My favorite stroke tip

Beginning with the catch, and continuing through the finish of your pull:

  • Keep your fingers pointed straight down toward the bottom of the pool,
  • palm facing directly behind you,
  • elbows high.

This is a distilled version of the “paddle stroke,” which has been taught in elite USA Swimming programs since the mid-1990s, but has only recently been widely taught in adult Masters programs.

I like this stroke tip for several reasons:

  • It’s simple and easy to understand, even for new swimmers.
  • It’s high-leverage, meaning it can produce large gains in speed.
  • It’s useful for swimmers of all abilities.


I use this “stroke thought” almost every time I swim these days. If I’m feeling fatigued or unfocused, it’s surprisingly easy to fall back on an “S” pull pattern (an unconscious but ineffective attempt to gain more purchase on the water), or to let my elbows slip.

Yet another reason I love the FINIS Agility Paddles: it is much easier to “feel” the early catch, and sustain it throughout the pull. If you start pulling through at odd angles (rather than straight back), the paddle may slip right off your hand.

fingers_down3Is that a Zoolander face?


Swim Report: Five Coves of Death

I renewed my membership at the South End Rowing Club this year, and am determined to get my money’s worth. So far this year I’ve done two club swims, a “sunriser” swim, an Alcatraz swim, numerous casual swims in and around Aquatic Park with fellow club members, and crewed on Cathy’s epic 3 Bridges Swim. Last weekend was the infamous “Five Coves of Death” – five laps around the perimeter of Aquatic Park at 5:00pm on May 5th. 5CoD is also the qualifier for Bay to Breakers, the crown jewel of the club’s long swim program.

What exactly constitutes a lap of Aquatic Park? This is a source of some confusion and controversy.  A “tight cove” is shown in an illustration by Joe B. :5coves_butlerStarting from the South End/Dolphin Club beach, one swims:

  • To the end of the docks, making a hard left around the Dolphin Club dock.
  • Along the buoy line and around the Flag with a right shoulder.
  • Through the goal posts and then the solitary post just beyond with a right shoulder.
  • Hug Municipal Pier as closely as possible along the full length of the curve.
  • Under the end of the pier (a.k.a. “wedding cake” or “roundhouse”) being careful not to impale oneself on broken pilings.
  • Around the buoy at the Opening with a right shoulder.
  • Under the rounded end of the breakwater (a.k.a. “Jacuzzi“), being careful not to scrape oneself on the barnacle encrusted concrete supports.
  • Behind the Balclutha and Thayer (port side, right shoulder facing the boats).
  • Around the bow of the Thayer and back to the docks.
  • Rinse, repeat, etc.

A “tight cove” (per Roper) or “honest cove” (per Walker) is about 0.85 miles (1.33 km) for one lap, or 4.25 miles for five laps.

On the beach before the start. Photo by Jane K.
On the beach before the start. Photo by Jane K.

But how tight is a “tight cove”? How close must you swim to Muni Pier along its curve? It’s not defined precisely. Some advocate swimming under the pier all the way, which eliminates any ambiguity (“Reptile cove”). Some advocate swimming close enough that the fishing lines and crab pots dangling from above are actually on your right shoulder (“Delneo cove”). Others find this unnecessarily dangerous, and swim further out for a somewhat “looser” cove. No one likes getting hooked by a fisherman.

As an example of the latter, here’s the course taken by the fastest three swimmers – Jim, Darrin, and me.


This cove is not as tight as it looks. I measured it in Google Earth and we averaged 25 yards off the Muni Pier curve. According to reports, some of the men directly behind us were even further off the pier (possibly in an attempt to catch up to us). We’ll call this the “Connolly cove,” in honor of the former swim commissioner Darrin, who led us along this course.

A few minutes after the start. The lead swimmers are approaching The Flag (center-left). Photo by Kim P-H.
A few minutes after the start. The lead swimmers are approaching The Flag (center-left). Photo by Kim P-H.

currents55Anyway, it was a nice day for a swim. Water temp 54F, air temp low 60’s, winds calm. We began about 20 minutes before slack water at the Golden Gate preceding a 3.4-knot flood.

I finished the Five Coves in 1 hour, 44 minutes, 26 seconds, placing third behind Jim and Darrin. My splits per lap were: 19:40, 19:35, 21:25, 21:35, and 22:11. Note, that first split includes about 20 seconds of swimming between the beach and the end of the dock that was not included in the other four splits. The Garmin Fenix GPS watch I had under my cap credited me with 4.13 miles of swimming.

I was getting cold on my fifth lap – I could feel my stroke falling apart – but perhaps I wasn’t as bad off as I thought, because I took only a few minutes in the shower and sauna to warm up.

Next up: Bay to Breakers (Bay Bridge to Ocean Beach) on Memorial Day, May 27th. Cathy did a fun write-up on the 2010 B2B. Looking forward to it!

The last swimmer finishes. A perfect day in the Bay.
The last swimmer finishes. A perfect day in the Bay.

Daytime goggles, Nighttime goggles

In summer 2011, I started using two pairs of Swedish goggles (Speedo Swedish 2-pack) – one with dark metallized lenses for daytime, one with clear lenses for mornings, evenings, & night. As per usual, I eschewed the included latex straps for after-market bungee straps.

swedish goggles

It’s a testament to Swedes’ durability that I’m still using these same goggles almost two years later.

Notice something else about the above photo, though: The color of the straps. Two years ago, these straps were the same color. Remember, the top pair I wear during the day, in bright sunlight. The bottom pair I wear in low light.

These are your goggles. These are your goggles on UV radiation.

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!

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