I was part of a very upsetting open water swimming episode this last Sunday, and feel compelled to write about it.
Six of us swam in Lake Michigan at Tower Road Beach in Winnetka, Illinois after meeting at 7:15 in the morning. Most of us knew each other from previous outings, though one fellow, Tim, only knew me. I had seen Tim at a pool workout the day before, and we struck up a conversation. He is preparing for the Big Shoulders swim in a little over a month, and he knew that I was doing a lot of open water training, so he wondered if he could tag along on a lake swim. We had plans to go to Tower the next day, and I encouraged him to join us.
Tower Beach is a wonderful venue for open water swimmers, as the shore runs north/south, and there are easily-sighted landmarks that we use for gauging distance. Lake Michigan can have widely varying conditions (water temperatures, waves, currents) that make it challenging for aspiring open water swimmers. We swim north from Tower Beach to minimize the possibilities of boat traffic and, as an added bonus, are able to view some of the most luxurious real estate in the Midwest from the water perspective.
When we got to the beach, the water was rough but not impassible with 2 – 3 foot choppy waves. The water temperatures were in the low 70’s (21 – 22 C) and none of us were wearing wetsuits. I was the only one who didn’t wear a swim cap. The discussion at the concrete circle (a convenient place to leave gear while swimming) was that some of us were on a schedule, so we were only planning to swim to the first pier, which is about 0.7 of a mile each way.
I am told that in many other athletic training scenarios, there is a lot of trash-talking about how well people think they’ll run, lift or bike. Oddly, the opposite is true with open water swimmers; they all talk about how slow they will be. You are much more liable to hear chatter like, “Oh, I will never keep up with you guys,” and “My shoulders are a little sore, so don’t wait for me.”
We waded into the water together and started our swim. To swim north, the waves were coming onto the right shoulder, so it required some real effort to punch through. Given conditions, we didn’t keep a close eye on our fellow swimmers, but that is not atypical; we all knew where we were going.
Even with a couple of stragglers, we all arrived at the first pier turnaround point within two minutes of each other. The person with the watch told us it had been a 22 minute trip (normally, it would be 16 or 17 minutes, with the difference being due to the wave conditions). We counted heads and Tim was not there. Because we had been through the “I won’t keep up with you guys” speech, we figured he was a bit behind us and that we would see him on the way back to the beach. We turned around to complete the loop.
We made it back to Tower Beach in 16 minutes because we were swimming through following seas, but there was still no sign of Tim. At that point, you start to rule out possibilities. Tim hadn’t climbed out and left the beach, because his towel, clothes, glasses and car keys were neatly wrapped where he left them. He wasn’t in the showers in the bath house. I walked north on the beach to see if I could see him swimming, and saw nothing. It was one of those situations where you can’t believe what is happening, and you can’t bear the thought of the worst possible outcome. I came back to the concrete circle and decided to “pull the trigger” and dialed 9-1-1.
The Winnetka Police were there almost before I disengaged the call. Within minutes, responders from no less than five nearby towns were there, too – Northfield even sent what looked like a hook-and-ladder truck. Two Zodiac-style rescue boats were launched and began to work the area where we had been swimming. I stayed on shore with the police officer who had taken charge, and provided as much information as I could that he efficiently radioed out to the Zodiacs. One person speculated that Tim had missed the turnaround pier and had continued to swim north which, as it turned out, is exactly what happened. We radioed the Zodiacs of that possibility, and they found Tim in a few minutes.
We were all relieved when we heard that Tim had been pulled into the Zodiac and was headed back to Tower Beach. He was fine, though pretty scared and quite exhausted. He had finally realized that he had missed the turnaround spot, and knew he couldn’t keep swimming, so he was headed to shore to walk back to the starting beach. I think he was grateful for the boat ride. Tim was poked and prodded, and interviewed and questioned for the next little while, and was released. He had been in the water for an hour and 45 minutes.
Many stories like this one don’t have happy endings, but tragic ones. I knew that the best outcome was that I would have to apologize to Tim for calling 9-1-1 too quickly, and he let me off the hook even before he knew that his would be the lead story on all three local networks that evening.
Whether the outcome is happy or tragic, these episodes don’t have to happen at all. It is a reminder that open water swimming can be dangerous, and it is incumbent on all of us to follow some common sense rules.
- Don’t swim alone. In a group, “buddy” up with another swimmer.
- Discuss your planned swim with your group and the lifeguard, if one is on duty. If there is not one on duty, consider engaging a lifeguard for your group.
- Pay attention to your course. Get prescription goggles if sighting is difficult.
- Wear a brightly colored swim cap.
- Buy a Swim Safe buoy. Use it. See below.
I have to take responsibility for some of the missteps on Sunday. Of the five rules above, I violated four of them, either by not following them myself or by failing to enforce them on the rest of my group. My failure could have led to the tragic loss of my friend.
Perhaps the biggest lifesaver of all is the Swim Safe buoy. That Sunday, my Swim Safe buoy was clipped to my bag that was back on the beach; having one of these buoys and not using it is as crazy as a motorcycle rider strapping his helmet to the spare seat. It is a pretty ingenious design as an inflatable dry bag into which you can keep a small towel or even electronics, like a cell phone. It gives motorboats a much more obvious warning of the presence of a swimmer (in the first picture above, the swimmer with a buoy is much more visible) and if you find yourself in trouble, it will keep you afloat. It clips to your waist, and since it rides in your wake you don’t feel like you are dragging something along. The open water swimming community has encouraged the use of these buoys, but those drumbeats need to be louder as people train in places like Tower Beach early on a Sunday morning.
If you plan to swim in the open water, for exercise, for a triathlon or for a Channel, get one of these and use it. Your life, or Tim’s life, could depend on it.
See you at the beach. I will report back.