CARNELIAN BAY, Calif. — At the word “go,” 13 pink-capped women took off into the cold waters of Lake Tahoe as part of the Gar Woods Polar Bear Swim on Saturday afternoon.
Yards away sat Placer County Sheriff’s Lake Tahoe patrol boat Marine 6, with three dive members, two boat crew and a paramedic on board.
“We don’t want anybody to need help, but in case they do need help, then we’re here,” said Mark Weisman, boat captain for Marine 6.
A U.S. Coast Guard vessel and a member of the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District on a personal watercraft also were present for the Saturday afternoon SnowFest! event, all with the same mission — to ensure the safety of the swimmers.
The swimmers start off strong from the beach behind Gar Woods, but soon their strokes slow as they get farther out into the lake.
“When the shock of the cold water hits them, they tire out really quick,” said Rick Wroobel, a Placer County Sheriff’s deputy and dive team member. “It just drains all the energy in their muscles — they just slow down and eventually, you start to see their hands go up and start to wave.”
That’s the signal to get out of the water, which the swimmers are informed of before the start of the event.
Before long, one woman is towed out of Tahoe by the NLTFPD-operated watercraft. Meanwhile, the other women continue to make their way to the end buoy, around and back to shore.
With no wind, calm waters and a mostly clear day, conditions were ideal for the swim.
Yet the water temperature — 44.8 degrees at the start of the race — posed enough of a challenge.
“(It was) freezing,” said Cassie Winkel, of Sacramento, who was the only woman to swim with the men. “… Once you stopped swimming, your body freezes, and it’s hard to get going again.”
At the end of the packed pier, Winkel voluntarily got herself out of the cold water.
She wasn’t the only one.
Of the 24 male swimmers, one got himself out at the pier, and three were towed back to land on the back of the watercraft. Those aboard Marine 6 did not have to spring into action.
“I knew that they were there ... but I didn’t want to be that guy,” said Adam Troy, of Loomis, Calif., who completed the swim. “I wanted to keep going until I absolutely had to (stop), but it was nice knowing that they were there to help.”
Marine 6 and support staff are present at other special events, such as Ironman, to ensure the safety of competitors by pulling those distressed or in trouble out of the water and keeping boats away.
“It’s a good feeling because you’re preventing a potential tragedy,” Wroobel said.
Primary duties of the Marine 6 crew include marine law enforcement, boating safety education, assisting distressed boaters, accident reporting, and search and rescues.
In 2013 (mainly between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends), the sheriff’s office recorded the following statistics for Marine 6:
• 214 compliance checks, for everything from life vests to fire extinguishers.
• 248 “traffic stops,” with either citations or warnings issued.
• 34 citations issued, reports taken or arrests made, including for misdemeanor violations such as drunken driving.
“I think if we don’t have this on the lake ... educating people constantly about the safety aspects of the water, you’re just going to see boating accidents go up, people getting hurt, drownings, things like that,” said Brent Deupree, first officer for Marine 6. “All the people out on the lake — all the agencies — contribute to that safety factor.”
For the 25th annual Gar Woods Polar Bear Swim, all 37 swimmers returned safely to land — one way or another — under the watchful eye of the U.S. Coast Guard, North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District and those aboard Marine 6.
“Any time we don’t have to provide first aid for anybody and nobody gets hurt, that’s what we’re looking for,” Deupree said. “A nice, safe event where everybody has a good time is a success for us.”