How Do You Define Open Water Swimming?

How Do You Define Open Water Swimming?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.








What do all these words mean in the open water swimming world?


There was a time when water at, near or below 10°C (50°F) was considered cold. Now those water temperatures are often described as balmy. In the post-Lynne Cox Bering Strait crossing of 1987, suddenly cold was redefined at 3.3°C (38°F). But three decades later, winter swimmers and ice swimmers started to formalize competitions and now cold was redefined at near 0°C (32°F). But then Cox and Lewis Pugh went a step further and sought out a mixture of fresh and salt water that was closer to -2.2°C (28°F).


There was a time when long meant swimming across a river or lake. Back in 1810, Lord Byron swam 6.4 km in 1 hour 10 minutes across the Hellespont, emulating the legendary Greek Leander. But then Captain Matthew Webb swam across the English Channel and 21 miles became the refined standard for long.

But if long was a one-way crossing of the English Channel, what was a two-way (by Antonio Abertondo in 1961 in 43 hours 10 minutes) or a three-way crossing (by Jon Erikson in 1981 38 hours 27 minutes)? Long used to mean around Manhattan Island once (by Robert Dowling in 1915 in 13 hours 45 minutes), but then it was redefined as twice (by Julie Ridge in 1983 in 21 hours) and three times (by Stacy Chanin in 1984 in 33 hours 39 minutes).


Rough water was defined early in 1916 by the La Jolla Rough Water Swim in California. Waves and turbulence in Maratona del Golfo Capri-Napoli and Canadian National Exhibition races in the 1950s, and Lake Michigan swims in the 1960s (by Greta Anderson and Abou-Heif) upped the ante. Then people started swimming across the Molokai Channel in Hawaii (by Keo Nakama in 1961 in 15 hours 30 minutes) and the Tsugaru Channel in Japan (by David Yudovin in 1990 in 13 hours 10 minutes) and rough forever became relatively defined.

What is a marathon swim?

The answer depends who you talk to. But for many in the open water swimming community, the accepted distance of a marathon swim is 10 kilometers. Why?

10 km is the distance that is defined by the International Olympic Committee, FINA and the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame as a marathon swim.

The roots of this determination derive from the fact that it takes world-class swimmers about 2 hours to swim a 10 km swim in almost all venues and conditions – which is nearly the same time it takes world-class marathon runners to run a 42 km marathon. The IOC and FINA wanted to make the duration of the marathon swim performed by world-class athletes roughly equivalent to the duration achieved by world-class runners. The world’s top swimmers can complete a flat-water course in between 1 hour 50 minutes and 2 hours. Whereas, their running counterparts on land complete marathon runs between 2:02 – 2:10 for men and 2:20 – 2:30 for women.

But some swimmers believe marathon swimming does not begin until a minimum of 15 km or 25 km or even 20 miles is reached. If so, what is the distance of an ultra marathon swim? Is it 20.2 miles (Catalina Channel crossing) or 42 km (like the Marathon Swim Costa Brava)? Or something perhaps even longer like the S.C.A.R. Challenge or 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim?

But what if the open water swim is performed completely butterfly or backstroke or breaststroke? What if the open water swimmer is hit with jellyfish, Lion’s Mane or box jellyfish? What if the swimmer sees, encounters or is hit by a cookie cutter shark or some other kinds of apex predators (polar bear, crocodile, hippopotamus, leopard seal, Great White Shark, orcas, sea snakes, needlefish or piranha)?

Are all these swims were characteristically epic and certainly extreme? Is every channel crossing, marathon swim, butterfly crossing, and ice kilometer by all swimmers epic? Or just extreme? Perhaps they are, especially to the individual swimmer and their crew members.

But if one swim is epic or extreme, how do you describe when swimmers accomplish even more (like the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, Oceans Seven, Still Water 8, Half Century Club, or Ice Sevens)?

Like beauty, these terms are all in the eyes of the beholders…and the swimmers themselves.

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Steven Munatones