Coast Guard officer to swim 24 hours straight

Photo by JJ Ayers-Millar Coast Guard Lt. Shannon Scaff, who plans to do a 24-hour nonstop swim starting at 2:28 p.m. Friday, is a bit of a natural when it comes to water: "My background in swimming is diverse: Childhood summers at the Air Force base pool, or Lake Moultrie with my grandparents, then Folly Beach as a teenager. Then professionally as a helicopter rescue swimmer for the Coast Guard ... (I've) always very comfortable in the water."

Among Coast Guard Lt. Shannon Scaff’s swimming heroics is saving fishermen from a mid-Atlantic winter storm off the coast of North Carolina in January 2000 — an act that earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross from the President.

But starting at 2:28 p.m. Friday, his swimming challenge will be entirely different in terms of hardship and outcome.

Scaff plans to swim for 24 hours, non-stop, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Pool in Charleston.

He’s attempting the feat to raise money for Operation 300, a charity that hosts adventure camps for children who have lost their fathers as a result of military service and seeks to honor the families of the fallen.

He is dedicating the effort to the four crew members of a Coast Guard helicopter who died in a crash in Mobile Bay, Ala., on Feb. 28, 2012. Among them was Lt. Cmdr. Dale Taylor, who Scaff served with while stationed in Savannah.

Scaff describes Taylor, or “DT,” as an “exceptional Coast Guardsman, officer, leader, mentor and friend.”

“He was the type of guy you love to be around. I was in good hands if I happened to find myself in the doorway of the helicopter looking out into an awaiting disastrous scenario. (He was) a top-notch aviator,” says Scaff. “He was also a dedicated husband and father to his wife Teresa and their two boys, Evan and Emmett.”

Scaff has remained in touched with Taylor’s family over the years.

As for the swim, Scaff — who graduated from Summerville High School in 1991 — started training for it in September, starting with progressive distance swims of six, eight and 10 miles. He then shifted to hours, starting with eight-hour swims. To date, he’s completed two 12-hour swims and one 14-hour swim.

He admits that his main issue will be having the right frame of mind.

“Typical physical conditions are the obvious — extreme muscle fatigue, cramps, dizziness, skin chafing on face, shoulders, rib cage, under arms, nausea and symptoms consistent with vertigo and long periods of weightlessness,” says Scaff.

To help with his mindset, Scaff will be getting help from a few friends — people who will either swim alongside him or just be present at the pool.

“I am so grateful for the support I’ve received, and I’m very excited that folks are coming out to watch and participate,” says Scaff, noting that participants are expected from the uniformed Armed Forces, The Citadel, the Charleston masters swim team and Charleston’s fire and police departments, who will be rotating in and out of the water in support.

Scaff also has had the help of local marathon swimmer Kathleen Wilson, who has been giving him training tips and support.

“Her selfless sense of service, coupled with her unbelievable depth of experience, has been one of my most valuable resources during this journey,” said Scaff.

Wilson said despite the fact that Scaff has swum in “huge seas and freezing temperatures” as a rescue swimmer, a 24-hour swim is not fun even in the best conditions.

“It is painful, tedious and swimmers go to some very dark places in their minds,” said Wilson.

“In the open water, the swimmer must deal with weather conditions, marine life and unexpected events that can all impact a swim. The hours pass, often with little to watch during a swim,” said Wilson.

“The pool is even worse. While Shannon will not have to deal with stings or changing tides, the boredom factor is considerably worse. The fact that the swim will take place in a 50-meter pool is a huge help, allowing Shannon to stretch out and not have to turn constantly but he will have to deal with an unchanging landscape.”

That is why it’s important to have dozens of swimmers joining Scaff in the water to keep him company, Wilson said.

“For me, this is a personal journey that has always been about my honoring Dale and his family,” Scaff said. “So to see these folks standing beside me, or swimming in this case, just means so much.”