Assisted Or Unassisted?  Marathon Swimmers To Decide

Assisted Or Unassisted? Marathon Swimmers To Decide

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

A reader asked the following questions about a theoretical marathon swim or a potential channel swim:

What if a boat dropped 10 buoys to mark a safe channel through rocks over a 2-mile section? Is the swim an assisted swim or an unassisted swim?

What if in a channel, through a nasty bit of tidal mud flats, the course was marked by poles every few hundred meters? Is the swim an assisted swim or an unassisted swim?


While this determination of assistance and unassistance is the determination and ultimate decision of the Marathon Swimmers Federation, the World Open Water Swimming Association looks at these questions through the dual perspectives of (a) history, and (b) safety.

The history and tradition of the sport of marathon swimming and channel swimming has allowed escort boats, pilots and support crew to guide marathon swimmers and channel swimmers across various bodies of water, especially at the start and finish and locations over or around or between rocks, jetties, cliffs, reefs, sand bars, shoals, banks, ridges, barriers, piers, landings, quays, shipwrecks, levies, wharfs, promenades, docks, landings, columns, dams and slips.

Landmarks such as lighthouses, pierage, onshore buildings, trees and mountaintops are frequently used to help guide marathon swimmers and channel swimmers towards their goal.

Pace swimmers, kayakers, paddle boarders, and support crew on dinghies, surf skis and RIBs are frequently used to swim or paddle or motor very close alongside marathon swimmers and channel swimmers to help guide them through risky situations and potentially dangerous circumstances.

This has been especially true during the night, in low-light conditions, or when the ocean swells are large or there is marine life, rough turbulence or swirling eddies.

These forms of assistance are used because it is understood that safety overrides – or should override – everything in the sport of marathon swimming and channel swimming.

Specifically, if a swimmer requires guidance through rocks, cliffs, reefs, or other potentially dangerous situations or locations, we believe they should be provided guidance regardless of how a swim will ultimately be defined by their peers. This is, logically, the responsible thing to do. In other words, it is irresponsible to purposefully withhold guidance in order to retain the designation of “assisted swim” or “unassisted swim“. To have the means to prevent potential harm to a swimmer and purposefully withhold this guidance does not make logical sense just because a swim could be determined to be labeled as assisted.

This should not be a decision for a swimmer to make, although some individual swimmers may differ in their opinion and give specific instructions to their crews. What happens if a swimmer is injured? Who is responsible: the swimmer, the pilot, the coach, or the crew? What if the swimmer dies attempting to swim through the channel? Who is responsible: the swimmer, the pilot, the coach, or the crew?

Judged from these perspectives of history and safety, if the swimmer swims by him/herself through the rocky section or tidal mud flats – EVEN WITH buoys or poles to guide his/her way – we believe the marathon swim remains an unassisted swim. Guidance does not equal assistance in these examples in our observations.

But it will be interesting to see what and how the marathon swimming community will judge swims that permit buoys or poles or other equipment to help guide a swimmer through a potentially dangerous stretch of water.



Photos shows Brenton Williams (swimming butterfly), Kendal Wright and Kyle Harris swimming an unprecedented 8 km last week around the Cape St Francis Lighhouse and Shark Point on the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa…where no buoys or poles were used.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association