River swim is first and least-predictable leg of Ironman

The first leg of this weekend’s ESi Ironman 70.3 Augusta triathlon is also the least predictable.


About 3,400 athletes will embrace the Savannah River’s cryptic currents Sunday for a 1.2-mile scramble that ends near the Boathouse downstream.

Competitors like Brian Killips, of Augusta, who has been training in the river for weeks, is familiar with its changing conditions.

“This time of year, there are people swimming in the river almost every day of the week,” he said. “One thing we’ve seen is that, obviously, the water is lower.”

In past events, the river’s pool level has hovered at or above 115.5 feet above sea level. Last spring, the Army Corps of Engineers adjusted the pool to remain about 1.5 feet lower, at 114 feet above sea level.

Shallower water puts swimmers closer to aquatic weeds – which have been a perennial nuisance in the river for decades.

“The weeds have always been there, but they weren’t as noticeable,” said Killips, a high school social studies teacher preparing for his third Ironman. “You can see them down below you, and there are a few spots where you are swimming in the weeds.”

The corps of engineers, however, is planning to help.

“We are planning to raise the pool up a little before the event,” said Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the corps’ Savannah District.

“We’ll be bringing it up slowly, over four days,” he said. “It will add about one foot – for an elevation of 115 – and we will leave it up through the morning of Oct. 1, and then start dropping it again.”

Although weeds and water levels add variables to the race, the most common questions asked by competitors focus on other subjects, said Tonya Bonitatibus, executive director of the Savannah Riverkeeper advocacy group.

“We get a lot of calls, and the main one is from people asking about water temperature,” she said. “And the other one is about alligators. Some people even ask if there will be a security team to defend them from gators.”

The water temperature for the race, she said, is expected to be perfect. “It hovers between 72 and 73 degrees every day,” she said.

Gator control questions can be tougher to answer.

“Some of them want to know if we will have people with shotguns to protect the swimmers,” she said. “I tell them the gators won’t bother anyone.”

Although Augusta is at the upper and most inland portion of the alligator’s range, gator-related injuries are so rare in Georgia that the state Wildlife Resources Division has recorded only eight non-fatal incidents statewide since 1980, and one fatality, involving an 83-year-old woman, that occurred near Savannah in 2007, said Melissa Cummings, spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources.

In past years, concerns have arisen over water quality, especially in the downtown area where sewage leaks and other situations can elevate pollution levels.

The good news, Boni­tatibus said, is that the most recent samplings have found very low levels of bacteria that indicate pollution.

“We have done a lot of sampling, and there was one area at Second Street with a small problem, and that is being fixed and will be chlorined down,” she said. “The rest of the samples were all well within the levels we wanted. We are finding less and less (pollution) each year and when there is a problem, the city has always been on top of it.”

Sunday’s competition includes, in addition to the swim in the river, a 56-mile bicycle ride and a 13.1-mile footrace through downtown Augusta.