Tri, the Waters (Guest Blog)

This is a guest post from Dan Ingalls, founder and president of National Marine Safety Center. Over the course of several segments, Ingalls will focus on a variety of important triathlon topics that apply to events large and small.


It is widely accepted that the water is the most challenging part of a race for everyone involved in triathlon. Everyone? Yes, everyone!

The majority of athletes responding to countless surveys indicate across all ages, genders, and distances, the water was the most challenging and intimidating part of the race. Industry leaders are keenly aware that the water is the single greatest barrier to an extremely larger number of potential triathlon consumers. The governing bodies of the sport are struggling to find solutions to the water-related problems surfacing over recent years.

Unless your race is held in a location where professional lifeguard services are already in place, local municipalities may also be ill-equipped or challenged to handle the event on the water. Their ability to assess, address or even evaluate whether effective water safety precautions are being planned for or carried out are often exceedingly limited. On the other hand, if professional services are present, the cost for these services is very high. Event organizers often don’t have control over how their dollars are being spent, but they are forced into the deal just to get and maintain the, oh-so-valuable permits.

Mitigate Water Challenges By Getting the Right Support

1. Recruit Advocates in Local Municipalities
No matter the degree of professionalism or depth understanding of water-related dynamics in the departments involved, always seek to identify two people in the structure of the local municipalities. First is a person who is the highest ranking official who truly supports the event. This might be someone in the Chamber of Commerce, police or fire department. The second is a person who will have boots on the ground during the event. Again, this could be a cop or fireman.  Each of these people are folks who identify with the event or, better yet, participate in triathlons or swimming events at one level or another. The goal is to keep these two people engaged in your event over multiple years. Empowering them to become PART of the event, and having them work together, will get more done behind the scenes then you will ever know.

Post-event, be sure to keep these two advocates involved. Write a letter of appreciation to the top of the department’s food chain, or kicking down some event swag will go a long way toward keeping these people on the hook. This will also get others within these departments interested in the event, thus providing more support over the years. Your two municipal supporters will be the organizational spark plugs making life easier on countless levels.

2. Carefully Select Your Volunteers & Staff
Event directors are challenged by the water on many fronts—just setting a course involves the consideration of depth, currents and bottom configuration. When it comes to getting support form volunteers and staff, there are a lot of people out there who are willing to help with the water, but the skill set, experience, and competence can vary widely or be non-existent. The last thing any organizer would want is to put someone in a position of high consequence with little or no training, experience, or proper equipment. Recruiting a group of the local kids from the nearby YMCA pool deck to guard several hundred triathlon participants is not a valid substitute for professional water safety staff. No matter where you are starting from, find or create a person who can focus solely on all things water. Having a designated Water Safety Coordinator will be key to continued improvements, relationships and litigation defense. Invest in this person by providing training, continuous support and seek opportunities to develop their highest level of water safety/rescue understanding possible.

3. Build Cooperation with USA Triathlon (USAT)
A great deal of pressure has been placed on USAT in recent years to stem the tide of water-related issues and fatalities. Being a relatively young sport, reacting to the growing and significant problem in a responsible and meaningful way is challenging to say the least. Remember, USAT’s current lists of requirements related to the water are MINIMUMS only. As race directors, you hold more leverage to steer the course of USAT into the future than you might realize. Persuading USAT to provide focused and quality water related training, harnessing best practices from around the triathlon world, would be a great place to start. Having their endorsement of water safety practices and available services to fill this demanding role will go way beyond a list of minimum sanctioning standards. As a governing body, USAT can’t be expected to have all the answers, but their unity behind standards of training and deployment of resources is the right course.

In conclusion, getting the right support from your local municipalities, staff, volunteers, and USAT is crucial. From my own perspective developed over many years of experience in the organization, planning and execution of water safety plans of countless marine events, large and small, I’m going to try to provide more advice for triathlon organizers in some upcoming blog posts. I’ll focus on topics like “What is a quality lifeguard or boat operator,” “What can USAT do to help,” and more. I know there are countless race directors out there losing sleep over the water, so hopefully I’ll be able to answer some of their questions.

Race directors – what do you think? What challenges have you faced with the water? Comment below!

danAbout Dan Ingalls:
From Fleet-week on the San Francisco Bay, to helping with water safety for the first year of a remote triathlon, Dan Ingalls has over seen or participated in a wide range of events in the water safety capacity.  As a rescue boat operator in the US Coast Guard, a lifeguard on So Cal’s beaches, swim coach, competitive age group triathlete, and a professional provider of water support services, Ingalls has the experience to provide guidance and answers to all of the stakeholders in the triathlon industry.

Learn more about the National Marine Safety Center.