These answers will hopefully give you an idea on how this kayak swim support event is handled, and what you should know as a potential (or actual) volunteer.
The 1 mile swim is relatively protected. Unless there’s a really strong wind, coming from the south or west, things don’t typically get that difficult.
The 4.4 mile swim, however, is an open water paddle. One foot waves are expected. Two foot waves are common. Sometimes you’ll get three footers or more from other boats, reflecting waves within the bridge spans, and wind conditions. The timing of the race minimizes the current for the swimmers, but near the end it will be noticeable.
If the weather is too bad, the race will be canceled; if it’s canceled with swimmers in the water, our primary duty is to help get all swimmers off the water, with full accountability for both swimmers and kayakers (and anyone else involved). There is a ‘Plan B’ in the books for the 4.4 mile swim if there is a small craft advisory, where they modify the course to be basically a larger triangle than the 1 mile swim. The conditions can still be challenging on the outer edges of that triangle, so only support the swim if you are an experienced paddler with proper equipment and are confident in your skills.
If you’ve never done something like this, the 1 mile swim is an excellent way to test your skills, and you can always support the end of the 4.4 mile swim as well if you feel up to it.
Key points, beyond the other Logistics posts, are:
- The safety briefing for kayakers is held generally 45 minutes before the start of the race, maybe earlier (as the 4.4 mile swim has a start time of +/- 30 minutes decided the morning of the race, we go for the earliest possible start time).
- You will be given your own numbered wrist band, with the number assigned to you by the Kayak Safety Fleet Coordinator. This must be visible, else the various law enforcement boats will question your right to be on the water. As far as they are concerned, if you don’t have the wrist band, you don’t belong on the water.
- Turn this in when you exit the water at the DNF pier in the Bay Side Marina. This is so we know you were on the water and safety exited the water. If your wrist band is not turned in, we will have to go looking for you.
- All volunteers are welcome to partake of the volunteer food and drink after they get out of their boats, by the swim event tents near Hemingway’s.
- All volunteers are welcome to a volunteer t-shirt as well. So far, even after specifying what sizes kayakers would like, the selections follow Henry Ford’s philosophy. You can have any size that you like, as long as it’s probably XL.
Being able to do a self rescue is a must. While there will be plenty of other boaters around, they may be busy helping swimmers.
You are not expected to be able to provide first-responder life-saving support. There are other agencies involved that are trained for that; we would just help them locate who needs it and do anything else we can do to support that.
Know your own limitations. If you find the conditions are too challenging, let the Kayak Coordinator know and paddle to shore. Be sure to hand in your wrist band, so we have full accountability on who’s on the water and off.
And above all, have fun!
Short answer, no.
You must bring the following:
- Your kayak, which has to be adequate for the conditions you are paddling in (recreation boats without watertight bulkheads should not be taken across the Bay, and I will strongly discourage you from doing so; we have had cases in the past where such boats got swamped and required rescue themselves).
- A USCG-approved life vest. Remember, your safety is key. It’s also the law. And police and Coast Guard support will be all around you.
- A whistle that works when wet.
- A paddle, and perhaps a spare.
- If your kayak has a cockpit, a spray skirt (and a pump to empty the cockpit of water in case of a wet exit).
- A paddle float or other device to help self-rescue re-entry.
- Appropriate clothing for the conditions (water temperature is usually in the low 70s in June, but sunburn is always a consideration).
- Plenty of water. Dehydration is no joke. A gallon may not be as excessive as it sounds here, depending on the weather.
- Snacks to have while on the water.
- Most importantly, your mind, fully engaged to have fun and enable swimmers to do their event.
If you have a VHF radio, bring it. We use channel 69 for kayak-to-kayak communications.
Extra flotation for swimmers is always welcome as well.
There have been cases where people may have spare boats, paddles, and PFDs, which may be fine for the 1 mile swim but requires careful consideration for the 4.4 mile swim, considering the nature of that paddle in an unfamiliar kayak.
There are times when people park their cars at Sandy Point State Park for the 4.4 mile race support, and then have to paddle back across from the Bay Bridge Marina after the race ends. Many conditions can make this less than ideal (exhaustion, weather, not enough time, etc.).
There is no formal transportation back to Sandy Point State Park other than the buses swimmers use to get back there (not fit for kayak transport), but there are usually fellow kayakers who can give you a ride. If this is going to be a known issue, try to coordinate before race day. Otherwise, during our briefings and post-race camaraderie, just ask.
Worst case, we do modified fox & chicken exercises.
The swim course is triangular, starting at the beach by Libbey’s, marked by large buoys at each point and smaller markers defining the edges, going in a clockwise direction. Sometimes swimmers get confused at the turns, so it’s common to have to point out the correct direction.
There are multiple waves of swimmers (up to 4) to help spread the legs and arms a bit.
The water is pretty shallow here, so most swimmers can always just stand and walk if they had to. However, if they are exiting the race, they must exit via a power boat, taken to the Did Not Finish (DNF) dock, for accountability.
Swimmers will leave the Sandy Point State Park beach in a controlled fashion, ten at a time, with ten second pauses in between each group. The fastest swimmers go first. This is new as of 2023. They will enter the bridge spans between the two big beach ball buoys, follow the spans, and exit between the other two big beach buoys near the end of the bridge, to follow the jetty to the beach at Libbey’s.
There are numbers on each bridge pylon, and they are different on the north and south sides. If you need to provide location, use those numbers and be sure to specify north or south. The entrance buoys are by the North 10 & 12 pylons. The exit buoys are by the South 55 & 56 pylons. Mile marker 1 is around N23/24 / S16; mile marker 2 is around N 32/S26; mile marker 3 is around N45 / S36; mile marker 4 is around N70/S50.
All kayaks should line up at the start to guide the swimmers in, and then break off to provide coverage as the swimmers span out. The general rule for kayak coverage is, if you see other kayaks, keep paddling until there are swimmers and no kayaks. If you run out of swimmers, turn around and see if there are any gaps.
With that said, the slower swimmers are ones that usually need the most help. There is no hard and fast rule; if the rest of the Safety Fleet notices a gap, they will tell us and we will react accordingly. If you see a gap, and have a VHF radio, call it out on channel 69.
The only hard and fast rule is, we cannot give individual support to a swimmer. Unless, of course, they are showing signs of duress or stress, at which point we make sure they’re OK.
Swimmers must stay within the inner edge of the pylons and away from any bridge structure including those islands by the main spans. The official statement is, no exceptions. If they exit due to any reason (unplanned is usually because of currents overwhelming them), they get disqualified and have to be pulled out. The most common interaction with a swimmer to date has been telling them to turn, because they really can’t see where they’re going when they’re 110% focused on swimming.
We always need four strong kayakers to keep station by the main bridge pylons with the wood slats in the center of the bridge, to make sure swimmers do not get too close and try to hold on. That’s a recipe for injury or worse, if swimmers get stuck there due to wave action.
There are big orange mile markers to help determine how much farther swimmers have to go, at miles 1, 2, 3, and 4.
There are food boats (the only propeller’d craft allowed inside the spans, only because they’re anchored) at miles 1.5 and 3, for swimmers to take a break and get a snack or drink. Swimmers frequently ask how far it is to them, so if possible, try to keep track of where you are in relation to miles 1.5 and 3.
When it’s time to exit the water, be sure to stop by the DNF pier and hand in the numbered wrist band given to you at the briefing, and exit the water via the floating dock by the boat lift, on the far right corner of the marina as you’re entering it from the Bay. If you don’t turn in your wrist band and we can’t find you, that will cause everyone to do an on-water search and rescue. Please don’t do that.
There will be a parking area available for kayak volunteers in the Bay Side Marina. From the DC area, take route 50 across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, to the first exit, #37 (route 8). Head south towards Romancoke & Stevensville. Coming from the east, take route 50 to the last exit before the bridge (#37), also heading south towards Romancoke & Stevensville. Take the first right on Pier One Road and follow the signs directing you to our designated parking area (there are sometimes ways to get in without having to go all the way to the water; follow the signs). There will be staff directing traffic at the entrance as well, so please be sure to display your parking permit (made available to registered volunteers). The image below gives a rough idea of how to get there.
There is a floating dock by the boat lift, which is our launch (and landing) area. If you have never done a floating dock launch/exit, ask for help — it’s not hard, the trick is to keep your weight centered.
Head into Sandy Point State Park. Plan to get there early as the traffic backup getting into the park can get pretty heavy as the race approaches. Also be sure to display your parking permit (provided to registered kayak volunteers) so that the gate attendants will let you in for free. There has been some confusion about this in the past, so ask the gate attendants to call their supervisor if any issues arise.
You can unload your gear by the small craft launch area (left turn just before the last parking lot before you hit the water; there have been years past where someone put up a road closed sign, but that is not correct – just go around it). The image and dashcam video below shows a map of the area and where to turn (hint: follow the Jeep). This has caused significant confusion in the past, so please make sure you understand this.
Your contact information is needed for two main reasons:
- To be able to provide you with any last minute information about the race in case something comes up without enough time to post here, or expect you to read here.
- As an extra layer of safety to reach you in case we can’t confirm you are off the water after the race. Having an emergency contact helps with that as well.
I do keep track of every volunteer for these races, but if you want me to no longer contact you, I remove you from the master list. From time to time, other event organizers ask if they can have your contact information. I only give that out for people who expressly give me permission to do so. You may however get an email from me on behalf of another event organizer.
Our primary job as part of the Safety Fleet is to be able to mass evacuate everyone from the water when necessary (e.g. in case of thunder or lightning). While we’re there, though, we do the following:
- Provide moral support. Every swimmer who’s commented on this has said, without fail, that just seeing kayakers out there makes them feel safer and makes it easier to continue the swim. Cheering them on helps too, although they may not hear you as they’re concentrating so hard on swimming.
- Provide brief rests. Swimmers can absolutely hang on to your boat to rest, as long as you keep position. Be sure to have them grab the front (bow) or back (stern) of your boat, preferably the front so you can see them. If they grab you near your cockpit, you’ll be joining them momentarily.
- Help get swimmers out of the water. Sometimes swimmers recognize when they’re done, and they ask to be removed. Under some situations (such as when they exit the spans due to current, or don’t make the mile markers by the time cut-off), they are disqualified and have to be pulled. There are rare situations where a swimmer doesn’t really want to stop swimming but you have to decide for them. The phrase “perhaps today is not your day” usually helps them realize their swim is done for the day.
- Keep swimmers on course. Swimmers are totally focused on swimming and can’t really see which direction they’re going, so you may need to nudge them to turn and guide them between the entrance and exit markers.
- Keep an eye on swimmers. While this has not ever been an issue in the past, it’s highly recommended that you be familiar with the signs of someone who’s drowning (they won’t be splashing about calling for help). This website is an excellent read (thank you Kevin for reminding me): http://mariovittone.com/2010/05/154/
If you have to pull a swimmer, get the attention of one of the Sweep Boats (power boats with a yellow numbered SWEEP BOAT sign) by using your whistle or waving your paddle, and get the swimmer over to that boat (they can’t come to you). Jet Skis may be able to give the swimmer a lift as well. Note that the sweep boats are not listening to the VHF channel kayaks use. Also note that other vessels in the area (e.g. law enforcement) are not going to respond. Swimmers must exit onto a sweep boat.