Piloting Open Water Swimmers

pilot_boat_swimmingIn mountain climbing the unsung heroes are the sherpas/porters. In open water swimming the unsung heroes are the pilot boats.

Typically I’m a swimmer, and pilot boats protect me. Today I had the opportunity to switch roles. I piloted a swim with 25 swimmers. There were 5 other pilot boats including me.

Role of the pilot boat during an open water swim:

  • Protect swimmer from boaters and wildlife
  • Guide the swim path
  • Feed and motivate the swimmer during swims lasting more than 1 hour

What I learned. First of all I learned what a pilot boat does (see above). I also learned what a powerful affect the tidal current has on a swimmer. From the vantage point of our pilot boat Reuben and I saw several swimmers get swept by a swift tidal current. The current was faster than they were and caused them to literally swim in place. A good pilot can help a swimmers navigate currents and win the race!

Pilots from the Dolphin Club use plastic kayaks, motorized zodiacs, fiberglass paddle boards, and wooden Whitehall rowboats. The Whitehall rowboats at the Dolphin Club are pretty awesome, and most of over 100 years old. During the swim walkie-talkies are used to coordinate maneuvers. Two or more pilot boats lead the front swimmer and sweep the rear swimmer. Other pilot boats serve as course markers and guide points for the swimmers along the course.

Some stats about today’s swim.

  • 52F … water temp
  • 1:3 … ratio of swimmers to pilot boats
  • 1.5 miles … course distance
  • 1897 … year that my wooden rowboat was built
  • 3 … donuts/bagels consumed pre & post (yummy!)

And of course, photography from today.

Day 23 – Channel Day Moments

We swam the channel yesterday.  Today is a planned day to rest, recoop and reenergize. We still have 200 more miles to bike to get to Paris — which will start day after tomorrow.

Some stats about our swim:

  • Dover, UK to Calais, France
  • 14 hours 23 minutes
  • 21 miles
  • Water temp 60F
  • In terms of nutrition… We each fed once every 30 minutes in the water on GU Roctane and GU20 using the Gu-Bot bottle. The bottle held 2 GU packets in a separate chamber from the warmed GU hydration. We ate 2 packets and 12 ounces of warm water during each feeding.
  • Seas were pretty rough at times
  • Our pilot on channel day was David Whyte. Seriously folks, he’s the best in the business and has piloted over 350 successful channel swims. 350!!! His support was phenomenal. His thoughts we only on the swimmers — and his hand-picked crew helped our crew huge. His boat is one of the largest in the fleet. I remember late during the swim when he turned around and shouted encouragement to me in the water at the top of his lungs, flinging his arms in celebration. He was wonderful. It’s a pity he’s retiring this year — but we hear he’s trained an awesome successor in Chris Osmond.

Check out these videos and photographs:

Predator goggleA shout-out to Skyline Goggles, especially our friend Rick Runckel, President. Neal used the Predator goggles (pictured) during his crossing. These goggles are built for open water swimming — they have a huge viewing angle and don’t hurt eye sockets during swims, whether those swims are 1 hour or 14 hours.

Swimming the Schuylkill River


He who wants to find the sea should take a river for his guide.

We are training in the Schuylkill River! We’ve done it 3 of last 4 days. Today we swam for 80 minutes. And after doing those miles we plan to swim more and more. Here’s why we love it…

  • It’s cold. Cold is important for us to acclimatize our bodies. The water temps in the Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River has been 58-64F, which is pretty close to the water temps that we’ll see in the English Channel which is 56-58F. So far the cold is treating us well and only our toes are cold during the swim.
  • It’s beautiful. And a fun change of pace from the pool. Keeping the mind busy lets us forget about our shoulders and biceps.
  • It’s clean. Despite popular belief it’s a very clean river. The Philadelphia Department of Water has a website with daily coliform/bacteria counts, water flow, and water temp. These three together form a proxy for water quality. Nothing instills confidence that the river is safe like that big green banner on the Rivercast website!

The green banner means the water is safe.


From behind the camera the river is idealistically beautiful! Up close there tends to be more duck weed and gunk. But we still like it.


You’re Doing What??

In every athletic endeavor that I’ve ever trained for, I’ve always hit that point in training where motivation drops off and every lap or every mile seems like an eternity. You know what I’m talking about, it’s the one where you spend the entire workout thinking “Is this almost over?” This is what I’m facing right now, and my solution is to grind through it. Neal’s solution, on the other hand, is to go heli skiing in Alaska.

Sure ’nuff. He’s in Alaska for 9 days heli skiing! He’d better be taking advantage of the open water swimming up there. If he can do the 38F water temps in the Prince William Sound in February, then he can certainly handle the 55F water temps in Dover in July.

Points North Heli Skiing
Points North Heli SkiingPoints North Heli Skiing