Channel Swimming Relays - Why 6 Swimmers?  Why 1 Hour?

Channel Swimming Relays – Why 6 Swimmers? Why 1 Hour?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Prior to 1964, there were only two relay teams that successfully crossed the English Channel: the Rotherham Neptunus Swim Club that went from England to France in 11 hours 20 minutes in 1950 and the Folkestone Swim Club that went from France to England in 14 hours 57 minutes in 1954.

Then, beginning in 1964, a slew of relay teams started to join the English Channel swimming fraternity:

City of London School for Girls in 1964 (F/E) 16 hours 20 minutes
Denstone College in 1964 (F/E) 11 hours 27 minutes
Spitalfields Market in 1964 (F/E) 14 hours 36 minutes
Rochester Swim Club in 1965 (F/E) 10 hours 47 minutes
British Petroleum Ltd Swim Club in 1965 (E/F) 13 hours 37 minutes
– Phoenicians Swim Club in 1965 (F/E) in 9 hours 58 minutes
– Middlesborough in 1965 (F/E) in 10 hours 15 minutes
– Radcliffe Swim Club in 1966 (F/E) in 9 hours 29 minutes
– Oundle School ’66 in 1966 (F/E) in 11 hours 45 minutes
– Portsmouth & Southsea LGS in 1966 (F/E) in 12 hours 6 minutes
– Girl Guide Association in 1966 (F/E) in 13 hours 10 minutes
– NW Area Sea Cadets in 1966 (F/E) in 12 hours 9 minutes
– St. Bernadett’s Youth Club in 1966 (F/E) in 16 hours 16 minutes
– Tunbridge Wells Monson Swim Club in 1966 (F/E) in 9 hours 45 minutes
– St. Richards of Chichester in 1967 (F/E) in 14 hours 9 minutes
– Stoke on Trent in 1967 (F/E) in 12 hours 33 minutes
– Stoke on Trent in 1967 (E/F) in 17 hours 39 minutes
– Pirelli General/Br.Transport in 1967 (F/E) in 13 hours 57 minutes
– Tyldesley Swim Club (E/F) in 11 hours 37 minutes
– Bank of England in 1967 (F/E) in 12 hours 17 minutes
– International Relay in 1968 (E/F) in 10 hours 37 minutes
– Monson Swim Club in 1968 (E/F) in 12 hours 45 minutes
– 4th Btn. The Queens Regiment in 1968 (F/E) in 9 hours 55 minutes
– Bolton Dolphins in 1969 (E/F) in 11 hours 25 minutes
– Haagse Bluf Team in 1969 (E/F) in 9 hours 29 minutes
– Lamorbey T. & Swim Club in 1969 (F/E) in 17 hours 58 minutes

Why were there so many English Channel relays beginning in 1964?  There are specific reasons for this relay boom – that was both a great steppingstone for solo Channel aspirants and a memorable way to experience marathon swimming with friends and teammates.

But why did six people become the norm?  And why did the swimmers swim in one-hour rotations?

The concept of six people doing a relay had profound implications for the rest of the open water swimming relay world.  Relays from the Maui Channel, Lake Tahoe and the Catalina Channel adopted the standard six-person relay concept.

International Swimming Hall of Fame and International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmer Michael Read explained the history and details behind the English Channel relay rules, “Relay swimming was discussed at length by the Channel Swimming Association Committee in the early 1960’s.  The discussion of relays came about due to the discussions of John Unicum Wood who did much to further channel swimming relationships and ideas. There were two main reasons for their instigation.  Firstly, as a way of getting more people into channel swimming and, as a result, hopefully get a few solo attempts from the relay swimmers. Secondly, to generate more opportunities for the escort boatmen.

I recall sitting in John’s front room with him and Captain Hutchinson when the idea was muted. The idea didn’t gain much initial steam because, among other issues, relays would be too difficult to organize, but Captain Hutchinson liked the concept.  It was subsequently put to the Committee.  The initial rules made it the same for all swims and thus the six-person, one-hour formula was set.  Also, the Committee determined that if a swimmer could not complete his/her hour or swim when it was their turn, the team was disqualified.  The rest, as evidenced by the number of relay teams over the past 5 decades, is history.”

Photo shows the members of the fastest four-way English Channel relay, Sport City Mexico.

Copyright © 2010 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Steven Munatones