Rescuing Swimmers In The Open Water

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Safety is always an important issue for open water race directors, safety personnel, crew members, lifeguards, kayakers and pilots during swims, races or crossings.

In the marine environment, however unlikely it may seem, anything can happen to anyone at anytime anywhere. Risks can range from shark attacks and severe jellyfish sting reactions to boat collisions and cardiac issues.

Crossing abandonments and DNFs (Did Not Finish) have occurred for generations while rescues and saves have occurred for millennia.

To help the open water swimming community understand what goes on before, during and after a rescue or abandonment, the Daily News of Open Water Swimming will publish a number of real-world incidents that have occurred in the open water in a variety of conditions.

Readers are encouraged to share their own experiences whether they served as a crew member, a lifeguard or an eyewitness to an emergency or accident in the open water. Share your lifesaving experiences of any kind of open water swimming venues, conditions, crossings or events; send your information to

Case #1
Location: Hanalei Bay, Princeville on the island of Kauai in Hawaii

Situation: High School Triathlon Training Camp

Year: 1986

Athlete: 15-year-old female novice swimmer

Circumstances: A 15-year-old cross-country runner participated in a triathlon training camp for high school students. While she was confident and talented on land, her previous swimming experience was limited to a pool. Swimming in the open water (i.e., Pacific Ocean) was an unknown to her.

Before the swim, she walked along the 1 km course onshore with swimming coaches and agreed to give the training swim a try. Her swimming ability was a few levels above a beginner, but her coaches agreed that she should stay in shoulder-level water.

She appeared worried on land, but peer encouragement by her fellow student-athletes was the fuel behind her willingness to swim in the bay. She did not hyperventilate upon entry to the clear ocean and appeared under control as she began swimming parallel to shore, sandwiched between other swimmers.

After 200 meters, the other swimmers separated from her and she started to veer away from the shore.

Lifeguard/Rescuer/Crew Quote: When I saw her swim away from the shore, I got a little worried and entered the water up to my waist to get a better vantage point. Suddenly, within seconds, she was nowhere to be seen. She was within 15-20 meters from me at that point and I swam as fast as I could to where I thought she had sunk. Fortunately, the water was not too deep and she was just floating below the surface.

I grabbed her and brought her to shore. I don’t know why she just stopped swimming and sunk, but she said she just quit and stopped. Frankly, I was upset at her and probably spoke a bit too loudly for the situation and told her to never, ever give up again.

Aftermath: She was not allowed to swim in the ocean without a paddler alongside her, but she later finished the 1 km swim leg in her next (first) triathlon.

Case #2
Location: 1976 Montreal Olympic Games Rowing Basin

Situation: 25 km race at the FINA World Swimming Championships

Year: 2005

Athlete: Mid-20-year-old swimmer

Circumstances: A last-minute substitute for the 25 km marathon swim at the 2005 FINA World Swimming Championships drank excessive amounts of hydration before the race. As the lead packs and trailing packs started to pull further and further away from her, one of the coaches began to get very worried and walked near the swimmer as the course was along the perimeter of the Olympic rowing basin. Help was summoned when the swimmer suddenly began to swim extremely slowly.

Lifeguard/Rescuer/Crew Quote: I saw her drop her speed and swim crookedly even though the course was clearly marked by buoys and the long submerged lines in a rectangular rowing basin. She was an experience swimmer, but it was clear that she was in trouble. I radioed for help and an ambulance came quickly as I dove in the water and swam out to her.

I touched her to formally disqualify her from the competition and then grabbed her to pull her to shore. There was no resistance on her part and it was clear that her day was finished. She seemed both relieved and completely out of it. It was not too difficult to bring her into shore from about 25-30 meters out. The ambulance got there with the team physician soon thereafter and she was quickly whisked to a local hospital.

Aftermath: The physician said that the swimmer experienced hyponatremia and was discharged from the hospital in time to make it to the awards ceremony later that evening.

Case #3
Location: Jinshan City Beach in Shanghai, China

Situation: 25 km race at the FINA World Swimming Championships

Date: 2011

Athlete: Mid-20 year old swimmer

Circumstances: With water temperatures expecting to exceed 31°C during the 25 km race, the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee implemented a number of countermeasures to reduce the risk of hyperthermia (e.g., moved the start time to the dawn hours, added a feeding station). However, the two reigning world 25 km champions still determined the conditions were too dangerous to risk competition. Athletes and coaches complained to FINA officials, but the race proceeded as scheduled.

The water temperature was 28°C in the dawn hours, but gradually increased as the sun rose in similarly increasing humidity. Some athletes voluntarily abandoned the swim, but a slight majority of the athletes continued on. In the slowest pack of 5 swimmers, the women swam cautiously together. One coach radioed to the safety personnel that his swimmer needed to be pulled from the race as she was not looking good and passed his location on the feeding station.

Lifeguard/Rescuer/Crew Quote: I instructed our safety boat to follow the pack of 5 swimmers and it was clear that one of the swimmers was in bad shape. I leaned over the water and reached out my hand to grab the swimmer. She ignored my help and continue to breathe and look at me. I yelled at her to stop and then asked her if she needed help. It seemed like she was on cruise control and I was not sure if she heard me or was simply ignoring me. Her coach’s voice came over the radio and asked about her swimmer. I jumped from the boat and grabbed the swimmer. At that point, she was disqualified from the race, but it was clear that it was the right decision.

As soon as I eggbeatered next to her and grabbed her from behind to lay her head on my shoulders, her entire body relaxed and she gave a horrible sounding grown. I took off her goggles and looked at her eyes. They were glazed over and she was not able to talk.

The local personnel on the boat could not understand English and she was too large to pull into the boat so I decided to slowly eggbeater her to a nearby boat dock. It took several minutes as it was slow-going because the rest of the safety boats and safety personnel were pre-occupied with other swimmers. When we got closer to the dock, other lifeguards jumped in the water and helped transport her from the water to an awaiting ambulance.

Aftermath: The swimmer stayed overnight and was released the next day.

Case #4
Location: Catalina Channel between Santa Catalina Island and the Southern California mainland

Situation: 20.2-mile Catalina Channel crossing attempt

Date: 2010

Athlete: 40-something endurance athlete

Circumstances: The athlete boated over to Santa Catalina Island is nearly idyllic conditions in gently rolling seas. He departed at night towards the mainland, but conditions quickly became unexpectedly turbulent. His progress and stroke count became slower and slower.

Lifeguard/Rescuer/Crew Quote: At night during his start, he looked good. But as he swam out in the open ocean, the full force of the turbulent conditions and increasingly stiff wind smacked him hard. He was drifting further and further away from the escort boat as it became increasingly difficult for the boat and kayakers to hold a straight line with the conditions and his slowing speed.

After confirming with his escort pilot, family members and observer, I decided to jump in and talk to him in the water. I swam over and he was not in a good condition so I told him that it was OK to abandon the swim. It did not take him long to agree, but it was emotionally difficult for me to accept the conditions. I respected his space for a few minutes and then touched him to nullify his attempt. He was ultimately grateful and boarded the boat accepting of the tough conditions and decision.

Aftermath: He attempted another crossing a few months later and successfully crossed the Catalina Channel without incidence in much calmer conditions.

To share your experience in rescuing someone in any kind of open water swimming venue, condition, crossing or event, send your information to

Video of the La Jolla Rough Water Swim in California’s La Jolla Cove courtesy of The Weather Channel.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones