The Tenneswim crew has settled into a distinct routine. Each morning after a camp breakfast our 18 foot pontoon boat is loaded and anywhere from three to six people, plus Andreas, head out to the point where Andreas stopped swimming on the previous day. On the ride out, but before putting on his wet suit, Andreas is doctored up for the swim ahead. This means covering raw skin abraded from the constant rubbing of the wet suit with either tape or vaseline and applying lots of sunscreen.
At the jumping-off point David, his pilot and motivator, gingerly lowers himself off the pontoon onto a bright green sit-atop kayak. David will carry food and drink and keep Andreas on course. The pontoon carries the scientists and helpers and stays within a few yards of Andreas to keep jet skis and other boats away. The pontoon also carries the science gear needed for measurement taking and sample collection. David, Andreas, our boat captain George and I establish the route from the map and show Andreas what visible point in the distance to make for.
In the first few miles below dams there is a narrow, well defined channel and decent current (2-3 mph). But as the hours go by the current disappears and it becomes more efficient for Andreas to leave the drowned main channel and cut close to shore at the inside of bends in the river. This is the magic line we decipher from the maps and visual inspection of the mile or so that we can see ahead. Sometimes Andreas cuts the inside of a bend too closely where the water is so shallow that his hands hit the bottom during his freestyle stroke. In these shallows he occasionally stands, or walks, to feel his legs under him again – hiking the Tennessee River.
Watching Andreas swim we notice that he hardly uses his legs for propulsion. These use much more oxygen than his arms. In spite of this he still cruises along at an impressive speed of 2.3 mph – faster if there is a current. Every 30 minutes he stops swimming to eat and drink. If the sun is out he seeks the shade under the boat between the pontoons. Then it’s time for more sunscreen, a quick check of the next point on the river shore to aim for and he’s back to swimming.
He holds a fairly steady line. If he begins to drift David yells to bring him back on course. Sometimes a blast from the pontoon’s air horn is necessary to get his attention. George the boat captain keeps what seems to be a casual eye out for other boats and jet skis. I get nervous long before George shows any concern about other boats. He knows his business well enough, however, having grown up on Charleston Harbor and having piloted much larger boats from there to Miami and the Bahamas. He’s completely overqualified for the job and we’re lucky to have him.
As the lake broadens out at the dam the wind whips the waves up into a rough chop. Passing boats add to the confusion of intersecting large waves. Andreas plows ahead but must seek land for 30 minutes to overcome motion sickness. Then it’s back to seek the next magic line. David leads him, yelling and gesturing at passing boats he thinks need to slow down.