Every year, Distressed Mullet helps the WBFD organize water support for the Beach2Battleship Iron Distance Triathlon. From 7:30 am to 10:00 am, 1,900 swimmers swim between 2.4 and 1.2 miles in Banks Channel and Motts Channel, two saltwater channels in Wrightsville Beach that paddlers paddle every day.
The channels have something helpful that other open water swims lack: a tidal push.
The channels have something dangerous that other open water swims lack: a tidal push.
Swimmers in the PPD Beach2Battleship event routinely post split times twice as fast as they’d normally swim. They also have the chance to freak out, drink salt water, plow into channel markers, get scraped with barnacles, step on an oyster, and get sucked north with the chance to swim to Jacksonville instead of the Sea Path Towers and T1 where their bikes are. And that’s just the first 2.4 miles of their 140.6 mile race.
That’s where the standup paddlers come in.
The PPD Beach2Battleship Iron Distance event is not an official Ironman race, in that it is not associated with the trademarked brand. It is iron-distance. That means the full competitors swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles. They have 17 hours to complete. That means the last finishers this year rolled in at around 12:30 am. THE NEXT DAY. Competitors in the half swim 1.2, bike 61, and run 13.1 miles.
Suddenly my 13 mile race, for which I am planning via “Operation: Get Katie to the Graveyard (but not THAT graveyard)” Carolina Cup plan seems quaint.
Our Goal is to Help You Reach Your Goal
We look forward to this day all year. Or at least I do. The second year of the event there were 15 paddlers to help. This year there were 50. We hit the water at about 6:30-6:45 am and paddle to our locations. We stage people in several strategic parts along the swim course:
· The start at the Coast Guard Station
· Along the Bank’s Channel leg up to the Blockade Runner
· At the turn from the Blockade Runner and Banks Channel into Motts Channel
· Along Motts Channel
· The zig zag in Motts Channel to the finish
· The swim finish
When we plan well, we have standup paddlers at every point during the open swim so that any time a swimmer looks up they can see us lining the channel and we’re there to assist if needed. My first year helping, after one month of paddling, it was so cold that there were 18 water rescues due to hypothermia. I had to pull someone out and take him to shore.
Our primary concern this year was not weather—you couldn’t have had better weather for a swim: 70 degree water, 55 degree air, sun, very light wind, and a favorable tide—it was current. Before the swimmers got to the “danger zone” where there’s a turn and a wicked eddy, they had to swim about 1.8 miles.
The Taylor Swift Swim
“How do I find Hector?” “You look for him.”
Easier said than done with 800 swimmers jumping in the water. They all look like little aliens with their swim caps and goggles and wetsuits and they just keep coming. Plus, the sun is just barely up. Hector would have been easier to find if he had been struggling, but apparently, he was badass, and flying along. He swims on his back, but, apparently, so do other people. A few paddlers saw him later in the swim and said he looked fine. Hector, should you ever come across this, I’m so sorry I couldn’t find you to help you.
Hector has done 90 triathlons, and is a rock star. I have to think he would have asked for help if he needed it.
There were other people who needed help, badly.
The biggest problem swimmers have with the open water swim is that they panic. Most of them are pool swimmers. Few of them live near salt water.
Once I couldn’t find Hector, I turned my attention to the back of the pack of the Full swimmers. There was one lady who was just going nuts. “I can’t do it, I won’t do it, I have to get out, I can’t do it.” Mark, who is a fellow paddleboarder, a guy in a little ocean kayak, and I floated around her. “We will NOT let you drown.” “You CAN’T quit now.” (We were not even 100 yards from the start.) “We will paddle with you the whole way.”
Swimmers: You may think we’re being mean, but it crushes us to think about you quitting right at the start after all the training you’ve done unless you are, literally, about to die.
The ocean rescue jetski came over. I left.
At some point, Mark took over. I saw him later coming back from the finish line. “Did you get her there?” He did. She finished her swim. “It was 2.4 miles of ‘I love you’ ‘I hate you’ ‘Go away’ ‘Don’t leave me’ ‘How can I go on’ ‘I quit’ ‘I un-quit’ ‘I hate this’ When she climbed up the ladder at Sea Path, before the volunteers could get her wetsuit unzipped, she turned around and yelled at me ‘I LOVE YOU!’” This is why we do what we do. “I don’t know what to do with the rest of my day,” Mark said. “It was such an amazing experience. Heck, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my year!” Mark, you rock.
Eric, another paddler, coaxed a swimmer from start to finish after hearing him say “If I throw up, I’m going to have to quit.” Eric is a dentist. He described his reaction thusly “I didn’t know what to do with that comment. I all of a sudden had visions of him aspirating his own vomit. I decided to stay with him.” Only a medical professional would use the word ‘aspirate’ in casual conversation. Way to go, Eric!
Once the Full swimmers make it past the half start, the age group heats start. The Full swim is less nerve-wracking once people are on their way. They spread out and (mostly) settle in for the slog, and we just track with them. The half is a different story. Every five or ten minutes, the horn sounds and another wave of swimmers comes at us in what I like to call the “Wrightsville Beach Channel of Bones Slash Bermuda Triangle”
By the time the Full swimmers reach the turn, they are tired enough and spread out enough that we can get them around better. They’ll look up at us for direction. The Half swimmers are fresh off their start and still gunning it. They’re bunched up and following each other like a pack of, well, distressed mullets. Or lemmings. In wetsuits.
I cannot overestimate the anxiety the hour of Half swim heats provoke in me. The strong swimmers are able to maintain position in the channel and let the right current sweep them around the turn. The weak swimmers get pulled out of the correct channel and start heading toward the Figure Eight Bridge.
Our main job during the Half is to form a wall to prevent swimmers from getting sucked the wrong way, slammed into a dock, or slammed into a channel marker. I put on my bossypants to direct the volunteers where I was. I was working with the UNCW Paddle Club members. I alternately yelled at the swimmers “Stay left. Swim Left. KEEP LEFT.” And yelled at the club members “Paddle in. Move UP. SCOOT UP NOW.” I have a wheeze today.
They. Were. Champs. Those UNCW paddlers were a huge help. THANK YOU guys and gals!
Sharna and Ann kept people from hitting the docks along Motts Channel. Docks = Barnacles = shredded suits = blood.
A new paddler in town manned the channel marker in the middle of the zig zag to the finish. “WATCH THE MARKER. DON’T HIT THE MARKER. STAY AWAY FROM THE MARKER.”
I wiped a pair of goggles for an elderly gentleman named Johnny. Heather, a swimmer in the pink heat gave me a chance to get off my feet and sit down while she grabbed my board to calm down and breathe. I checked the results and I think you finished the whole thing, Heather. WAY TO GO!
My friend Nancy heard me yelling during the pink swim heat (people often find me because I’m yelling) and popped her head up. I grabbed a pic of her and she went on to finish her first half Iron distance. GREAT JOB Nancy!
View from the Back
After the CHANNEL OF DEATH shot the last swimmer toward the finish line, I bossed my fellow paddlers “DO NOT LEAVE ANY SWIMMERS BEHIND. I WANT EACH OF THEM TO HAVE A PADDLER.” I had never seen the swim finish, being tied up with other things, so I paddled over.
One gentleman in a green cap was finishing the swim, mostly on his back, mostly perpendicular to the route. We tried not to go crazy shouting, but also wanted to keep him from hitting the boats. Once he was in, I heard Keith yelling “KATIE I HAVE YOUR FRIEND HERE!” It was Jen, my other friend doing the half. She was the last swimmer in the water. (She wasn’t the slowest swimmer in the half though. She was at the end partially because of heats.)
She was in the back. My favorite spot.
I paddled over to her and chit chatted with Keith and her. She smiled for a photo op, and started fighting the wicked awful current and wind that popped up for the last 50-100 yards.
“I won’t let you hit the boat!” I yelled. (There was a boat just east of the ladder that the current could push a tired swimmer into.) I had my own dock/boat/current situation a few weeks ago—forthcoming in another blog post.
She climbed out and disappeared into a sea of volunteers. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and waved goodbye to Dave and the “land” volunteers for the swim.
We had no DNFs from the Swim. We are very proud of that!
We had lunch at Tower 7 and swapped stories from the morning. Everybody saw something interesting or inspiring. Everyone was happy to have made a difference.
At about 6pm I headed downtown with Sharna and Lexy to cheer on the runners. By that point, I’d lunched, showered, napped, and had a pint of cider. THE COMPETITORS HAD NOT STOPPED MOVING. This year the finish line was in Downtown Wilmington, instead of at the Battleship. I’m not sure how the competitors felt about that, but I liked being able to go to the finish.
The pros are fast and awesome, but I was rooting for the people in the back, naturally. The ones finishing in between 15-17 hours. I stayed until 11, when I was about to fall asleep, cheering and yelling.
I finally saw Hector at around 10:45. He was still cruising. Wow.
To all of the athletes who competed yesterday: You are beyond amazing. We are all so proud of you. I get goosebumps when I think of what you just accomplished.
I talked to my friend Kim later that night. She said “It will make you want to do one.” Um, not really.
But I did pump up my bike tires this morning. Maybe a little cross training will help get me to the Graveyard.