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.
Along with Strokemaker paddles, the original Malmsten Swedish goggle is a design that has withstood the test of time. While I’m generally eager to embrace new technologies, I’ve worn the same model of swim goggles for over 20 years now.
At the same time, I’ll concede some occasional frustration with the cheap materials in classic Swedes – the scratch-proneness of the lenses, and the ultra-short lifespan of the latex straps. So, my interest was piqued when Steven Keegan – founder of Nootca and formerly a product designer with Speedo and Nike Swim – answered my “Super Swede” challenge and offered to let me try his Swede-“inspired” Nootca 5 goggle.
The Nootca 5 had ambitious claims: not only upgrading the materials over the original Swede, but also improving the “water flow, durability, and vision.” I approached these claims with all due skepticism. And I was surprised by what I found.
Nootca Unboxed (click to enlarge).
The Nootcas make a good first impression. Held securely in a recyclable cardboard box, the goggles come pre-assembled with a silicone nose piece and detailed, well-written instructions for switching to the alternative string-and-bridge nosepiece.
Also included is a microfiber cloth pouch, for that extra layer of security against scratches.
As for the goggles themselves: I was immediately struck by the aesthetics (one of the big draws of original Swedes compared to say, Hind Compys or, god forbid, Aquaspheres).
The lenses are sleek and polished, and, so far as I can tell in several months of use, fairly scratch-resistant (especially with conscientious use of the carrying pouch). Along with the silicone head strap, the goggles live up to Nootca’s promise of higher quality materials over the original Swede.
What about Nootca’s claims of improved design over the original Swede? A high bar, indeed – but again, I’d say mostly fulfilled. The lenses seem slightly “longer” on the sides than original Swedes, which improves peripheral vision while still maintaining a low profile. Note how snugly the goggles fit in my eye sockets:
Now, a couple of minor quibbles:
I found that the included silicone nosepiece didn’t want to stay in place. When I place the goggles on my face and pull the strap behind my head, the nosepiece “slips” and becomes too wide. This may be specific to my facial structure, I don’t know for sure – but in any case, Steven mentioned there was an update to the nosepiece “in the works.”
After my trouble with the silicone nosepiece, I switched it out for the alternative Malmsten-style string-and-bridge. Here, I found that the bridge itself was just slightly too wide, such that it blocked me from tying the string narrow enough. Perhaps I have an unusually narrow nose bridge? In any case, my ever-so-handy girlfriend pointed out that I could fix the problem simply by snipping the end off the bridge to make it narrower.
And finally, I must admit, I think the thin layer of silicone in the gasket is an unfortunate concession. I actually like the hard plastic of traditional Swedes. Not just the aesthetics of it, but also because even the highest-quality silicone will eventually degrade. On the other hand, some may find the added comfort is worth the theoretical sacrifice in durability.
All considered, and in spite of these quibbles, I really like the Nootca 5’s. They retain the minimalist beauty of original Swedes (with a couple thoughtful design enhancements) while upgrading the quality of the materials. The vision in particular is quite expansive, which I appreciate in open water settings.
From my email correspondence with Steven Keegan, I get the impression of a thoughtful designer/entrepreneur who takes pride in his creations. Nootca is pretty much a one-man show; a goggle-only boutique competing against giant corporations like Nike and Speedo. So, I’m happy to spread the word about this product.
For an interesting interview with Steven, see here.
While I received my Nootca 5’s as a complimentary review product, I also put my money where my mouth is and bought two additional pairs with my own funds – the green/smokes and the clears, to join my browns.
If you prefer gasketed goggles, you might consider one of Nootca’s other models – the 207 or the Eleven. Steven kindly sent a pair of Elevens for my girlfriend to try. Read her review, comparing them favorably to her usual Speedo Vanquishers, on the Marathon Swimmers Forum.
Unfortunately, in the 2+ years since I bought the watch I’ve had two major issues that remain unresolved. With worthy competitors now available from Garmin – the 910xt and the Garmin Swim – these nagging issues are a deal-breaker. Absent any major product revisions by FINIS, I must retract my original recommendation of the Swimsense.
The deal-breaking issues are:
1. Build quality.
I’m now on my fourth Swimsense. The first three all became unusable after half a year of infrequent use, each time for a different reason. To FINIS’ credit, each was replaced free of charge.
My first Swimsense lost the ability to connect to my computer via the dock (and thus the ability to re-charge the battery). My second Swimsense developed moisture behind the crystal, and shortly thereafter stopped connecting to the dock. My third Swimsense developed a tear in a strap hole (see photo below) and no longer fit my wrist properly. Unlike the Garmin Swim, Swimsense wrist straps are not replaceable.
Keep in mind, I don’t even use the Swimsense that frequently! Once a week at most. For a $200 watch, these quality-control issues are unacceptable. (I paid $200 in January 2011. The price has gradually dropped ever since – does that tell you something?)
2. Accidental power-ons.
The Swimsense powers-on with the just a slight press of the top-left button. It’s so easy to turn on that it often happens accidentally. A most infuriating design flaw! I’ve learned to avoid putting the Swimsense in my swim bag. Inevitably, the jostling of carrying the bag to and from the pool will power-on the Swimsense. Then, next time I try to use the Swimsense, I’ll find the battery drained.
It’s happened more times than I can count. I’ve never come closer to smashing a piece of swim equipment against the nearest wall than I have with the Swimsense.
So, if I were to purchase a swim watch today, I would choose the Garmin Swim.
All that being said, if I have a working Swimsense in my possession, and if I succeed in transporting it to the pool without accidentally draining the battery… then it does a reasonably good job of counting laps and strokes.
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.
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.
Swim paddles (in my opinion) are useful for developing swim-specific strength, especially in the shoulders and lats. I prefer Strokemakers:
Strokemakers are the classic paddle for competitive swimmers. At various points in my swimming career I’ve used Green #1s, Yellow #2s, Red #3s, and Blue #4s. As a Masters swimmer, I use Reds. As an open-water and marathon swimmer, I feel that the strength I develop with these paddles (which some have derogatorily described as “dinner plates”) helps me power through waves and chop in rough-water conditions.
(Note: I have no financial relationship with the company that makes Strokemakers. Every one of their products I own, I’ve paid for. I just like their paddles.)
There’s a catch, though: It’s probably a bad idea to use these paddles as a beginning (or even intermediate-level) swimmer. You can hurt yourself! Certain stroke flaws (thumb-first entry, crossing over the mid-line, dropping your elbows on the catch), combined with paddles, can lead to rotator cuff injuries.
How do you know if your technique is good enough to start using “power paddles” such as Strokemakers?
I’d like to suggest a simple rule of thumb: If you can swim with the FINIS Agility paddles without struggling to keep them on your hands, your technique is probably good enough for power paddles.
Important caveat: If at any point you develop shoulder pain while using paddles, stop using them immediately!
I received a complimentary pair of Agility paddles from FINIS at Jamie’s swim camp a few months ago. I have no trouble keeping them on, but I still use them occasionally because of how well I can feel the initial “catch” of my stroke. I think of the Agility paddles as feel for the water paddles, in contrast to the Strokemaker power paddles.
I was happy to hear recently that FINIS is now selling three sizes of Agility paddles – small and large, in addition to the original size (now called “medium”). I always felt the original Agility paddles were a bit too small for my hands, so if I were in the market for new ones, I’d get the Large.
Swedes are only goggle I’ve worn since 1992, and are among the most iconic swim gear ever. Their sleek, minimalist esthetic transcends both time and nationality. Their simple construction renders them both disposable and indestructible. Here’s an interesting history of swedes (the goggles, not the people) from Malmsten AB.
So popular are swedes among competitive swimmers that Speedo was forced to offer Speedo-branded swedes (with original Malmsten lenses, naturally) so their sponsored athletes could wear swedes at the Olympics without being in breach of contract!
Swedes’ functional minimalism cuts both ways, though. They’re cheap goggles. The lenses scratch easily. The latex straps rarely last through more than a month of regular chlorine exposure (I opt for an after-market bungee strap).
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s this:
The ultimate in superfluous luxury. Carbon-fiber frames? Anti-scratch polycarbonate lenses? It can be yours for $100 – same price, incidentally, as 25 pairs of swedes. There’s an appealing sort of geek cachet to goggles made from the same material as an airplane fuselage. I’d never buy them, though. I can’t stand rubber gaskets.
But what about souped-up swedish goggles? High-quality anti-scratch lenses; chlorine-resistant straps; a nice carrying case? I might actually pay up for something like that.
In my experience, the day before a marathon swim is almost invariably a hassle. Just when you most need to be resting, you find yourself running around an unfamiliar town in search of various items you forgot to pack. From Tampa in April, to MIMS in June, to Catalina last month, I’ve gradually streamlined the process – but there always seem to be last-minute tasks. And even the most experienced marathon swimmers will tell you it’s almost impossible to pull it all together without the help of a friend or significant other.
Most people resort to writing a checklist at some point. The list will vary slightly between swims – and swimmers – but there are common themes. My list reflects hard-earned experience over three 20+ mile swims in a single season. For those tackling their first marathon swim, this might speed the learning curve a bit.
A note on formatting: Italicized items I consider “optional.” [Bracketed] items are products that I personally use.
walkie-talkie + extra batteries (for communication between boat & kayak)
Finally, there’s the issue of whether and how to compensate “volunteer” crew and paddlers. It’s sort of an awkward topic, but one you should give some thought to before you arrive in town for the swim. Here’s my policy, for what it’s worth:
For non-family crew members, I take care of expenses incurred “on the ground” – i.e., everything but air travel.
For volunteer paddlers, I offer a cash tip over & above the expenses. For compensated paddlers, I offer a small gift (e.g., bottle of wine).
Reimbursing transportation expenses is a nice thing to do (gas prices being as they are), but just remember that regardless of reimbursement, your crew are still doing you a huge favor. Especially for an overnight swim like Catalina. The best way to return this favor is to return it in kind. For crew members who are also swimmers, offer to crew for them on a future swim.