The ethic of self-navigation

Sometimes I think mild derangement might be a prerequisite for marathon swimming. Perhaps “derangement” is a bit strong; so I’ll say: In the world’s oceans, lakes, rivers, and bays, you meet a lot of offbeat folks. And I mean this in the best possible way! These are my favorite sorts of people.

So I feel nothing but respect and admiration when I come across someone who makes me seem downright conventional. Case in point: the comments thread on my original “wetsuits in marathon swimming” post. Here’s the anonymous, cryptic comment that gave rise to a fascinating discussion:

I look forward to the era when channel swimmers are forbidden to use the escort boat to block winds and settle chop, and when they do their own real-time navigation, swimming in out front.

I initially read this as snark from a wetsuit fan… but it turns out this person was quite serious! And not necessarily a “fan” of wetsuits. What (s)he was describing – and further explained in subsequent comments – was an ethic of self-navigation.

According to this view, a truly “unaided” swim eschews not just wetsuits, but also the navigational assistance of the escort boat. With enough knowledge and experience, a swimmer is capable of navigating him/herself across a channel – by monitoring the location of the sun/moon, and the direction of wind, swells, and chop. Therefore, the GPS navigation used in modern channel swims constitutes an artificial aid, and is equivalent to the black line on the bottom of a pool. Moreover, self-navigation lends a “strong sense of place,” given how much closer attention a swimmer must pay to her surroundings. It’s a purer form of open-water adventure.

To clarify, the ethic of self-navigation doesn’t reject the use of an escort boat – just the navigational assistance of an escort boat. The swimmer can use the boat for feedings and safety (communicating with nearby vessels) – just not navigation. Thus, the escort boat must stay behind the swimmer.

I challenged the anonymous commenter on a variety of grounds, but (s)he had answers for just about everything. I thought the conversation was over a month ago when I said, basically, “While I respect the ethic of self-navigation as a noble ideal, I don’t think it’s practical, and the existing ‘channel rules’ do a pretty good job of rewarding things we care about – like swimming skill, training, and mental fortitude.”

A few days ago Anonymous finally responded – addressing my misgivings but also going much further, grappling with several fundamental issues in marathon swimming. At 1,069 words, the comment is better linked to than copy-and-pasted, so here it is. It’s well worth your time.

I’m grateful to Anonymous for taking the time to engage with me on this. While I may not take up self-navigation anytime soon, (s)he has changed how I think about marathon swimming.

I love my readers.

4 thoughts on “The ethic of self-navigation”

  1. There was an attempt at an English Channel, unsupported. The person died.

    Compare Capt. Webbs chart I posted to current swim charts. The only difference is that he was doing breaststroke, and was more at the mercy of the tides for the “S” was deeper. His boat navigated for him. EC Pilots still use the same techniques; Paul Foreman told me; “keep 90 degrees to the tide, it’s not rocket science”.

    I think there’s a rabbit hole in any sport. Fine, rule out GPS, then sheltering, then pain killers, then food supplements, then artificial fibers, then modern caps and goggles, etc.

    Like most of us I’ve done my share of self-navigating. I’ve also spent enough time swimming to realise it’s sometimes impossible. In Clew Bay on the Iirish West coast, there over 300 islands. Trying to swim into the estuary isn’t possible for an unaided swimmer, because of the sight line, you can’t see where the channels are.

    I propose that it is (nigh-on) impossible to swim the English Channel with the swimmer navigating (without experience already gained in swimming the Channel).

    Responding to other points: In terms of publication of data, pilots etc. I’ve discussed my own concerns about my pilot with the CS&PF, I have problems with two aspects of EC swimming: observer ages, and the position of pilots as untouchable, even when the swim community (or even other pilots) are unhappy.

    I understand why people want all data published, especially failure data. But I say the same everyone else does. The contract is a private arrangement with a specific pilot. Having had friends fail, I don’t see why they should be obliged to make their details public, though I can understand just how useful this would be. AND my observer as you know, was Kevin, the King of the Channel. But even he didn’t see that the boat rolled on me twice (let alone once), it’s not in the report. And they saw something occur that I never saw. There is no single story, even for a single solo.

    I note in your correspondent’s thoughtful email: no mention of the CS&PF. As all CS&PF swimmers will doubtless also note.

    1. I figured you might have something to say about this! No doubt there are circumstances in which it’s impossible; I suppose that’s why it’s an “ethic” rather than a law. I find it an intriguing concept, even if unworkable in many regards. It’s further down the rabbit hole than I’d choose to go on an EC solo; but in other (safer) circumstances, I think, has the potential to improve one’s experience of a swim.

      I’m sure the commenter didn’t mean to impugn the CS&PF; it is unfortunate that “CSA” is often used as shorthand for the both.

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