Many open water swimmers cannot see much in competitions or their solo swims. Their direction depends on either the swimmers near them or their kayaker. They often cannot see the finish, let alone the next buoy, getting frustrated and wondering where they are.
But this lack of vision is nothing compared to what International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame swimmer James Pittar faces every time he gets in the water.
For James is blind.
Not bad for someone who has swum the English Channel, Cook Strait, Catalina Channel, the Pennock Island Challenge, Parana River (60K in Argentina), Rottnest Channel Swim, Strait of Gibraltar and many other marathon swims (shown on left).
James’ motto, “You don’t have to see it to believe it”, truly rings true.
Matt Logan, who has been kayaking for James for the past seven years, has a unique perspective. “Kayaking in the open water for James is different to kayaking for a sighted person.”
“With a sighted person you tend to paddle a safe distance from the swimmer on their preferred breathing side. That way as they breathe and turn their head, they are able to judge how far from you they are. They should try and keep that distance as they swim. Since the kayaker’s head is sitting two feet above the water, they are able to see a greater distance across the water. So the swimmer should trust that the direction the kayaker is paddling is the correct direction for them to swim. This should make for a more efficient swimmer, instead of the swimmer having to keep looking up in the direction they need to swim.”
But James and Matt work much more profoundly as a team. Their relationship has developed a lot more trust than most – by choice and by necessity. “James does a lot of work in the pool day by day, by himself. But we still do most weekends leading up to a major swim training together in the open water for up to 4 hours at a time. This also enables us to fine tune the whistle technique that his swim coach Narelle Simpson and James initially developed.”
“On the water, it is blind faith. James is blind and has complete faith that I’ll be there to guide him in the shortest possible line to achieve a successful swim. My faith is in his capacity to keep swimming irrespective of bluebottle stings, seaweed wrap around his neck, calm seas or big seas.”
Besides the whistles, James and Matt communicate truthfully and factually. “There are no lies. We never try and sugarcoat a situation for James. He knows how long he has been in the water. He knows how long it should take him. He knows how he is feeling. We encourage James all the time, when he needs a kick up the bum for slacking off, we stop him and tell him there and then. We don’t wait for the next break, we get straight onto it. This enables us to keep him going for a longer period of time. Or it enables us to get on top of any issues he might be experiencing sooner.”
But like everything in open water swimming, things do not always go to plan and the challenge must always be faced, but not always met.
“The hardest swim I did with James was the 2003 Rottnest Island Swim. It was the year that they delayed the start by an hour. The conditions were deteriorating and they started the race. The other crew Bill (Sticks) Tricker brought James off the beach. From the beach, there were hundreds of boats sitting idling and spewing out boat fumes in large swells. James was just swimming off with the current in the wrong direction. James was punching through the waves and coming out the back of the waves with his hips to the tips of his hands clear out of the water. Unfortunately, since he was trying to grip the water, he was rolling and turning every time this happened. The times he wasn’t clear out the back of the wave he was head long into the next wave one and wasn’t able to hear the whistle. I was blowing the whistle all the time. Remarkably, James finished and walked out of the water, 13 hours in total.”
His journey continues, a shining beacon of inspiration for all.
Copyright © 2010 by Open Water Source