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Playing It Safe In The Maui Channel And Elsewhere

Scott Zornig is the president of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association and spends much of his time thinking about, swimming, or helping others achieve their dreams in the open water water.

Back during the 1999, Zornig had a close call together with Novaquatics teammates Rick Reeder, Craig Taylor, Dan Sullivan, Tom Landis, Jim Fitzpatrick, and 57 other teams doing the 9.5-mile inter-island relay between Lanai and Maui in Hawaii. This is their story:

We had a shark encounter with a 12-15 foot tiger shark during Maui Channel Swim. It was a scary experience as I saw the whole thing developing,” recalls Zornig.

When the large shark was first seen, Rick Reeder was swimming. The captain quickly positioned the escort boat between the shark and Reeder. When Reeder saw his teammates wave at him, he thought they were cheering him on. But he learned something else was amiss. “When I got close, I lifted my head and I heard them yell, ‘Get in the boat now, shark.’ I put my face back down in the water and started to swim to the boat as fast as I could.”

And in this case, the sprint was done in the nick of time. The shark, which was initially seen about 25 meters away, was closing fast and came within 2 meters of Reeder. It continued to circle menacingly around the escort boat for over 10 minutes.

Zornig remembers, “It was only 30-45 seconds before we pulled Reeder into the boat to safety, but I also remember thinking what I was going to tell his wife and family [since] I was the person who organized the relay and talked Rick into joining our team.

We, of course, disqualified ourselves during the relay and spent the rest of the time warning boats via our radio. Some of the teams pulled their swimmers out of the water upon hearing our warning. 3 or 4 other teams actually saw the same shark after it left us, but we found that many boat pilots were not monitoring the radios or did not have one. Then, we went boat to boat warning the swimmers.

The experience – about the actual shark encounter and about the communications between boats, crews and swimmers – had a profound influence on Zornig. “People often ask me what will I do if I am observing a channel swimmer and I see a shark a safe distance away. My answer is that I am going to immediately pull them out of the water unless I can quickly determine that it is a small, harmless shark. If I am wrong, so what! The swimmer can always return next year and try again. I would rather have a swimmer and family scream at me for pulling the swimmer too soon than for waiting too long.”

Copyright © 2013 by Open Water Swimming

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