Multiple variables determine the success of an escape response of an animal, and the rapidity of the escape manoeuvre is often the most important. Fan worms (Annelida: Sabellidae) can rapidly withdraw their tentacles, which are covered in heavily ciliated ramifications called pinnules, into their tubes to protect them from approaching threats. Here, we explore the dynamic and mechanistic features behind this escape manoeuvre. The escape responses of fan worms were recorded by high-speed videography and quantified by computerized motion analysis, showing an ultrahigh retraction speed of 272±135 mm s−1 (8±4 body lengths s−1). We found that fan worms possess powerful muscle-driven systems, which can generate contractive forces up to 36 times their body weight. In order to achieve these rapid, forceful movements through seawater without damaging their tentacles, fan worms have developed functional morphological adaptations to reduce fluidic drag, including the flattening of their radiolar pinnules and the deformation of bodily segmental ridges. Our hydrodynamic models indicate that these mechanical processes can decrease fluidic drag by 47%, trapped mass by 75% and friction coefficient by 89%. These strategies allow fan worms to execute rapid escape responses and could inspire the design of fast in-pipe robots.