about how often or where they would like to do that. You should establish a method of communicating course corrections or ways you would like to ‘steer’ them.

Piloting individual swimmers with motorized craft

In smaller swims motorized pilots may be piloting individual swimmers. In these cases, they should keep downwind of the swimmers for two important reasons.

  1. Swimmers will not have to breathe exhaust fumes.
  2. It avoids the risk of the boat being blown onto a swimmer.  

Communicating with Swimmers

They must understand that you will have been in communication with the other pilots and that you have a vantage point of conditions that they do not have. They need to trust that you will be giving them good advice and that they should follow your directions even if they don’t make sense to them at the time

Use obvious gestures and hand signals.

  • Tap Head… for are you ok? 
  • Hand up and waving to stop swimming and listen

Get close to a swimmer if you need to get their attention.

Swimmers wear ear plugs. Speak loudly and clearly

When a swimmer needs redirecting, you must be willing to intrude and interrupt their tranquility. Be intrusive and assertive. 

Communicating with the Fleet

Know how to use a marine VHF radio.

Most club swims monitor channel 71. 

Other fast motor boats are called”High Speeds.” If you spot a motor boat coming towards the swim, announce it’s direction from a point on the compass or a land mark.

Example:”High speed coming from the North” or “High speed coming from Sausalito/Creakers/Gas House Cove”

Protecting Swimmers from Motorized Boats

First, protect them from your own boat! Keep downwind of swimmers. Avoid covering them in fumes, also reduces the risk of being blown onto them 

Put the engine into neutral around swimmers. Announce to all when you’re moving in and out of gear, so they know it’s safe. 

Be careful about motoring into sun… swimmers are particularly hard to see. Early morning and late afternoon swims can create a situation where the swimmer can be nearly invisible to other boats and your own, because the reflection of the sun on the water that is directly behind them. 

It is important that pilots do not allow themselves to stray too far from swimmers under these conditions. Oncoming traffic might avoid you by heading directly at the unseen swimmers.

Motorized Craft Interception Technique

  • Wave flag until vessel slows. 
  • Be polite. We don’t own the bay. 
  • Move in a way as to encourage the vessels to alter course towards safety. 
  • Point down at swimmers in the water.  (Discuss: this can be perceived as the direction to go?)
  • 5 short blasts!

Rowboats and Kayaks. 

  • Wave flag.
  • Slow Down Gestures.
  • Position your craft between the swimmer and the other vessel. 
Include the story of Jim’s death are explained in detail in an article by Brian Gilbert in the Dolphin Log from the Spring of 2002, available online through the club website dolphinclub.org.

Shepherding Swimmers to their Destination

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 a Swimmer

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. 

Monitor Health of Swimmers


The biggest risk to swimmers in SF Bay is Hypothermia. 

Signs of hypothermia include: 

  • Nausea
  • Deteriorating swim stroke 
  • Trouble speaking
  • Confusion. Lack of Direction. Swimming in Circles
  • Inability to answer questions
  • Grey skin color.

If you suspect the swimmer is starting to suffer from hypothermia, look for difficulty in speech. Ask questions which require thought: 

  • What is your name.
  • What are you sighting on? 
  • Simple arithmetic. What is 9+6

When swimmers get tired and cold, they can start feeling alone, scared, irrational or even combative. 

But as swimmers progress into hypothermia, they may lose awareness of the severity of their condition. A confused swimmer is likely to be in worse condition than a frightened swimmer. 

Other Health Risks

Animal Bites. 

Heart Attack



Rescuing Swimmers

You may need to rescue a swimmer when their health is flagging, or it becomes clear that they will not make it to their destination. 

Eventually you will have to call it for a swimmer. Even strong swimmers can need help. As a club we pull many swimmers every year even inside the cove.

Motorized Craft 

Even with two people aboard an AB, it can be hard to pull a cold and fatigued swimmer aboard. 

The pull

Rescue with parbuckle. 

Aussie Surf Lifesaving have honed the technique for pulling swimmers into an inflatable boat. This is a really tremendous video on how to do recovery from inflatable boats. The driver skill is very high. 

Observer Craft,  (Shells, SUPs, Kayaks) 

Since these craft do not have the ability to rescue a swimmer. Your goal is to get help fro, a motorized craft.. 

  • Radio
  • Paddles-up
  • Holler

When a pilot has a distressed swimmer hanging onto their craft (kayaks and SUPs should make the swimmer grab the bow, if the swimmer attempts to hang onto the side they could tip the pilot over), 

When swimmers get tired and cold, they can start feeling alone, frightened. They may become scared, irrational and paranoid or combative. 

If a swimmer pauses for too long, their core temperature will start to drop. If help is not readily available, keep the swimmer swimming.  Many swimmers will know the phrase “Shut Up and Swim.” Tell them to swim 25 or 50 strokes and kick, too.

SUP Flip Rescue

Kayak Rescue (Back Deck Carry)

Whitehalls and LiteBoats 

If motorized vessels are busy or unavailable, Whitehalls or LiteBoats may be called to rescue a swimmer. 

When a pilot has a distressed swimmer hanging onto their craft (kayaks and SUPs should make the swimmer grab the bow, if the swimmer attempts to hang onto the side they could tip the pilot over), they should hold an oar or paddle in the air to signal a motorized pilot that assistance is needed.

<< Video of how to recover a swimmer onto a whitehall >>

One way to pull a swimmer: ask the swimmer to kick flat in the water, so you are pulling the swimmer in sideways, not lifting up (against gravity).   Be prepared to get wet!

Once you have the swimmer onboard, notify the lead pilot on the event channel of your radio, or hold your oar vertically in the air to summon a motorized craft and if necessary, treat the swimmer for hypothermia.

Hypothermia Management

In the Boat

Once in a boat, a swimmer will continue to cool down and this may be particularly acute if the air is cold and the wind is blowing. It’s important to get the swimmer dry and wrapped in blankets as soon as possible. Do this before racing back to the dock. 

At the Club

When a hypothermic swimmer is brought back to the club, always have someone accompany them to the sauna. 

Rapid rewarming has its own risks. Swimmers that need assistance should be placed on the lower bench of the sauna to assure a more gradual rewarming. Someone must stay with them until they’re warmed.

When to Call 911

Many swimmers exiting the water after a long swim will be in some state of hypothermia. But there comes a time when professional help may be needed.

  • Shivering stops
  • Greater lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion    
  • Progressive loss of consciousness    
  • Weak pulse; shallow breathing

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