The only three things that matter in channel swimming

I truly believe that a Channel Swim – performed under traditional rules – is among the greatest athletic feats that a human can achieve.

We are terrestrial animals, adapted to surviving on land with the assistance of clothing and shelter. We are capable of great efficiency of movement – on solid ground.

A Channel Swim turns all this on its head. Without shelter… naked but for a porous, skimpy textile garment… we step offshore into an environment we are terribly adapted to, and terribly inefficient at moving through. As the ocean floor drops beneath our ability to stand, and the cold begins its creeping march from the extremities to the core – there are really only two options: Swim to the other shore… or get on the boat.

I have another belief, which might seem to contradict or undermine my first belief (that a Channel Swim is one of the greatest athletic feats a human can achieve). And that is:

Almost any able-bodied human can accomplish a Channel Swim.

You don’t need to be athletic, or coordinated, or physically strong. You don’t even need to be a particularly skilled swimmer. By which I mean: the level of swimming skill necessary for a Channel Swim can be learned by almost anybody, even as an adult.

Some of the most famous and accomplished Channel Swimmers, you would not be able to pick out from the average noodler at your local lap pool. The distinguishing characteristic of the Channel Swimmer – the ability/motivation/inclination to keep swimming (and swimming, and swimming…) – is something that cannot be observed in a thin slice of behavior.

On the basis of these two beliefs, I propose that only three things truly matter in Channel Swimming:

1. Health

Sure, OK. If you are gravely ill or injured, perhaps a Channel Swim isn’t in the cards.

2. Will

a.k.a., persistence, stubbornness, tenacity.

Don’t know how to swim? You can learn, well enough (if you want it).

Not ready for the distance? You can build up to it (if you want it).

Not ready for the cold? You can acclimate. Find some cold water. Go swim in it. Do it again, and again, and again. That’s why it’s called “acclimation” – your body will adapt (if you want it to).

3. Money


Channel Swimming is such a first world problem. Boats cost money. Sanction fees cost money. Travel costs money. The opportunity costs (training when you could have been working) cost money.

Whether the funds come from your rich uncle, from a sponsor (because you’re gifted – either athletically or self-promotionally), or out of your own pocket, there’s no way around it: Channel Swimming is a huge money drain.

If you don’t have it, or you’re too shy to solicit it, then, well — too bad. Life isn’t fair, and Channel Swimming ain’t a meritocracy. You may be a better swimmer than 90% of the English Channel soloists in a given year, but if you don’t have the money and time to get to Dover, then — too bad!

Does this undermine my belief that Channel Swimming is “one of the greatest athletic feats a human can achieve”? Maybe a little bit. Channel Swimmers may have to overcome a lot during their swimbut most of them probably don’t have much to “overcome” otherwise. When Channel Swimmers return to the harbor, most of them are going home to affluent situations.

Sometimes, when I read tales of seemingly-heroic Channel Swims in newspapers and blogs, it occurs to me that the real story is not how amazing the swim was, but rather, how fortunate the swimmer was to be able to attempt it in the first place.

I write these words as someone who has been very fortunate to have some incredible channel/marathon swimming experiences these past few years.

I am one of the lucky ones.

So you did a Channel Swim – congratulations. Any Channel Swim is, in my view, a heroic feat (for reasons described above).

But before you get too caught up in how awesome you are, remember how lucky you are – to even have the opportunity to put your toe in the water.

[This post benefited from (and was inspired by) conversations with Cathy – who, it should be emphasized, doesn’t necessarily agree with everything I wrote here.]

Take the marathon swimming rules survey

If these discussion threads at the Marathon Swimmers Forum are any indication, marathon swimmers love to argue about rules. This is not surprising; rules define the boundary conditions of our sport, what is and is not a “marathon swim.” The beauty of marathon swimming derives, at least in part, from its purity and asceticism — its prohibitions against things that would make it easier.

Take the survey HERE

Debates and hand-wringing occasionally arise due to a few “local variations” on marathon swimming rules:

  • Neoprene caps are allowed by the Farallon Islands Swimming Federation, out of respect for Stewart Evans and Ted Erikson, who both wore neo caps on their pioneering Farallon swims.
  • In NYC Swim events, swimmers are allowed to exit the water in the event of lightning, and return to the water afterward without disqualification.
  • In Cook Strait swims, swimmers are allowed to exit the water for ten minutes in the event of a shark encounter.
  • Increased-coverage swimsuits (e.g., rash guards and stinger suits) are allowed in Rottnest Channel swims.

Concern trolls sometimes use these variations in an attempt to undermine marathon swimming, or to promote an “anything goes” policy. There may not be any universal set of marathon swimming rules (and I don’t think it makes sense to have one), but there is absolutely a universal spirit, going back to Captain Webb: to swim without artificial assistance.

Technology being what it is, new apparel and devices are always being developed, which are intended to make the act of swimming easier, but which do not specifically violate the rules.

How should we deal with these developments? How to decide whether an item violates the “spirit,” or not?

With these questions in mind, the SBCSA (specifically, Scott Zornig and I) present a community opinion survey on rules in marathon swimming:

(The survey benefited from feedback from Donal Buckley and Rob Dumouchel — thanks guys.)

The spirit of marathon swimming is defined by the “spirit” (and opinions) of marathon swimmers. But to my knowledge, there has never been any systematic study of what marathon swimmers actually think about these issues.

So that’s the motivation behind the survey. Anyone (marathon swimmer or otherwise) is invited to take it, by the way.

In closing, I’d like to quote a Michael Oram email from the Channel Swimmers chat group, which to my mind at least, eloquently captures the “spirit” of the sport:

It has always amazed me how athletes spend such a lot of time trying to stretch the rules and find aids. Channel swimming is a personal competition between the swimmer and the elements. Looking for that extra edge all the time is a negative approach as instead of working within the established parameters you are grasping at straws to get a little more assistance, or confidence.

Once you have started it’s you against the elements; whatever hat you are – or are not wearing.

Related external post:Confused” – by Jamie Patrick, Adventure Swimmer

Why independent observation and verification is essential for marathon swimming, Reason #3425

Don’t think for a second that this couldn’t happen, wouldn’t happen, or hasn’t happened, in marathon swimming:

“Marathon Man” (by Mark Singer). In The New Yorker, August 6, 2012.

Related question: If Diana Nyad touching the boat during her feeds hadn’t been captured on video, would we have ever known she was doing this?

Also See: Two Golden Rules of Open Water and/or Marathon Swims (LoneSwimmer)

Menaces to (swim) society: How to be a pool asshole

Do you enjoy enraging your fellow swimmers? Do you want your lanemates to secretly hate you – or possibly even overtly hate you?

If so, I made a list just for you. The Top 10 Petty Annoyances of Organized Pool Swimming. A handy guide to sowing chaos in an organized swim workout. Think of them as descending circles of Hell.

Courtesy of Swimming Memes

If you want to be a pool asshole, here are a few suggestions:

10. Swim right on someone’s feet during warm-up.

9. Cheat during the non-swimming portions of the workout — pulling when you’re supposed to be kicking; full stroke when you’re supposed to be drilling.

8. Pull on the laneline in backstroke.

7. During a distance set, when a faster swimmer in the adjacent lane approaches, suddenly speed up and “race” the faster swimmer, perhaps only for a lap or two.

6. Join a lane with slower swimmers, lead the lane, and then unilaterally change the interval so nobody else gets any rest.

5. Join a lane with faster swimmers and fail to make the interval except by using fins or paddles, or by stopping every few laps.

4. Be unaware of a faster swimmer approaching from behind and, when approaching the wall, swim across the lane and cut off the passing swimmer.

3. Leave 5 seconds apart in a long-course pool, even when there are only 2-3 others sharing the lane.

2. Leave 2-3 seconds early (Grrreeeeegggggg!).

And now, the #1 way to be a pool asshole:

1. Sprint to catch up to the swimmer in front of you. Pass him or her. Then, once you are in front, suddenly slow down.

Sharks Live in the Ocean

So, there was this local news item last week. While Santa Barbara isn’t typically a hotbed of shark activity, this was a reminder that indeed, sharks do live in the ocean.

That’s right, readers. Sharks live in the ocean.

great white shark

It’s always interesting to observe how ocean swimmers deal with this fact.

Some take a spiritual, new-agey approach: If you just, you know, become one with the ocean and don’t give off the “fear signal,” the sharks will leave you alone. Fittingly and rather ironically, these people often are residents of San Francisco. (It’s OK, I used to be one.)

Others avoid the issue with euphemisms: “Man in the Grey Suit,” or “The Landlord,” or “Old Whitey”… or, most comically of all, “the S-word.” I guess the idea is, if you don’t talk about it, maybe it’ll go away.

Others put their faith in technology. Because obviously, the 6-meter, 2-ton “fish” attacking from below at 25mph is going to respect the little Shark Shield zapper dangling off the end of the kayak. Good luck with that.

And then there are kooks like this guy. Ah, well.

Me? I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. Sharks are fearsome creatures… but I’m still going to swim in the ocean. It’s a small risk – somewhere between an asteroid falling on your head and being struck by lightning – but still a risk.

And I think that’s the healthiest way to think about sharks as an ocean swimmer: as one of many risks we all take (often unwittingly) in everyday life. I drive a car, in which I could be smashed at any moment. I hike in the mountains, where venomous rattlesnakes lurk around every bend in the trail. And I swim in the ocean… where sharks live.

Swimming in sharky waters is a small risk – but not a constant one. It varies in predictable ways – and can therefore be minimized to our advantage. Some tips:

  • Don’t dress like a sea lion.
  • When you see a bait ball, GTFO.
  • Pay attention to migration patterns.
  • Never swim alone (most human-shark encounters are non-fatal, and it helps to have a buddy to drag your bloody hemorrhaging ass into shore).
  • Never go out with a swim buddy who is faster than you (j/k).
  • EDIT: Rob D. adds, “Avoid swimming at sunrise/sunset,” and agrees that, “If other animals are eating/congregating, food chain math says stay away.”

And, if all else fails, just close your eyes.

Letters from Connie: Why?

The second in a series of posts inspired by Conrad Wennerberg‘s classic Wind, Waves, and Sunburn: A Brief History of Marathon Swimming.

In a brief chapter titled, simply, “Why?”, Chairman Connie ponders marathon swimmers’ reasons. In the end he concludes, basically, Why ask why? – but he offers some intriguing thoughts and observations along the way. One passage is particularly striking:

In my twenty years of observing the world-champion swimmers I have discovered an interesting common denominator. It became evident while discussing their personal lives with them. Hours of conversation with fourteen swimmers… brought to light the fact that twelve of them were under severe emotional tension during the time they were champions. Only two were not under such tension and seemed to have planned a course of action that led to their achievement without emotional involvement.

The others were reacting to the tensions incurred by: (1) the breakup of a marriage and divorce; (2) loss of a job; (3) sexual maladjustments. Physiologists tell us that such serious threats to one’s personal life are manifested by bodily response. The pituitary gland lying at the base of their brain secretes more of the substances that monitor brain and bodily functions. One of the repsonses is extreme nervousness and tension. Luckily, those professional swimmers reacted normally to the stimulus by working it off in training. They were tranquilizing themselves in the most sensible fashion: action.

I think this is keenly observed… though my inner social scientist feels compelled to note: correlation does not imply causation. In two respects:

Wind, Waves, and Sunburn

First, the fact that many champion marathon swimmers’ personal lives were in disarray does not mean their swimming somehow benefited from the personal stress. On the contrary, I think it’s always better to approach a gargantuan physical undertaking such as a marathon swim from a position of stability – with a clear mind and a fat wallet. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way 🙂

Second, though Connie implies that swimmers’ personal tensions, in a sense, motivated their training and eventual success – the opposite relationship is quite plausible. Anybody remember this story?

Finally, apropos of nothing in particular, I wanted to reproduce the closing passage of “Why?”… I’m not sure why, I just love it.

All that can be said is that man is attracted to water in the same fashion as he is attracted to a beautiful woman or a tasty meal. Would we say it was a matter of chemistry? Such things are the mysteries of life.

Very Important Announcement

This summer I will attempt something truly audacious… groundbreaking… unprecedented… game-changing.

I will attempt to (ahem…) cross the English Channel. Not once, not twice or even thrice. Ten times. Consecutively. 210 miles without stopping.

Needless to say, this has never been achieved by a swimmer. Which is not to say I’ll be swimming. Indeed, I’ll be doing everything possible in order to not swim. Actually swimming 210 miles would be far too difficult.

I will be aided in my quest by several important tools:

1. A monofin. I’m thinking the Competitor model from FINIS looks pretty sweet.

2. Paddles. But not just any old paddles. Special paddles. My usual training paddles (Strokemakers) are sometimes mocked as “dinnerplates,” which frankly hurts my feelings. So I’m taking it one step further. I will be using actual dinnerplates as paddles. Fine china, in fact. I’m happy to count Lenox among the proud sponsors of my “swim.”

3. A drysuit. Because I don’t want any part of my body to actually touch the water. Did you know, the English Channel is apparently cold!

4. Finally – because 210 miles is still a long way to “swim,” even with a monofin, dinnerplate paddles, and a drysuit – Honda Marine will be donating a 225hp outboard motor to my effort.

How will I use this engine, you ask? Here’s the kicker: I’ll be working with the fine folks at UCLA Medical Center (these are people with not only MDs, but PhDs too!) to develop the very first boat-engine prosthesis for humans. That’s right – I will be permanently grafting a boat engine to my backside! Awesome, right?

No more Maxim — only 93-octane unleaded for this guy!

I haven’t quite figured out yet how my boat-engine prosthesis will work with the monofin, but… I’m sure we’ll work out all those details later.

Finally, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been in contact with the Guinness Book of World Records and the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, who have both assured me that, if I am successful, my feat will be entered into the books as the first monofin-aided, dinnerplate-aided, drysuit-aided, outboard motor-aided “decuple” (that means 10x) crossing of the English Channel.

I’m hoping that the media attention my attempt will generate will inspire others to follow in my footsteps. For the person who wants to swim – but doesn’t want to, you know, actually swim – this is a revolutionary solution. My aim is nothing less than to create a new industry.

Because, let’s face it: Swimming is hard. Who can be bothered?