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Thursday, June 23, 2016

When, Why To Cancel An Open Water Swimming Workout?

Open water swimming coach's tools of the trade

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

When we observe the vast number of coaches who train athletes in the open water, we see a great range of knowledge and know-how. Coaches range from excellent to 'what-in-the-world-are-you-thinking?!?'

Some coaches stand onshore and tell their athletes to swim from point A to Point B and back. Other coaches get in the water and take lots of photographs and produce videos. Some coaches hop on kayaks or paddleboards and escort their swimmers on a given course.

And others hire lifeguards and others to focus on safety while they focus on detailed coaching and a comprehensive education.

We highly respect the coaches who understand the variables and dangers inherent in the open water, especially in the ocean. We admire those coaches who understand how best to prepare their staff of paid lifeguards or volunteers how to best rescue a swimmer in the open water. We hand it to coaches who have actually competed in races and participated in relays and channel swims.

Before they even get to shore, they ask themselves:

* Is it worth having focused safety personnel onshore with the other coaches?
* Can a rescue be performed by a volunteer on a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard?
* Are volunteers trained in CPR and will act composed if CPR is required?
* Are turn buoys large enough to be visible by all the swimmers, however inexperienced they may be?
* What are the expected conditions and how will the conditions impact the swimmers?

Coaches like Gerry Rodrigues of Tower 26 and Bruckner Chase of the Ocean City Swim Club know that the weather and waves in their ocean workouts can be unpredictable and there is plenty of unknowns when it comes to ocean workout forecasting and marine life. They take suitable countermeasures and prepare their athletes accordingly.

And sometimes that means that ocean practices are cancelled.

Chase explains, "With another cancellation in the season built around new weather challenges, I thought we would share what we do when we decide YES or NO before we go [in the ocean]. Our chosen venue is the ocean, and that choice alone demands a lot of knowledge and resources to accomplish our primary goal of creating positive experiences for everyone whenever you choose to join us at the beach. Here's the short version:

* What Apps do we use to check the conditions? Surfline, SwellInfo, WeatherBug, Tides, AccuWeather and NOAA Buoys
* What websites do we check? The Ocean City Swim Club home page links to NOAA Data Buoys and beach cams
* What else do you check? The window.

But there is no rain or thunder or fog...right now. Maybe not, but we also have to anticipate what the conditions may be in an hour when there are 40 people swimming 100 meters offshore. Even with all we know, dangerous situations can come up. We start checking reports and radar hours before we are scheduled to hit the water, and we also factor in how long it would take to clear the ocean and the beach if severe weather does hit

When does an experienced coach like Chase or Rodrigues make the call to cancel an ocean workout?

"We make a preliminary assessment the night before with what we feel is at least an 80% degree of confidence. We make a second assessment the morning of roughly 1.5 hours before we hit the water with a 90% degree of confidence. We make a final decision at the beach with a 98% degree of confidence leaving that final 2% to the unexpected that may cut a swim short," explains Chase.

Rodrigues has faced similar issues in the Southern California summer. "I promote our last weekly Wednesday session with eagerness. We had 160 attendees and finally a morning with sunshine, warmer water temperatures, and more manageable surf [after a period of traditional June Gloom]. The predicted conditions called for sunny skies coming off the Southern California heat wave with high visibility.

But once I arrived at 5:15 am for the 6 am start time, it was overcast with an increasingly lowering fog bank. I was prepared for the super low negative tide as this can be dangerous if there's moderate size surf - which we had. But I was not prepared for the dense fog bank

So he decided the inevitable, despite the disappointment of 160 swimmers who crawled out of bed early and headed to Santa Monica Beach in the early morning darkness. "I had to apologies to the group. We delayed the start several times, conferred with the lifeguard, and set up a different session based on the conditions and the new safety demands. [When we eventually got in,] we swam shorter, closer to shore, stayed in contact with the person in front and listened for the shore's wave breaks. But I had to abort the session early as my confidence for everyone's safety with not high."

For Tower 26 first six sessions, Coach Rodrigues has had to cancel one and make adjustments to three others due to fog, high surf, rip tides, cold water, and super high tides. "Bottom line is we have to be safe."

The information by these coaches are distributed via Twitter feeds, website notifications, Facebook posts, and emails.

"We know that many of our athletes drive from a long way off because you believe in what we do and how we do it," says Chase. "We don't take their trust lightly. These athletes continue to support us knowing that their safety and well-being is the only thing we consider when we do or do not hit the water."

This approach, attention to detail, and responsibility for the open water swimming community is a gold standard that coaches need to preach - in fact, require - of anyone taking athletes into the ocean.

Foggy conditions off the Jersey coast.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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