I’m sure that each of Mario's ten points do occur at some point during the course of a drowning, but with respect to a kayaker watching over a swimmer during a swim event, the first 5 points are meaningless. All swimmers swim with their mouth at water level; you can’t see a swimmers eyes during a swim to tell if they are glassy or not; tilted heads are common; and with respect to hair, well, swimmers wear swim caps. Now, if the first 5 refer to a swimmer who is posting, that’s a different story. Posting, or swimming vertically, is one of the final stages a drowning victim goes through before going under for the final time. But I am getting ahead of myself...
Signs 6-10 are important and everyone should be aware of them. But kayakers should not expect them to occur in any order. There is a temptation to look at the order of the listing as implying worsening degrees. The events can occur in any order. Once you see any of these symptoms, things will begin going south very quickly, so act immediately.
If you see a swimmer struggling to move forward, but making slow progress, watch him critically and do not leave his side. If you hear a swimmer choking, gurgling, or coughing frequently, seriously consider having him pulled immediately. He can't keep his mouth above water and his breathing is poorly timed. He is beginning the drowning process. If he is verbally unresponsive to your questions or inattentive to your presence, or if he is stopping frequently and going into a vertical position (posting) go to him. If he doesn't grasp your deck lines on his own, consider grasping hold of him or entering the water with him if you have life saving experience. Do so only after your rescue call for help is acknowledged. Waste no time, for you have none to spare.
Kayakers become complacent in swim supports. We are too used to offering encouragement. In the Columbia swims and similar shallow water swims, we see a lot of aquatic stress, for lack of a better term. Many of these swimmers are naive to open water swimming and when moving into dark waters of the early morning, where they can’t see bottom, they panic. We easily move to them and they readily accept our proffered bows. Some will rest a few moments, gather their wits about them and with a little encouragement, go on to finish the race. In these races, we kayakers are mostly shuttlers, retrievers, or cheerleaders.
In the longer, deep water crossings, like the Potomac River Swim and the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, the swimmers are more experienced and less likely to panic. In fact, many have completed these crossings on previous occasions. Here, our role is not that of cheerleader, but monitors. Kayakers in these events are the appointed Guardian angels, so to speak. Our principle responsibility is to maintain a constant vigilance on the swimmers status, looking out for any of the signs that may indicate he is nearing the point of exhaustion, in danger of becoming confused or disoriented, and to act promptly if any of these signs present. Here, acting means to have that swimmer pulled from the race, even if he objects. You are making a life or death decision.
Swimmers drown for numerous reasons, among which are: a cardiac event happens, exhaustion occurs, a traumatic event happens. Cardiac events usually go unnoticed. The heart stops beating, respiration continues and the lungs fill with water. If consciousness is regained, the swimmer is beneath the surface and resurfacing is unlikely unless he is wearing a wetsuit to offset negative bouncy. These swimmers usually just disappear from the pack and do not get noticed until the final role is taken at event’s end. Alternatively, they are found floating. Traumatic events are less likely, but have occurred. Drowning occurs with loss of consciousness. Exhaustion is, or should be a preventable event, for it is accompanied by the signs and symptoms outlined. The swimmer only has to be observed by an attentive observer.
I have five suggestions for kayakers providing swim support:
First, don’t allow yourself to become complacent. If you are doing one of the long, deep water support, remember, you are monitoring experienced swimmers. A swimmer that shows any of the symptoms outlined above means that swimmer needs support now.
Second, cheer-leading is for shallow water events only. It makes no sense to give encouragement to a swimmer having difficulty at the 3 mile marker to continue on in a 7.5 mile swim.
Third, do not assume that the swimmer showing signs of distress will grab hold of your deck lines as he approaches exhaustion. He won’t. A state of mental confusion may precede complete exhaustion and prevent the swimmer from saving his own life. A swimmer in the Bay swim a few years ago, dove for the bottom of the bay when approached by a support kayaker, only to float lifelessly to the surface moments later. Another swimmer in the Potomac Swim began swimming toward the open waters of the bay and failed to respond to rescue boaters. Marine police had to enter the water and handcuff the swimmer before he could be brought on board. He was severely confused, belligerent, and disoriented.
Fourth, talk to any swimmer showing any signs of distress. If he doesn’t respond meaningfully, or does not respond at all, consider having him pulled from the race immediately.
Fifth, don’t be afraid to call for a second opinion. If you suspect a swimmer is in difficulty, but can’t bring yourself to have him pulled, get a second opinion from another kayaker. Explain what the difficulties are and make the decision together.
What to watch for:
1. Any swimmer who is not flat (horizontal) on the water.
2. Choking, gasping for air, gurgling, bubbling noises made by the swimmer.
3. Failure to reply to your questioning, or otherwise inattentiveness.
4. Signs of confusion or disorientation.
Good luck out there and bring'em back alive folks.