Race Organizers and Boat Pilots and Jellyfish - Oh My

We went to Tampa this last weekend to participate in the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, a 24-mile trek that takes you from the southern end of St. Petersburg, east around Pinellas Point, then north to the city of Tampa.  It took 10 hours and 44 minutes to cover the distance, so I had a lot of time to think.

Open water swimming could not exist without dedicated race organizers.  In this case, Ron Collins has organized and directed this swim since it started in the 1998.  Between the 20 solo swimmers and nine relays (which, between them, accounted for another 31 swimmers) arriving from points all over the globe, just getting folks signed up and checked can be an undertaking.  Then, Ron takes it upon himself to recruit experienced boat pilots to escort swimmers through a long day at a pace slower than any motorboat is designed to go.  Finally, he pulls in kayakers, paddle boarders and others who are indispensible to the mantra of safety.

I had never met Ron before this weekend, but had heard of him for a long time as an accomplished open water swimmer.  He has won the 28 Mile New York City Marathon Swim, completed the English Channel and has swum Tampa Bay any number of times.  Ron hosts his events because he loves to.  Especially when there is a long, uncontrollable and unprotected course like Tampa Bay, having the same number of swimmers emerge from the water at the end of the day as went into the water in the morning is a win.  Ron, his lovely wife Rebecca and their crew handled the responsibilities beautifully, and we had a terrific time.

One of the most important things a race director can do is engage quality boat pilots.  I was assigned to a Tampa-area native named Brent Wertz, and simply could not have been luckier.  Brent had never escorted a swimmer before, but hoped that his intimate knowledge of the Bay would make up for it.

As Saturday arrived, the waterfront was a nervous hive of activity before 6:00 a.m.  Boats were arriving, people were checking and rechecking gear, and everyone was keeping an eye on a fresh breeze that was blowing in from the east, making the starting area wavy and unsettled.  Brent gathered up Susan, the kids and our friend Meg and they were off.  When the start finally came, the swimmers headed toward the first landmark, and the boats were responsible for finding us.  Within a few minutes, I saw the familiar blue/green hull of Brent’s boat, and the swim had begun.

Throughout a very long day, Brent patiently kept us out of shallows and on a straight line to the finish.  He did a brilliant job, and I will never plan to swim Tampa without him.

Susan ran the crew on the boat.  Between her, our kids and our closer-than-family friend Meghan, it was clockwork.  The feedings, the communication, coordinating with Brent, the periodic stroke counting and mathematical reckoning during the day was simply flawless. They all insist that they were busy all day and had a good time, but I have my doubts.  I think they are just being good sports.

Marathon swimming is a team sport; I just happen to be the member of the team who is in the water.  I have the best team in the business, and that is just one of about a million reasons that I am the luckiest guy in the world.

See you at the pool on the beach.  I will report back with a bit more on the Tampa Bay swim.