Home Sanctions WOWSA Rules & Regulations WOWSA 4.0 – Open Water Safety

WOWSA 4.0 – Open Water Safety

WOWSA 4.1 – Open Water Safety: Many Rules, Different Venues, One Goal. There are numerous rules, interpretations and traditions - local, regional, national and international - that dictate and influence the safety procedures, guidelines and rules used in open water swims, but there is only one goal: safety for all.

WOWSA 4.2 – Every open water swimming course is different and every open water swimming course can be different from day-to-day and from hour-to-hour. Safety plans, procedures and protocols may be difficult and challenging, but they should also be based on common sense and local knowledge of the waterways and the accumulated wisdom of local safety experts including lifeguards, fishermen, government authorities, boaters, and the Race Director and Safety Officer.

WOWSA 4.3 – Because the natural elements in the water and the weather are so dynamic and unpredictable, the ultimate safety of open water swimmers depends on rules and guidelines supported by common sense and a reasonable, flexible approach to safety that is properly planned, documented, approved and executed by the race director, the race organization staff and local authorities (in the case of a race) or by the coach and pilot (in the case of a solo marathon swim).

WOWSA 4.4 – Considerations may slightly differ between a limited field of professional swimmers and large fields for amateur races, between solo swims and competitions, and between events in the world's oceans, seas, lakes, fjords, bays, rivers, reservoirs, lagoons or canals, but (1) there should be a pair of eyes potentially on every swimmer at every point in the race, and (2) there should be no blind spots along the course.

WOWSA 4.5 – At any point in the race, someone (race officials, lifeguards, volunteers or spectators) should potentially be able to see every swimmer in the water at all times. This does not mean that every swimmer should always have a pair of eyes glued on them. It only means that IF a swimmer has to be located at any point in time, there is someone in position to see them along the course. In other words, if there are points along the course where athletes cannot be seen (blinds spots) by someone, then the WOWSA Open Water Safety rules are not followed.

WOWSA 4.6 – When an athlete cannot answer simple questions about himself (e.g., his telephone number, his pet's name, his street address), his mental state is adversely affected by the elements (e.g., heat or cold or exhaustion). Race officials should immediately pull the athlete out of the water. Even if athletes protest about being pulled from the water, the authority of the race officials is final.

WOWSA 4.7 – Lead boats either watch the lead pack of athletes with referees or race officials on board, or the lead boats actually lead the fastest swimmers along the course.

WOWSA 4.8 – Other official boats and safety marshals along the course, including safety kayakers, paddlers, surf skiers or stand-up paddlers, must keep an eye out for the middle-of-the-pack and trailing swimmers.

WOWSA 4.9 – Safety kayakers, paddlers, surf skiers and stand-up paddlers should always scan the field. These safety staff should possess a means of communication and understand the communication chain to alert the swimmers and officials if there are problems or emergencies.

WOWSA 4.10 – Numbering of athletes is essential to enable the race organization and timing company to keep track of the athletes in the water and at the end of the race. Numbers can be hand-written or stamped with ink pads on the athlete’s hands, arms, backs or swim caps. Alternatively, the numbers can placed on the vests or clothing used by the athlete’s kayaker, paddler or stand-up paddler.

WOWSA 4.11 – Athletes and safety personnel shall use night sticks, glow sticks, disc lights, or some other form of adequate illumination in order to identify an athlete in low-light conditions or in the dark, especially during solo swims or relays. Similarly, escort kayakers, paddlers and/or boaters shall also have different types of illumination on their body or equipment in order for the athletes to see them.

WOWSA 4.12 – Positioning of safety personnel on the course shall be determined by the Race Director and Safety Officer based on their experience, dynamic conditions of the course, historical considerations, and the experience of the local government officials and safety personnel. Safety personnel should always be positioned along the course in a variety of pre-determined positions. They are assigned specific areas to patrol with adequate communication tools to alert others and the command control.

WOWSA 4.13 – Safety personnel and course marshals should be easily identified by each other, the athletes, and the spectators at the competition. The communication between the Race Director, Safety Officer, and all safety personnel on land and in the water should be convenient and easily performed through the use of radios or mobile phone.

WOWSA 4.14 - Open water swimming is a sport inherent with risks. There are risks from marine life, from currents and tidal flows, from exhaustion, from hypothermia and hyperthermia, and from collisions with piers, docks, pontoons, feeding stations, escort boats, kayakers and surf skis. The more eyes on the swimmers in the open water, the safer the swimmers generally are. A Race Director actively engages the assistance of four different levels of safety:

  • Race organization staff
  • Race volunteers
  • Spectators
  • Swimmers

WOWSA 4.14.1 – The highest level of open water safety responsibility falls on the race organization staff that creates structures, provides equipment, sets the philosophy and plans, prepares and prioritizes safety well before race day. This includes contracted staff such as lifeguards, Safety Officers, volunteer medical personnel, local lifeguards, fishermen and boaters who know the body of water best. Consultation with all of these different groups falls upon the shoulders of the race director and staff.

WOWSA 4.14.2 – Race volunteers stationed along the course, both on the water and on shore, provide the second set of eyes on the swimmers. These volunteers are provided pre-race instructions on what to do when problems or emergencies occur and are provided with whistles, binoculars and mobile communication devices.

WOWSA 4.14.3 – Spectators on shore can also help. The race announcer keeps the spectators on shore engaged by calling attention to everyone on the course, from the fastest to slowest swimmers. Through the voice of the announcer, the eyes of the spectators can be directed to scan the course that serves to increase the safety net.

WOWSA 4.14.4 – The athletes themselves are often the first to respond to a fellow swimmer in need. During pre-race instructions, all athletes should be told how to call for help and where that help will be located (in boats, on kayaks, JetSkis, surf skis or paddle boards, on shore, with radios, dressed in red or other identifiable colors). While a Race Director cannot depend on the athletes in the water, these athletes are often an active and first line of defense.

WOWSA 4.15 – WOWSA recommends to Race Directors that they look at safety from four perspectives: Philosophy, Planning, Preparation, and Priority.

WOWSA 4.15.1 – The WOWSA philosophy that safety for the athletes is the top priority must be genuine because there are inherent risks in the sport. If budgets cannot allow for proper safety measures to be taken, then the event shall not be held. If human resources are inadequate to provide proper safety measures to be taken, then the event shall not be held. If equipment (watercraft, radios, and emergency medical facilities) is inefficient, then the event shall not be held.

From a positive perspective, a philosophy of safety must be pervasive from the very moment a race is conceived. The focus on safety is set by the Race Director and Safety Officer and needs to be on the mind of every race volunteer and organization personnel. Budgets, watercraft (boats, kayaks, Inflatable Rescue Boats (IRBs), surf skis, personal watercraft (PWC), paddle boards), volunteers, professionals (lifeguards, physicians, paramedics) and equipment must be part of the planning process from Day One.

WOWSA 4.15.2 – When a race is in the planning stages, safety aspects and considerations are paramount. A general idea of the number of safety personnel will be derived from the estimated number of athletes. A general idea of the optimal type and number of watercraft (diesel boats, kayaks, IRBs, PWCs, paddle boards, stand-up paddlers, JetSkis) to use will also be derived by the configuration and location of the race. The assumed water and weather conditions will determine the type and number of onshore personnel and equipment (mylar blankets, whistles, radios).

A communication plan shall be prepared so every individual involved in the race organization knows what their roles are and where and what they should be doing during contingencies or in emergencies. Emergency plans shall be prepared that documents assigned responsibilities, actions and procedures required in the event of an emergency. Additionally, a written Athlete’s Guide shall be a useful tool to educate and inform the athletes of what is expected and all the different situations that can occur.

WOWSA 4.15.3 – The Athlete’s Guide shall be posted on the event website and emailed to the athletes well in advance of race day. The Athlete’s Guide should provide helpful tips and reminders for the athlete regarding water temperature, water conditions and course layout and how they can prepare for these expectations.

WOWSA 4.15.4 – After all the plans have been discussed and documented, the written plans must be prepared to be executed. Emailing safety plans to key staff and volunteers is important, but even more important are face-to-face meetings where everyone is informed on what can happen on race day, review contingency plans, discuss emergency situations, test everyone’s knowledge of how to communicate, where to go and what to do when the unexpected occurs.

WOWSA 4.15.5 – Race Directors should prepare notes to keep on a clipboard with information for easy and quick reference. Similar to the land-based safety personnel, volunteers and staff on the water should be given the same information prepared in waterproof bags.

WOWSA 4.16 – On race day, the Race Director should be prepared to change things on the fly without hesitation if problems occur. The Race Directors should anticipate and identify potential problems before they occur and make adjustments so they can quickly react. For example, if the waves are large, position lifeguards within the surf zone. If the weather is too warm, change the start to the cooler morning hours or the late afternoon. If jellyfish swarm, make sure to have plenty of household vinegar in spray bottles. In all cases, keep the athletes and spectators informed of potential hazards. Even if some athletes complain, the Race Director and staff must be prepared to take some verbal criticism in order to protect the safety of all.

WOWSA 4.17 – After the event is over, document the following in order to improve the race in the future: what went right and why, what went wrong and why, what went unexpected and how to prevent from reoccurring.

WOWSA 4.18 – The lead pack of athlete are usually well-attended to by the officials and volunteers. The attention of the race announcer and race officials are usually fixed on the leaders. However, the entire field demands the attention of the race director, on-the-water safety marshals and volunteers.

WOWSA 4.19 – Experienced water safety staff and Race Directors often divide the entire course into manageable segments. Each segment has a designated number of water safety personnel - both onshore and on the water - in order to take care of the entire field of swimmers. As the athletes pass from one segment to the other, the water safety staff should stay diligently focused on the athletes in their area - and are in close communication with others on the course.

WOWSA 4.20 – WOWSA highly recommends that all open water events should be captured on video. Not only is the effective cost of filming the race by hand-held video recorders relatively inexpensive, filming the race can serve the following functions:

  • Documentation of the race for educational purposes of the race staff.
  • Documentation of the race for educational purposes of the volunteers.
  • Documentation of the race for educational purposes of the race officials.
  • Documentation of the race course, safety equipment, personnel and swimmers on the course.
  • Documentation of possible rule infractions, cheating, course mishaps or other unforeseen situation or unanticipated accidents.
  • Marketing of future races.
  • Educational or motivational purposes for swimmers and coaches interested in future races.
  • Posting on YouTube, Vimeo and other online file-sharing services.
  • Sharing of the race with future sponsors, vendors, city officials, safety personnel and governing bodies.


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