Alone Amid The Risks Of The Open Water

Alone Amid The Risks Of The Open Water

Courtesy of Ned Denison, International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.

Over the last century, the safety practices in marathon swimming – both on the professional and amateur levels – have improved in fits and spurts, but the overall safety profile has most definitely improved considerably.  

Throughout the history of the sport, unfortunate and possibly avoidable deaths of swimmers have spurred discussions and resulted in counter-measures.  This includes a wide range of measures from prop guards on escort boat propellers to starting of races earlier in the day when water temperatures and conditions are expected to be high.  But it also includes chemical lights used on escort boats and on swimmer’s swim caps, use of seconds, no diving or flip turns allowed in winter swimming and ice swimming events, and more advanced rewarming techniques.

Occasionally, some safety measures are eliminated or changed,” recalled Steven Munatones.  “There were a handful of times that rifles were carried onboard as safety measures for possible shark encounters in channel swims.  Other times, too many escort boats around swimmers in professional marathon races were a cause for alarm and were reduced.  But there were also other issues that attracted less public attention – like limiting the length of feeding poles in races and an almost ubiquitous use of GPS and smartphones.”

International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame chairperson Ned Denison observes, “Safety plans are better developed and the concept of ‘the safely boat is near the swimmer’ is more rigidly applied.”

How true,” agreed Steven Munatones.  “The general rule of keeping ‘eyes on the swimmers was not a principle or even a concept that was always widely observed prior to Fran Crippen dying in a FINA race in Dubai in 2010.  His death kickstarted a global review of safety standards that included upper limits to water temperatures (31°C maximum) and a closer adherence to ‘eyes on the swimmers’.  In some cases, the rule against ‘double capping’ had benefits for races in warm water, while the benefits of wearing two swim caps was judged to be an unfair advantage in colder waters.”

Denison explains, “Going back in International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame history, a documented and official stance for safety was not always the case.  Some examples that were experienced by Honor Swimmers included Otto Kemmerich who completed many unprecedented swims in the 1920s and 1930s, many attempted completely solo without an escort boat or safety crew.  In August 1925, he swam approximately 50 km from Fehmarn Island to Warnemünde in Germany in about 22 hours.  In 1952 at the age of 66, he started a 200 km stage swim from Ebsjerg, Denmark to Husum, Germany. He died somewhere during his last stage from Hörnum (Sylt) to Amrum on August 11th 1952. Days later, on August 17th, his body was found near Föhr.

Due to some scheduling ‘craftiness’ by her American opponent Florence Chadwick in 1954, 16-year-old Canadian Marilyn Bell famously started her race across Lake Ontario by setting off alone in the dark to meet her boat which was headed from the distant marina to rendezvous with her a mile or so off-shore.  They did meet and Marilyn safely continued on to become the first person to swim across the 50.7 km lake, becoming a Canadian superstar as a result.

Dr. David Smith is another example of a solo pioneer.  The dashing Californian wanted to become the first person to swim in both directions across the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco.  He couldn’t secure an escort boat so drew up an alternate plan to swim (as much as possible) around the Rock of Gibraltar.   In that era, shark cages were often contemplated and occasionally used in areas where shark encounters could be expected.  But no local boat captain would agree to tow a shark cage in the rough seas.  He faced a Catch-22 situation when no boat would agree to go (without the cage) into the seas through the crashing waves on shore.   So, Smith swam the 5.6 km miles along the eastern shore and around the southern tip (where the currents sweep out) before meeting a friend with a boat to accompany him on the last 6.4 km up the western side.

Another example was during the famous 1977 trilogy of mano-a-mano races between Des Renford, MBE and Kevin Murphy – their second race was across the English Channel.  Thick fog after the start kept the two boats and Kevin waiting for it to clear.  Meanwhile, Des quietly set off alone into the fog and got a bit of a head start.  His boat fortunately found him and he eventually won to tie up the series 1-1.  The duo soon went off to Loch Ness where they ultimately were both pulled from the water with hypothermia in the third and final event.”

Bray Island on the west coast of Ireland

Denison himself was the first to swim 27 km around Valentia Island on the west coast of Ireland in 2008.  To help the fund raising for a local charity, it was decided that the swim need to start and finish in Knightstown – on the opposite end of the riskiest location on the island.  The western tip, Bray Head, provides special challenges:  it is full exposed to the Atlantic Ocean with strong tides going north and south, and several rocks off the head limiting boat access (see 0:10 to 0:25 in the video below).  To avoid the power of the strongest tide, Denison swam between the rocks and the headland with the safety boat hundreds of meters offshore. [Video history lesson on the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic is below, the rocks are seen at 0:20].  It was a mistake he would later regret with 1.5-meter waves meeting from three directions.  The swim was completed, but with mature retrospect, Denison admitted, “It was a dumb move – I should have started the swim near the head, swum wide while I was fresh to deal with it.”

In 2021, safety plans have largely become standard across most channels and lakes and in a vast majority of races around the world, but the inherent risks of the sport continue with swimmers challenging themselves to ever colder, ever longer, and ever more remote areas with seemingly more venomous jellyfish in evolving marine environments that are located far from medical facilities.   

Denison says, “Every swimmer, coach, escort boat captain, support crew, pace swimmer, kayaker, paddler, and event director should address and answer one simple question, ‘How do we deal with a possible issue at every moment in the swim?’   It is simply not acceptable for the safety boat (or associated kayak or paddler) not to be several meters from the swimmer at any time.  They must ask themselves how is a swimmer pulled to safety in emergencies and unexpected conditions – and where and how is the swimmer treated in the worst possible conditions?  One excellent example is from August 2012 when three swimmers swam 99.9% of the way across the 33.5 km English Channel.  A dense fog covered the last 200 meters to shore – 33.3 kilometers had already been traversed – but it was unsafe to proceed for the swimmers accompanied by a small inflatable – so their swims were aborted.  Getting out so close to shore was soul-destroying to all involved – BUT the correct decision.  The safety risk of swimming marathons alone is just not there.”

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