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Kayakers to keep novice triathletes on safe course

Crews on lookout for signs of cramping or shock among swimmers.

ABU DHABI // When the first wave of elite athletes hits the water next weekend at the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, a team of kayakers will be watching intently.

Their eyes will not be on Faris Al Sultan, a world triathlon champion, or Frederik Van Lierdre, last year's champion.

Instead their attention will fall to the amateurs attempting their first triathlon in the sprint division, which starts off with a 750-metre swim on Saturday off the Corniche.

"Everyone is nice and fresh for the swim. That is the saving grace," said Mark Freeman of Noukhada Adventure Company, which is providing the first line of rescue for the swim leg of the event. "You're not going to get people fatigued before the swimming."

"We will get people pumped up and full of adrenalin. But then there are those who will be shocked going in," Mr Freeman said.

Cramping 20 metres in is the most common complaint.

By 5.30am at least 26 kayaks will be positioned along the 1.5 kilometre swim course. Five will lead out the waves of swimmers an hour later. The elite athletes will take position for the two-lap 3km swim followed by the short-distance swimmers who will go one lap. But it is those in the sprint competition who will get the most attention.

Last year "I had to help someone get to the boat", said Annie Freeman, of Noukhada. "I ended up following him. These guys are so determined. I stayed with him until the end and he had a big rest and went on."

"We didn't physically do one single recovery last year," Mr Freeman, Annie's husband, added.

Swimmers are allowed to hang on to the side of the kayak but are disqualified if carried forward.

Last year, Mr Freeman said his crew turned back about four swimmers 20 metres into the race because they were not fit enough to carry on.

Kayakers were also alerted when one swimmer started to vomit in the water.

"That's a sign of heat exhaustion, but at that time of the morning it's not really a possibility. He had the opportunity to hang on to the side of the kayak, but he said, 'No, no, no', and plodded on," Mr Freeman said.

There will be eight Noukhada employees on the water with 15 additional paddlers who usually join the company on weekend excursions.

"Then we have volunteers who did it with us last year and lifeguards from some of the hotels. We have to work out if they can kayak and maybe make them beach spotters or put them on a motorboat because of their first-aid training," Mr Freeman said.

A spotter watches from shore for any swimmer in distress.

"If they are struggling the kayaker makes a decision to throw their life jacket to them," he said. A swimmer in distress could easily tip a kayak.

"As soon as they are struggling, the kayaker will put the paddle up and the speedboat comes and another kayaker will help put them on the boat. It's pointless to pretend we can do any first aid in the water on our kayak," Mr Freeman said.

If there is fog, Mr Freeman has to decide if it is safe to start the race. He has set a visibility distance of just under 1km, the distance from the beach to the farthest buoy.

Kayakers will also be used as guides.

"There are a lot of buoys left over from the Volvo Ocean Race, so there is a navigational issue," Mr Freeman said. Swimmers who are used to laned pools can easily steer off course in the open water or follow the wrong markings.

"You just have to shout out at them or hit the side of the kayak and make a noise with a paddle on the boat. They eventually look up and look at you and why you're in the way," Mrs Freeman added.

"We then point them where they should be going and off they go back on track."

The last swimmer will have the entire team of kayaks behind him sweeping the course.

"They usually get the biggest cheer when they make it to land," Mr Freeman said.

eharnan@thenational.ae

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