SANDPOINT — For the first time in its 23-year history, the Long Bridge Swim didn’t take place.
With winds averaging 22 knots per hour, with gusts of 30 knots or more, by the race’s 8 a.m. safety meeting, organizers made the tough decision to call the 2017 race off Saturday.
“The consensus was that these were extremely challenging conditions just to be boating and there was no way they were going to be able to assist a swimmer who needed help,” race director Jim Zuberbuhler said.
Swim officials had deployed some of its experienced safety boaters to test the waters of Lake Pend Oreille between Sagle and Sandpoint, but quickly pulled them out after reports of kayakers flipping and jet boaters getting swamped by the waves.
“There was just no way at that point that it would have been a responsible decision to go ahead,” Zuberbuhler said.
While the swim has had temporary delays due to winds and electrical storms, this year marked the first time in the swim’s history that it had to be called off. But with the winds blowing from the northeast — meaning swimmers and boaters would have been battling the wind the entire way — and at such a strong level, there was no other decision they could make, organizers said.
“We made the decision to delay for 30 minutes and deploy our safety team … and see how they would do before making a decision about the swimmers, and it became apparent to us within 15 minutes that we would not be able to do this,” Zuberbuhler said.
The safety boaters — even those who have been with the swim for 15-20 years — were unable to hold position and the concern was they would be unable to help swimmers trying to make their way across the lake in challenging conditions. While strong, experienced open water swimmers might have been able to completely the swim, Zuberbuhler said safety issues came first.
“It’s a disappointment for people but we have to look at the viability of our safety operation and it was compromised today,” he said Saturday afternoon. “We can control for a lot of things but we can’t control the weather.”
The wind event had been on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s radar for several days and both weather officials and race organizers had been keeping a careful watch on things.
Zuberbuhler was 10 minutes into the mandatory safety meeting, talking about the swim, asking how many people had done it was five years, 10 years and more, when he got the call about the difficulties being faced by the safety boats.
At that point, he said he called for a 30-minute delay. While it looked more and more like they would have to cancel the swim, Zuberbuhler said LBS organizers needed that time for the logistical challenges of calling off an event that had 711 swimmers ready to hit the water — and held out a slim hope the wind might die down.
However, he said that wasn’t the case and, if anything, the winds kept building and conditions worsened.
At that point, the decision was made to officially call off the swim.
When Zuberbuhler announced that the winds made it unsafe to hold the swim, he told the story of how a 70-year-old swimmer from Salt Lake had traveled to Sandpoint for the fifth year to take part in the swim. The only reason she felt able to do the race was the dedication and support of the event’s safety team. Whichever way things went, she assured him, they would support organizers and would be back.
“I actually told that story to the assembled when I announced that unfortunately we were going to have to call the event, and explained that if we can’t have our safety kayakers and other safety people able to help, we can’t do this,” he said. “People stood and applauded and we had a completely positive response.”
While everyone were obviously disappointed and wanted to swim, Zuberbuhler said they all understood the decision and the reasons behind it.
“They were uniformly positive and people could not have been nicer,” he said. “I am not exaggerating, I probably had 50 people approach me afterward to thank me for the tough decision and at least 10 of those people were either race officials at other events or had been part of other experiences where races had been called or should have been. Just wanted to tell me their story to underline how important it was to make the right decision.
“It was very clear we made the right choice.”
After breaking the bad news that the race was off, Zuberbuhler told those gathered that registration would open in two days for the 2018 Long Bridge Swim. He was greeted with another round of applause and swimmers shouting out they’d be there.
“Again, everyone wanted to swim, but we have to make the right decision and I know that we did and there’s not going to be any second guessing,” he added. “At this point completely done, it’s all packed up and everyone is home safe and nobody got hurt. That’s the important thing.”