Roughwater trouble was avoidable

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin 09/06/03
By Ray Pendleton

The 34th Annual Waikiki Roughwater Swim was five days ago and my back is still sore.

No, I didn't compete in the race. I was one of the many volunteers who suddenly found themselves dragging dozens of exhausted swimmers out of the water and into one of several boats provided by the Waikiki Yacht Club.

It came as something of a surprise because I think most of us believed the race would be similar to previous years, where just a few swimmers ever needed assistance.

Prior to the start, our boat took a position a couple of hundred yards outside a large orange buoy that marked where the swimmers must turn right to parallel the shore from San Souci Beach to the Hilton Hawaiian Village finish.

Along the course, volunteers on paddleboards and kayaks were ready to assist any swimmers who needed help. If they raised a hand, we were to come to their position.

As about 1,000 swimmers began the first 740-yard leg out to the buoy, it soon became apparent that while the wind and swells were generally headed down the course, there was a strong opposing current.

Many swimmers were obviously unable to maintain headway against the current and rather than swimming Ewa toward the finish line, they were slowly backing feet first toward Diamond Head.

The first swimmers to be taken out of the water appeared to be generally out of shape, but then others were asking for assistance and many of them had the look of athletes.

When we brought aboard two exhausted kayak paddlers who were supposed to be a part of the safety patrol, there was no question that the situation had deteriorated badly.

By that time there were scores of swimmers crowded around the first buoy like a school of fish -- all supporting each other and waiting for rescue.

While other boats did the same, we filled our boat with a dozen swimmers, took them close to shore, dropped them off and headed out for another load.

Eventually, with help from the Honolulu lifeguards, the fire department helicopter and the Coast Guard, every swimmer was accounted for and safe. But of the nearly 1,000 swimmers who had started, only 361 made it to the finish line.

With fire officials describing the situation as "total chaos" and as the highest number of rescues ever made by the department, clearly, there are a number of water-safety issues that ought to be addressed.

For starters, the fact Honolulu's emergency services were needed so desperately shows the situation had gotten beyond the control of race organizers.

And as Senator Fred Hemmings, a veteran surfer, has noted, starting the race on an outgoing tide was ill-advised as it certainly contributed to the adverse current.

It could also be argued that allowing anyone, without qualification, to attempt such a race is asking for trouble.Too many people we helped out of the water appeared to have no business attempting a 2 1/2-mile, open-ocean swim.

Finally, I would question the training and evaluation -- or lack of same -- of the race's "water-safety patrol" volunteers, and whether their numbers were sufficient.

As those on our boat can attest, when rescuers need rescuing, they are no longer an asset but have become part of the problem.

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