For standard marathon swims such as the English Channel, Santa Barbara Channel, or Catalina Channel, swimmers need not concern themselves with “proving” they did the swim. For these swims, the authenticity of a swimmer’s claim is supported by the legitimacy of the local sanctioning organization — legitimacy derived from the marathon swimming community’s trust in the organization’s leaders and procedures.
A legitimate local sanctioning organization provides trained observers to document swims and verify adherence to the organization’s published swim rules. Although it’s difficult to “prove” an event witnessed by few, many miles out to sea, any swim ratified by trusted organizations such as the CS&PF, SBCSA, or CCSF is generally accepted without question by the marathon swimming community. A swim log completed by the official observer is viewed as the only “proof” needed (though ironically, these logs are almost never made public, and in some cases are held quite tightly by the organization).
But what about swims for which there is no well-established sanctioning organization? How do you make a swim“count” in ungoverned waters, without a trusted sanctioning organization to back up your claims?
(The phrase “making it count” in reference to marathon swimming derives from an upcoming book by Dr. Karen Throsby.)
This isn’t a new problem, of course. Marathon swimmers have been undertaking adventurous, independent swims since the beginning — indeed, even Captain Webb’s crossing was an “independent” swim, as were all English Channel swims before the formation of the CSA in 1927.
For most of our sport’s murky history, independent swims have been informally vetted on the basis of personal reputation — e.g., a well-established record of accomplishment on standard, sanctioned swims. If Kevin Murphy or Lynne Cox or David Yudovin (RIP) did a swim in some far-off land, it was simply accepted as truth. Lynne Cox swam; therefore Lynne Cox swam. Because Lynne and Kevin and David are known, trusted quantities.
In fairness, I believe many of the higher-profile independent swims of the past were observed, though much original documentation has been lost to the ages, apart from brief mentions in Wind, Waves, and Sunburn.
But recently there has been a paradigm shift in the standards and practices of documenting independent marathon swims. The shift may have been inspired at some level by certain high-profile, highly-doubted swim claims. But more fundamentally, the shift was made possible by advances in handheld technology and electronic communication, and the existence of an organization — the Marathon Swimmers Federation — specifically formed to serve independent swimmers.
Through my role as official observer on the first two successful Farallon Islands solo swims since 1967, I’ve given much thought in the past year to the challenges and opportunities of documenting independent swims. My report on Craig Lenning’s swim, published in April last year, eventually led to seven MSF Documented Swims. Multi-dimensional, multimedia reports that have helped make independent marathon swims more transparent to the community and more accessible to the public.
As we embark on the second year of MSF Documented Swims, I’m excited to find out what adventures my fellow swimmers will dream up, and to vicariously experience these adventures through their documentation.
There is (almost*) no such thing as a “world record” in open water swimming.
The term “world record” implies that the activity being measured is comparable across different contexts (hence “world”). A 200m Butterfly swum at The Nat in Indianapolis can be compared to a 200m Butterfly swum at the beautiful new facility at Belmont Plaza, because both pools have been measured at 50m. A 200 Fly is a 200 Fly is a 200 Fly.
Open water swimming is, in most cases, not comparable across different contexts. And isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that, at some level, why most of us are drawn to OWS in the first place?
A swim from Santa Rosa Island to my hometown of Goleta is not meaningfully comparable to the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, despite both swims being 28 miles.
What about “world records” for specific swims? Obviously a Catalina Channel swim is incomparable to a Maui Channel swim, but surely a Catalina Channel swim is comparable to a Catalina Channel swim? Excluding weather and conditions, surely we can say that Penny Lee Dean swam the fastest crossing of the Catalina Channel (7 hours, 15 minutes, 55 seconds in 1976)?
Yes, I agree: Penny Lee Dean is the fastest solo swimmer across the Catalina Channel. But that is a course record, or “Catalina Channel record.” Not a “world record.” Is it possible to swim the Catalina Channel in… Ireland? Or Mozambique? No? Then it’s not a world record.
There is no “world record” for the Boston Marathon. There is no “world record” for Ironman Hawaii. But there are Boston Marathon course records, and Ironman Hawaii course records.
There’s a reason FINA hires surveyors to measure pools for international-level swim meets. There’s a reason there are wind-speed gauges at big track meets: So the courses are comparable, regardless of the location. So world records can be authenticated.
I have learned about thousands of new swims, new swimmers and new bodies of water around the world. I literally have thousands of swims that I have yet to input in the WOWSA database. Every one of these swims and swimmers should be recognized and, frankly, I think calling the swimmers a World Record Holder is cool and uplifting. They often take that recognition and share it with their family, friends, coach, co-workers and local media.
The recognition not only helps educate non-swimmers about the swimmer, but also about our sport.
Many will argue that such swims should not even be called a record (national or course). I can understand their opinion, but I would rather elevate the swimmer and their efforts to something more grand and publicly eye-catching.
For the publicity. For the attention.
Now, remember I said almost*. I can think of two possible “world records” in open water swimming. But only two.
Speed records, controlled course. Speed over a standard distance (5km, 10km, 25km), in a controlled environment (like a rowing basin) on a precisely measured course. Buoys measured by civilian GPS are probably not precise enough. A 10K in a rowing basin is a 10K in a rowing basin is a 10K in a rowing basin.
Distance records, non-current-assisted. In my opinion, the distance records claimed over the years, e.g., Martin Strel’s river swims and Diana Nyad’s Bimini-to-Florida swim, are almost meaningless. Cool, impressive swims, but not meaningful as quantifiable “records.” Anyone can float down a river. So a distance record needs to be non-current-assisted. Or at most minimally current-assisted (similar to wind thresholds in track meets). If Jamie Patrick swims 77+ miles in Lake Michigan this summer, then I’d have no problem with him calling it a “world distance record.” Because distance is a comparable metric across different contexts.
What’s the toughest marathon swim in the world? Some would say the North Channel.
For pure distance, there’s the 72-mile Kaieiewaho Channel between Kauai and Oahu (one relay, zero solo swimmers), the 61 miles from San Nicolas Island (never attempted) to Southern California, and the Straits of Florida (no unassisted swims).
But for sheer overall toughness – distance, water temp, and… intangibles… – I’d choose the Farallon Islands – some 30 miles out to sea from the Golden Gate Bridge (20 miles from Bolinas, 27 miles from Point Bonita).
Before last week, there had been two successful solo crossings, both in 1967. Dolphin Club member Lt. Col. Stewart Evans completed the first on August 28, finishing near Bolinas in 13 hours, 44 minutes. A few weeks later on September 17, my friend and fellow Promontory Point swimmer Ted Erikson swam all the way to the Bridge in 14 hours, 38 minutes.
Last week I was the observer on the third successful Farallon solo swim (the first in 47 years). Craig Lenning finished at Muir Beach in 15 hours, 47 minutes, adding yet another notch on a belt that already includes five of the Oceans Seven channels, a 46-mile Lake Tahoe double-crossing, and an ice mile.
Why is the Farallons swim so tough? Basically, a swimmer planning a Farallon attempt faces a three-way trade-off, with no good options. The three trade-offs are: water temperature, weather, and sharks.
It’s cold out there. Colder than the Bay. High 40s to low 50s through most of the year. Cold enough that every degree matters for a swim that could last 14 hours even for a fast swimmer. By early fall, the water might start creeping into the high-50s — somewhat more fathomable. But the “warm” water season happens to coincide precisely with… shark season (see below).
Northern California ocean is a different beast than Southern California ocean. It’s bigger, rougher, colder, more volatile. Whereas in the Catalina Channel, most days are reasonably swimmable, and many days are quite good for swimming, in the Gulf of the Farallones, many days are unswimmable, and exceedingly few could be described as “good for swimming.” Finding a window of good weather is more than just a luxury in planning a NorCal swim — it’s essential.
There are only a few good days for swimming in the Gulf of the Farallones, and they tend to cluster in early spring and fall. In summer, relentless northwesterlies roil the seas into angry froth. Fall is shark season (see below). Which leaves… just a few choice days in early spring.
Here are some typical summer conditions, as seen on the all-women’s Farallon Relay in June 2011 (which included Cathy and my friend Lynn Kubasek). Skip to 6:10 for the good stuff:
So, pretty much unswimmable for a solo swimmer… and it was just barely swimmable for a 6-person relay of very strong open water swimmers.
Basically, according to FISF weather guru Dave Holscher, there are maybe four days each year when a solo swimmer could make a reasonable attempt on the Farallons – assuming the swimmer was otherwise qualified for the distance and water temperature.
In fall the Farallons host an unusually dense population of great white sharks, who migrate from Hawaii and the White Shark Cafe to prey on local elephant seals. And these aren’t “juvies” like the ones swimming around off Manhattan Beach. These are big boys & girls, car-sized fish averaging 4-6m long and over 1000kg.
Assuming you get one of those rare nice-weather days (minimal wind, minimal swell); assuming you get water “warm” enough to swim in sustainably for 14-16-18 hours; assuming you’re able to swim away from the islands without being noticed by an apex predator…. thenyou still have to contend with the tides of San Francisco Bay.
And here’s where it starts to seem almost unfair. You could swim 27 miles from the islands to Point Bonita – the entrance to the Bay – only to be utterly stopped in your tracks by the ebb tide, 3 miles short of the Bridge.
The effect of the water flowing into and out of the Bay extends into the Gulf for some distance – somewhere between 6 and 10 miles out, depending on the tide. You have to hit the right spot at precisely the right time to catch the incoming tide. If you don’t, you’re S.O.L. and good luck getting to the Bridge against the ebb. Which is basically what happened on Craig’s swim.
Ted Erikson’s achievement remains the longest and toughest version of a Farallons swim, with the iconic imagery of finishing under the most beautiful bridge in the world. But it is, in some ways, an “unfair” swim, with a swimmer’s probability of success depending, to an unsettling extent, on hitting the tides just so. Even Ted is the first to admit he swam on a freak day – a red tide with water temps above 60F. Recalling Point Bonita “whizzing by” on his final feeding, Ted cracked, “Even if I died… my body would still make it!”
Previously, the FISF has recognized only one standard course – to or from the Bridge, with Ted as the only solo success. But a finish on land is a finish on land – and by any standard definition of channel swimming, a success.
Craig’s swim has possibly highlighted the need for a re-thinking of this policy. At the very least, I think there should be two standard courses for a Farallon swim:
One course finishing on land, anywhere on land — the Evans course. This could be Bolinas (20 miles), Muir Beach (25.7 miles), or Point Bonita (27 miles). More of a standard channel swim — still monumentally difficult for many reasons, but less subject to tidal vicissitudes.
And one course finishing under the Bridge — the Erikson course. A gamble with the tides – a roll of the dice. Will you hit the big payoff (the flood), or lose your shirt (to the ebb)?
My swim cap is tighter-fitting; my goggles are lighter-weight; and my swimsuit is constructed of chlorine-resistant polyester.
But aside from that, not much has changed from fifty years ago, when South End Rowing Club members waded into Aquatic Park cove wearing this:
I’d argue that the only truly essential item is the goggles… but this is a family-friendly site.
Marathon swimming resists technology more than most sports, thanks to strict guidelines on swimwear enforced in the English Channel (our Everest) – guidelines which are widely emulated around the world. Indeed it’s a point of pride among many marathon swimmers, who value the connection with our sport’s pioneers. A level playing field across decades.
I’d even call it an aesthetic: Suit, cap, goggles. That’s all we really need. Man, woman, and the sea. There is equipment that would make it easier, but we actively reject it. Our sport is tough, and we like it that way.
When we swim in the ocean we share the water with an abundance of other life, some of it larger and toothier than we are. Just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. And just because they’re there doesn’t mean they care about us, or want anything to do with us.
Members of the South End Rowing Club and Dolphin Club, who share a beach on Aquatic Park, San Francisco, were recently reminded of these truths when a three-foot juvenile salmon shark swam into the cove and spent a few minutes cruising around near our docks. Salmon sharks sport a distinctive white underbelly and are sometimes mistaken for juvenile Great Whites. Though adults can grow to 10 feet long, they’re generally not considered a threat to humans.
The shark is behaving oddly and appears disoriented. According to the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, this shark may be suffering from a carnobacterium infection and resulting blindness. The PSRF has received several other reports recently of sharks beaching themselves elsewhere in Northern California.
Salmon shark (not the one in the video).
I didn’t swim at the South End the morning our confused fish friend visited us. But actually, I wish that I had. Though the idea of a shark cruising around Aquatic Park is startling, the primary emotion I feel watching that video is not fear but sympathy and curiosity. Sympathy for his suffering, and curiosity at seeing an animal that typically avoids human contact, swimming silently, anonymously, indifferently below our stroking arms.
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:
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.