Moments in Time

A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away. — Eudora Welty

My friend Rob D is a man of many talents; among them a knack for taking remarkable photographs with relatively low-end equipment (typically, smart-phone cameras). What follows may be a bit self-indulgent; but I thought it worthwhile to collect a sampling of his images (of, um… me) in one place.

One photo in particular, I might even call “iconic.” I can’t remember a picture (of, um… me) that has ever spoken to me so powerfully. From just a few minutes before jump-time for Santa Cruz Island swim last September: scruz_glow Now, going back to the beginning…

2010 – “Freshwater Swimmer” is born

On the shores of Lake Michigan, where it all began. Ohio Street Beach, home of the Big Shoulders 5K. big_shoulders Photo-bombing Chris LaBianco at the USMS 1-mile National Championship in Huntersville, NC:

Note: This picture was featured on the Daily News of Open Water Swimming at some point. Whenever Chris LaBianco wins a race, no matter how trivial, it inevitably appears on the Daily News of Open Water Swimming.

2011 – Catalina Channel

Jumping in to pace swim for Cliff C.


A week later, my own Catalina swim…

Surveying the situation. 22nd Street Landing, San Pedro.
Surveying the situation. 22nd Street Landing, San Pedro.
Last minute nutrition.
Last minute nutrition.
The darkness.
The darkness.
With Catalina world-record holder Grace van der Byl as pace swimmer, and 10K Olympian Mark Warkentin in the kayak.
With current (but not then) Catalina world-record holder Grace van der Byl as pace swimmer, and 10K Olympian Mark Warkentin in the kayak.

2011 – Visiting Avila Beach


2012 – Santa Barbara Channel

Observing on a Santa Barbara Channel attempt
Observing on a Santa Barbara Channel attempt
Starting the Semana Nautica 6-mile swim
Starting the Semana Nautica 6-mile swim
Mark and I watch the sun rise over the Channel.
Cathy and I watch the sun rise over the Channel.
Mark and I approach Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard after 19 miles of swimming.


Jumping off the Avila Pier on January 1st.
Jumping off the Avila Pier on January 1st.
Cathy jumps
My kinda girl.

Thanks, Rob, for keeping these moments from running away.

Postscript: Rob posted the following to his Facebook page, regarding this post:

This folks is why you make sure to always take pictures of your friends when they’re doing cool stuff! One of the more valuable things you can do as a crew person on a big swim is to take all the pictures that your swimmer can’t. Not every picture is going to be any good, but if you take enough you may get lucky and snap that one pic that encapsulates the whole feeling of the swim and your friend is going to be able to hang on to that feeling forever through your work.

I couldn’t agree more.

Controlled Stroke Count Drill

In “Stroke Count Games” and “A Better SWOLF Formula” I suggested a test set of 8×100, as fast as possible, holding a specific number of strokes per length (SPL), to hone in on your most efficient combination of stroke length and tempo.

I frequently do a modified version of this set as a quick tune-up before a competition or a challenging distance workout: 12×100 short-course, aiming for the following SPL on each rep: 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. Moderate, controlled pace on all – no more than 75%.

Obviously, the specific SPL goals will differ for each individual. For me, 15 SPL is my 400m/500yd race pace. 14 SPL is my 1-2 mile race pace. 13 SPL is my marathon pace.

The reason I like this set as a warm-up / tune-up is that the act of “depriving myself” of one stroke-per-length on each of the first 6 reps really focuses my attention on efficiency – maximizing the amount of water I’m pulling, and minimizing drag. Then, adding one SPL on the way up (11, 12, 13, 14, 15) feels increasingly luxurious and powerful.

The over-arching goal: the 13, 14, and 15 SPL reps on the way up should feel better, faster, and more efficient than the 15, 14, and 13 SPL reps on the way down.

I took some GoPro video of myself doing this set, so you can see the subtle differences in my stroke from one rep to the next. The video shows a bottom-of-the-pool view of me descending from 15 to 10 SPL; then a side-underwater view of 14 SPL; then an above-water view of 14 SPL.

(Direct link to video)

Reactions to the Marathon Swimming Rules Survey

Some reactions from ’round the intarwebs to recent Freshwater Swimmer posts. I am, as always, grateful for the engagement.

The Global Drowning Prevention Forum picked up on my commentary about the tragedy at the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. As you may recall, I wrote:

In my view, there’s absolutely no substitute for proper training and preparation. … A wetsuit is not going to keep you safe. Swimming competence will keep you safe.

While wetsuits may decrease the chances of an individual person drowning, I believe they actually increase collective risk – by giving people a false perception of safety and encouraging them to put themselves in situations they are not prepared for.

Some interesting discussion ensued. I was particularly gratified by the comment of Audrey D. (bold added):

Anyone participating in an open water swim race should have many practice swims in open water prior to a race. There are multiple conditions that can occur in open water that change the parameters of how you should adjust your swim. Sadly, even skilled swimmers can drown, given changes to the water temperature, unforeseen changes to waves, and unexpected reactions to these changes. Never rely on a wetsuit to improve your swimming abilities in a race. There is no substitute for skilled instruction and subsequent practice.

The Marathon Swimming Rules Survey report generated some interest. Steven Munatones published a series of articles on the Daily News of Open Water Swimming, each focusing on a controversial item from the survey:

Steve made a variety of interesting points.

Regarding shark divers, he recounted stories of their effectiveness during Diana Nyad’s Cuba-Florida swims, as well as his own swims in Japan. He concludes:

It is our opinion that shark divers can play an important role when sharks are known to exist in the expected course of marathon swimmers. But if marathon swimmers do not want to use a shark diver, the chances of being attacked by a curious or hungry shark remain extremely low.

Regarding stinger suits, Steve writes:

We view use stinger suits are reasonable forms of protection against possible dangers that can, literally, kill a swimmer. […]

Is it an enhancement? Protective swimwear is usually porous and creates tremendous drag for the swimmer. So it certainly does not help the speed of a swimmer and directly leads to a swimmer demonstrating greater strength and stamina.

I would simply respond: While that may be true of current models of stinger suits, who is to say companies won’t develop stinger suits that do directly enhance speed? Could I wear my old full-body Blueseventy Nero tech suit (which clearly enhances speed), and call it a “stinger suit”?

Regarding bubble caps, Steve admits that a bubble cap “feels warmer overall relative to other caps,” but then cites longstanding historical usage of bubble caps in concluding that “use of a bubble cap is not a loophole in the rules; rather, they are part of marathon swimming heritage.” I agree with this statement.

Regarding jammers, Steve makes the valid point that their widespread usage in elite pool swimming is evidence that they must enhance speed, and therefore, “use of jammers run counter to the marathon swimming and channel swimming ethos to not use anything that offers an extra edge or that enhances performance.” It’s perhaps a bit surprising, then, that nearly 80% of survey respondents approved of them.

Finally, Steve analyzed the geographical distribution of marathon swimmers from a few additional angles, to provide perspective on the predominance of North Americans in my survey sample. I agree that the survey probably did over-sample North Americans to some extent, but not unreasonably so.

Thanks again to Steve for the coverage.

The survey analysis is also covered in the April/May 2013 issue of H2Open Magazine. Though I didn’t get a byline, the writing is mine. Thanks to editor Simon Griffiths for the interest.

h2open articleWhat else?

Rob Kent of LOST Swimming liked the report so much he just copied and pasted the entire thing into his blog.

Then there was this on the South End Rowing Club Facebook group:


Joe Butler refers to an ongoing controversy at SERC about the use of swim aids in the club “Nutcracker” swims. He seems to think I have more clout than I actually do!

There was also a healthy discussion of the survey on the Marathon Swimmers Forum.

Finally, Donal and I did manage to catch a few unsuspecting prey in our coordinated April Fools prank about drug testing in channel swims. Fortunately, they were pretty good sports about it.

I’m glad Steve decided to leave those posts up, because he actually makes some really good points about the logistics of any potential PED testing regime in channel swimming.

Just to be clear: If you swim with the SBSCA this year (and I hope you will), you are free to pose for pictures and chat with your friends on the beach. We will not require you to pee in a cup.

SBCSA announces drug-testing for marathon swims

Last month, the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association (SBCSA) became the first major channel swimming sanctioning body to prohibit swimmers from intentionally drafting off the escort boat. The SBCSA prides itself on its position at the vanguard of protecting the integrity of marathon swimming.

Today we are excited to announce another major step forward in ridding our sport of cheaters.

Starting with our 2013 swim season, the SBCSA will be collaborating with the World Anti-Doping Agency and its counterparts, the USADA and ENGSO, to carry out random testing for prohibited substances. We expect that our fellow channel swimming governing bodies, the CCSF, CS&PF, and CSA, will soon be following suit.

What does this mean? Very simply: When you arrive on the beach at the end of your swim, exhausted, chafed, and possibly jellyfish-stung — you’d better be ready to pee in a cup. We will have personnel there to greet you as you emerge from the surf and escort you to the nearest toilet. No stopping to chat with friends and well-wishers; no posing for pictures; you must proceed directly to the toilet.

A moderate inconvenience, perhaps – but we hope our swimmers understand it is essential to ensuring fairness and a level playing field in our sport.

In the meantime, please familiarize yourself with the WADA List of Prohibited Substances. In this era of increasingly sophisticated cheating schemes, the “I Didn’t Know” defense will not be tolerated. Ignorance is equivalent to guilt. So let’s please avoid any misunderstandings.

Evan Morrison
Chairman of the Rules Committee
Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association

P.S. — April Fools!

Related Post

A better SWOLF formula

SWOLF (“swim golf”) is a drill that measures swimming efficiency. A SWOLF score is your time (in seconds) on one lap of the pool, added to the number of strokes you took. Lower scores = Higher efficiency. SWOLF is a fuzzy, indirect measure of efficiency, because stroke count doesn’t necessarily reflect effort. In my view, the most precise definition of SWOLF is that it identifies the most efficient stroke count for a given level of effort.

I originally wrote about SWOLF in April 2012, and the post has become – by a wide margin – the most widely-read in the history of this blog. In a subsequent post a month later – “Stroke Count Games” – I described how SWOLF doesn’t quite capture the most efficient stroke count. At least for me, using stroke cycles (number of strokes divided by two) produces better results.

I wondered if this was true for other swimmers, so I asked any interested readers to send me their own data, using a test set of 8×100. Three readers sent me their results. In short, my suspicions were confirmed: Strokes cycles produces better results than stroke count. In essence, the original SWOLF formula seems to over-weight stroke length in its measure of efficiency (and thus under-weight speed).

Reader #1 is a 6-foot 2-inch (188 cm) male in his late-20’s with an ape index of 1.07 (arm-span greater than height). He did not swim competitively at the high school or college level. His recent best times include 25:21 for the 1650-yd Freestyle and 3 hours, 18 minutes for a 10km open-water swim. His typical open-water stroke rate at marathon pace is approximately 50 strokes per minute.

Here are his results for the test set of 8×100:

SPL m:ss SWOLF SWOLF-improved
10 1:50 150 130
11 1:40 144 122
12 1:30 138 115
13 1:23 135 109
14 1:16 132 104
15 1:12 132 102
16 1:13 137 105
17 1:15 143 109
18 1:17 149 113

Reader #1 pegged his “natural” stroke count per 25 yards at 15-17. According to traditional SWOLF, he was most efficient at 14-15 SPL, followed by 13. According to SWOLF-improved, he was most efficient at 15 SPL, closely followed by 14 and 16 SPL. SWOLF-improved seems slightly more accurate in this case. In Reader #1’s own words:

15-17 feels natural.  At 14 I could already notice some laboring.  Anything at 13 or lower, inertia was a huge factor.

I think that’s why the curve is much steeper on the lower stroke side.  It might have said 13 was more efficient than 17, but no way I’d want to swim more than a 100 at 13.  17 – no problem.

Reader #2 is a 5-foot 7-inch (170 cm) female in her late 20’s with an ape index of 1.0 (arm-span equal to height). She swam competitively in both high school and college, and is a Triple Crown marathon swimmer. Her recent best times in the pool include 19:15 for the 1650-yd Freestyle. Her typical open-water stroke rate at marathon pace is 70 strokes per minute.

Reader #2 insists her data include the caveat that she did a big training swim (21km) the previous day 😉

SPL m:ss SWOLF SWOLF-improved
15 1:20 140 110
16 1:18 142 110
17 1:15 143 109
18 1:12 144 108
19 1:10 146 108
20 1:08 148 108
21 1:08 152 110
22 1:10 158 114

Reader #2 puts her “natural” stroke count per 25 yards at 18-20, depending on pace. SWOLF-improved agrees. Traditional SWOLF, on the other hand, under-estimates her most efficient stroke count.

Reader #3 is a 5-foot 6-inch female in her early 20’s. She swam competitively in both high school and college, and is a national-caliber distance swimmer. Her recent best pool times include 17:09 for the 1650-yd Freestyle. Her typical open-water stroke rate is approximately 80 strokes per minute.

SPL m:ss SWOLF SWOLF-improved
12 1:14 122 98
13 1:10 122 96
14 1:08 124 96
15 1:04.5 124.5 94.5
16 1:02 126 94
17 1:00 128 94
18 0:59.5 131.5 95.5
19 0:59 135 97

Reader #3 puts her “natural” stroke count per 25 yards at 16-17. SWOLF-improved agrees. Traditional SWOLF, once again, underestimates the most efficient stroke count.

For comparison, here are my results from the 8×100 set, as reported previously:

SPL m:ss SWOLF SWOLF-improved
9 1:20 116 98
10 1:14 114 94
11 1:10 114 92
12 1:07 115 91
13 1:05 117 91
14 1:02 118 90
15 1:00 120 90
16 1:01 121 93

In sum, you may find that using stroke cycles instead of stroke count produces more useful SWOLF results. If you own a Swimsense, then you’re golden – it already uses stroke cycles for its SWOLF calculation. I don’t own a Garmin Swim watch, but from what I’ve read online it seems to use the traditional formula.

The Alcatraz Swimming Society

Recently I had the pleasure of joining the Alcatraz Swimming Society (ASS) for one of their weekly swims. The ASSes are a few South Enders who really, really like to swim to (and from) Alcatraz. The day I swam, it was co-founder Gary Emich‘s 985th Alcatraz crossing (!). Gary and Stevie Ray Hurwitz (also in the water) are in a heated but friendly race to 1,000 crossings.

We jumped at 6:45am from Pier 33 into slack-ish 51.1-degree water. Air temp was around 50-flat, putting the combined “open water chill factor” right at the feared 100 barrier. Heightening the thermal challenge were 10-knot winds (gusting to 15) out of the SW.

Sync-swimming with Stevie Ray.
Sync-swimming with Stevie Ray.

I entered the water last, sprinted for a couple minutes to catch up to the others (and also to warm up), and then started filming. Swim, pause, film — rinse & repeat. At one point I was even doing single-armed backstroke while holding the wrist-mounted camera steady on the other arm.

The video’s a little bumpy (but so was the ocean):

Swimming to Alcatraz in March from Evan Morrison on Vimeo.

The crossing took a bit more than 35 minutes. According to Gary and Stevie Ray, it’s usually a ~25 minute swim, but we overestimated the ebb tide and started too far east.

Unidentified swimmer arm. Downtown SF skyline in the background.
Unidentified swimmer arm. Downtown SF skyline in the background.

I’m continuing to push the boundary of my cold-water swimming ability. Two years ago, the idea that I could swim year-round in San Francisco Bay would have been unfathomable to me. All it takes is a little practice. Seriously – anyone can do this! The toughest part of this swim was actually the ride back to SERC on the zodiac boat. The wind was brutal.

GPS tracks
GPS tracks from Gary’s watch

Thanks to Gary, Stevie Ray, Dianna, and Suzanne for having me along for the ride!

Postscript: I was interviewed about this swim by Tiffany at

Same Water, Different Worlds: A tale of two swims in San Francisco Bay

Last weekend I had the pleasure of escorting Cathy on a big, cold swim in San Francisco Bay to celebrate her birthday. We’re calling it the “Three Bridges” swim: She swam from the Third Street Bridge in McCovey Cove (the original location of the South End Rowing Club in 1873), under the Bay Bridge, and under the Golden Gate Bridge, before finishing at Kirby Cove on the Marin Headlands.


8.7 miles in 2 hours, 10 minutes (with a push from the ebb tide) in 51-degree water, without a wetsuit. It was a damn impressive, inspiring swim, and I’ve never seen Cathy swim so well. She seems totally at home in cold, rough water – and indeed she seems to thrive, the worse conditions become.

With El Sharko‘s steady hand at the tiller, I managed the feedings and aimed my GoPro:

Cathy’s “Three Bridges” SF Bay Swim: 3rd St, Bay Bridge, Golden Gate from Evan Morrison on Vimeo.

Some interesting and sad context to Cathy’s swim: It was (coincidentally) the same morning as the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, during which one of the athletes died in the swim leg. At 2:01 in the video above, you can see the San Francisco Belle that would soon ferry the Escapees to the Rock for the start. As shown at 3:04, we passed by Alcatraz only a few minutes before the race start.

In a subsequent discussion on SlowTwitch, there was lots of hand-wringing about the frigid water temperature and choppy conditions.

Yes, it was cold and choppy out there. This is San Francisco Bay we’re talking about. Yet it’s impossible not to draw the obvious comparisons: These people were wearing wetsuits! They were in the water for maybe 40-45 minutes on average. Cathy was out there three times as long, without a wetsuit.

And she loved it! Watch Cathy’s video again (2:56) — look at the joy and confidence in her stroke as she plows through the chop. This is how she chooses to celebrate her birthday!

Now watch this video, from the Escape:

These people are in way over their heads. The guy at 0:10 can hardly swim! What the hell is he even doing out there? These two swims took place in the same water, literally minutes apart in time. Yet they might as well be from different worlds.

Here’s a semi-rhetorical question: Which event do you think was safer? The nearly-9 mile, 2+ hour swim without a wetsuit, or the 1-mile wetsuit-assisted swim?

In my view, there’s absolutely no substitute for proper training and preparation. Cathy was prepared for this swim; many of these triathletes, evidently, were not. A wetsuit is not going to keep you safe. Swimming competence will keep you safe.

While wetsuits may decrease the chances of an individual person drowning, I believe they actually increase collective risk – by giving people a false perception of safety and encouraging them to put themselves in situations they are not prepared for.