With the Channel season over I figured this would be a good time to collect my thoughts a bit on what I learned and what I could share to help others either looking to do a boat supported swim, or help those who will be the support on those boats. I’ve been aboard 6 Catalina attempts, 1 Anacapa, and been part of a Monterey Bay relay attempt. By no means am I an expert at this point, I’m really just a swim crewing grommet, but I’ve seen a lot of things and I’m sure that experience is valuable to some of you out there planning your own trips in the near future. Here’s a random grouping of thoughts for you to chew on a bit before you depart on an oceanic adventure.

Designate a Crew Chief for Your Boat

I feel really strongly about this tip, I think a strong leader on the boat can make or break a swim. Oftentimes if there’s a leadership vacuum on the boat an observer will inject themselves into that role, but it’s not their job. You need to ensure that someone on the boat will be in charge of making sure you get fed, mixing and warming feeds if necessary, making sure kayakers and support swimmers get in and out on schedule, and other things that may be important to you like updating family members or posting updates to Facebook gets done. As much as the swimmer has to be awake and engaged from point to point, this person should be as well. This Crew Chief should be someone that knows you well enough to know when you’re doing good or when things are going badly. They should have enough of a grip on your personality to know how to motivate you when things get hard. I’d go as far as to say don’t book your boat until you have your Crew Chief locked down because a strong leader on the boat will make your time in the water much more pleasant and your chances of success much greater.

“Oh it’s cool, I don’t get seasick.” – yes, yes you do

Chugging along at full speed and pitching and rolling at swimmer speed are vastly different experiences. You might be good at handling one but not the other. Take some medicine in advance (Dramamine, Bonine, etc.) or get your hands on a scopalamine patch if you can find one. Puking all night isn’t going to be a good time for you and it’s going to drastically cut your efficacy as a crew member. On Cliff’s swim I had a hard time hanging with him while pace swimming because I was totally gassed out from throwing up so much. I hadn’t successfully ingested any calories for a long time and after 45 minutes of a 1 hour shift I fell apart.

Pack Double for the Swimmer

Goggles, Caps, Feeds, Bottles, Mouthwash, whatever you’ve got make sure to bring extra and keep the overage on the boat. It’s very easy for a wave to dump a kayak and send all your stuff floating away in the current or sinking 2000+ feet to the bottom of the ocean. And while you’re at it, Tie Everything to Something! Especially when it’s dark out it’s very easy to lose unsecured items. You don’t want to get into a situation where a kayak gets flipped and you lose everything because it wasn’t secured.

Remember as a Crew Person It’s Not About You or What You Want, We’re All Here for the Swimmer

A lot of times a crew person comes along not only to help but to get some channel experience of their own. Taking a ride along before you attempt your own is hugely beneficial. However what you would like to get out of the trip may not happen, but you still have to keep up your end of the crew bargain. I never saw anyone fall into this, but I felt it was important to remind prospective crew people that it’s not about you.

Sleep – Get Some

In the case of a Catalina swim, once you get the boat loaded up you’re going to get 3 short talks. One from the Captain, the Observer, and the swimmer. After that you have a few hours of transit to get to the island. This is an excellent time to sleep in advance of being up on a boat all night. If you sleep before the swim you’ll be fresh for the start, and at least for me personally sleeping helps with my seasickness and seems to balance me out. It gets really lonely on deck around 2-3am because everyone gets sleepy all at once, if possible work out a sleep schedule for the crew to ensure you always have someone alert and awake ready to do whatever needs to be done.

Define Roles and Cross Train

Try to assign certain tasks (feeding, paddling, etc.) to your crew, but then make sure they have an idea of how to do each other’s jobs in case someone is incapacitated. I’ve seen people get horribly seasick on the boat and lose their ability to contribute completely. The rest of the crew needs to fill that gap so it’s ideal that they know how that person does their job on the boat.

Try to Recruit a Channel Veteran

This is hugely helpful. Someone who knows the ropes, is familiar with the boats, has experience with various marathon swims is incredibly valuable. I’ve been on boats with some really exceptional crew people like Niel and Gracie Van Der Byl who made the trip so smooth and awesome because they were such strong and experienced crew members. Luckily most of the official observers that you’re going to come across will have a lot of experience in the channel and will help fill this role as well.

Put Glowsticks Everywhere!

When you’re swimming in the dark at a minimum you need some lights on the swimmer, whether they be traditional glowsticks or something a little fancier. Beyond that you want some on the kayak or paddleboard to make that easier to see. You also want to hang some from the support boat. On the Monterey relay crossing we put one color on the bow and another on the stern so even if you couldn’t see the boat you could tell which way it was pointed. I thought that was pretty smart. I’d also recommend lighting up feed bottles. In the dark if one is dropped and falls out of range of the lights on the boat it’s gone… with a stick or blinky light attached you’re less likely to lose your bottles. One other glowstick trick I picked up this summer was to attach them to people on the boat so the swimmer can see them up there watching and working. The swimmer may not be able to hear you cheer or tell what you’re doing on deck, but at least they’ll see that you’re there with them which is a nice feeling while floating in 3000 feet of black water in the dark.

Take Pictures!

Unless you’re dealing with somebody like me, your swimmer probably doesn’t have a camera stashed in their speedo. Make sure everyone on the boat takes some pictures or videos during the course of the swim so that your swimmer has something to look back on later.

Bonus pro-tip: try not to lose a your camera full of pictures in the parking lot after a successful crossing like I did… not a good morning! Luckily I took a lot of shots with my phone too!

Make it to the Sunrise

The toughest part of a Catalina swim for both swimmer and crew is grinding out the miles in the dark. If you hit a point where you think you just can’t do it, make a goal to gut it out until day breaks. It’s a whole new world when the ocean lights up and there’s sun on your back.

Bring Fins

I don’t care how fast of slow the swimmer is I’m bringing some fins along to support swim just in case. I’ve loaned them out to other people on the boat and worn them myself. Sometimes because I had to in order to chase down faster swimmers like Chris D. or Evan M., other times to keep up with swimmers around my speed like Cliff C. when I was too sick to perform at my true abilities without assistance. Remember it’s the swimmer who has rules to follow you can cheat as much as you want :)

Decide on Hand Signals in Advance and Bring a White Board

I can’t hear anything with my head in the water. I get water stuck in my ear and I’m pretty much lost in the hearing department until I get out and shake out the water. Because of this I like to have a few hand signals for me and my kayaker so I can see what she wants to say to me without me having to stop and trying to listen. Another thing I’ve seen that I like is the use of a white board to pass along messages to the swimmer. Things like stroke rate, words of encouragement, inappropriate drawings are all good entertainment for someone spending 8-15 hours with their face in the ocean.

Good Kayakers are Gold

I think people underestimate the difficulty potentially involved in kayaking for a channel swim. Sometimes you luck out and get a flat sea with no wind, other times… well other times you don’t. There’s a big difference between renting a kayak in a marina as a tourist, and getting launched off of a rolling boat in the dark to paddle a straight line for hours while guiding and feeding a swimmer. On a channel swim the kayaker is a navigator, nutritional source, and sports psychologist. It’s a really important task, make sure you’re up to it before you agree to take on that role.

Kayaker Swaps Can be Substantially Harder Than You Think

A lot of people think swapping a paddler is just taking one out and tossing a new one in. It’s a little more involved than that. First they have to leave the swimmer. Next they have to pull up to a drifting boat in a rolling ocean to transfer onboard. After this someone needs to get back in that kayak without falling out. In flat seas not too hard, add a healthy swell to that with an ocean that drops a few feet out from the bottom of the boat occasionally and now you’ve got some trouble. I’d recommend making swaps sparingly and only when it looks like the ocean is flat enough to pull it off.

Be Prepared to Feed Off the Boat

Say something goes sideways with a kayaker swap and you can’t relaunch the kayak successfully, eventually the boat captain is going to make you just bring it aboard so he can get back to piloting. I’ve seen it happen twice now, in one instance I was the unlaunchable kayaker. If the kayaker was your feeder, well now we have a problem. That’s why even if you don’t anticipate feeding off the boat you should still be prepared. You’ll need rope, carabiners and something on your bottles that you can clip them to. Make sure that stuff is on deck and your crew knows where to find it if the situation devolves in that fashion.

Try to Learn Something Every Time You Go Out and Share it With Your Friends

Let other people learn from your mistakes and triumphs, it’s a lot better than making them figure it out the hard way! Like Captain Greg of the Bottom Scratcher says “it’s a dangerous thing, what we do,” so the more prepared the swimmer and crew are to perform, the safer and more enjoyable the trip is going to be.

12 Responses to “Before You Get on That Boat…”

  1. Beth Barnes says:

    THREE CHEERS, Rob. I share ALL of your observations and will take this chance to say what a total joy it was to see you on the crossings we shared. It is serious business and not a pleasure cruise, kudos to you and all who did so much for so many swimmers.

  2. Suzie Dods says:

    This is perfect. Spot on, funny and incredibly useful.

  3. Lynn K says:

    “You don’t want to get into a situation where a kayak gets flipped and you lose everything because it wasn’t secured.” …
    That is exactly what happened to me on my first kayak outing to support Scott Z on his inter-island Anacapa Santa Cruz swim. Doh! At least it was a shorter swim.
    What great advice you have served up here. This is a HUGE service to other swimmers contemplating this kind of endeavor.
    Also THANKS for being such great support on my Anacapa swim!!!!

  4. Great advice!! I think that the crew and kayakers work as hard as we swimmers do. Its a team effort!

  5. Anne C says:

    Great insights, Rob. Well done and thank you for taking the time to write this! I’ll be sure to share it with swimmers I am coaching. Thank you!

  6. Neil says:

    Wow Rob, I could not have said it better! Thanks for getting the word out and reminding swimmers and support crew to prepare for the unexpected – I know for me the “list” keeps growing every year :-) … hope to see you out there next season mate.

  7. Nice one Rob.

    * Feeding of a kayak is unusual for me. I tie-wrap a d-ring to each bottle. A kite string reel makes a a good retracting system, some people prefer poles.
    * For the same reasons you mention fins, I also recommend support swimmer should have a wetsuit.
    * Most of us here in Ireland have stopped using glowstiks and now use Adventure Lights electonic led light (Guardian goes on your goggle straps). They are fantastic, can be either steady or flashing, different colours, stay brightly lit for 24 hours &are visible from further away. Pilots love them also.

  8. Jen Alexander says:

    Can you post this on openwaterpedia.com? It is a fantastic article! Other people’s advice (like what Donal wrote about the Adventure Lights) could be incorporated in.

  9. Katie says:

    Excellent post, Rob

  10. Rob D says:

    Hey guys, thanks a lot for all the great feedback here and on facebook, I’m glad you all dig it!

    @Neil – after all the work you and Gracie did this year I’d love to see your list! You guys are the best!

  11. IronMike says:

    Am adding this to my growing “channel crossing” binder. Thanks.

  12. [...] his list of pointers for marathon swim crews, Rob described the importance of having someone on the boat “that knows you well enough to [...]