How Far Did You Swim?

How Far Did You Swim?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

In the same way that athletes swim 2.4 miles in the Waikiki Roughwater Swim or 1 mile in the Great Swims, athletes are correctly credited with the shortest straight-line tangent when they do any kind of open water swim, even if they swim crookedly or are pushed by tides, currents or ocean swells or land in an unintended location.

In other words, some athletes and the media occasionally report distances of 22 miles or 24 miles or 26 miles in crossings of the English Channel. Most likely, these reported distances are longer than the straight-line distance accepted by the open water swimming community and local governing bodies.

Sometimes, the reported distances are much longer.

The proper distance is 20.8 statute miles (33.5 km or 18.1 nautical miles). For the Catalina Channel (San Pedro Channel), the acknowledged distance is 20.2 statute miles (32.5 km or 17.5 nautical miles).

No one can swim perfectly straight from point to point due to imperfect swimming technique, currents, tides, waves, surface chop, swells, fog, poor visibility, guidance from kayakers or escort boats, and other factors. Plain and simple, swimmers go off-course all the time. Swimming off the rhumb line, even slightly, is a constant. But the open water swimming community accepts that the straight-line tangent is the sport’s standard form of measurement. Fortunately, with modern-day GPS technology and handy tools like Google Earth, measuring a course is easy and accurate.

Documenting a solo swim, relay or stage swim is based off the shortest straight-line tangent between the start and finish. In the case of shorter races, the distances are measured between the start, turn buoys and finish (a subject for a future article). In other words, if the shortest distance between the start and finish is 10 kilometers, but a swimmer drifts 2 kilometers, the swimmer is credited with a swim of 10 kilometers – not 12 kilometers.

Chris Guesdon of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame reiterates, “Straight line point-to-point is the only way to measure all swims. It is irrelevant where the wind, tides or currents take the swimmers. The question should always be, ‘Did you complete the task, starting point to finishing point, and how long did it take?’ An English Channel crossing is the best example. It’s England to France, without assistance, with an independent observer [to verify the swim].”

John Dussliere, an American Olympic swimming coach, agrees, “Straight line tangent is the only way to standardize the distance. Otherwise, swimmers would have to follow another swimmer’s path in order to beat their time and set a record. Marathon swimming is about braving the elements and the swimmer’s ability to time the currents, navigate and handle the elements that can be measured against others.”

Liz Fry, race director for the Swim Across the Sound and a Triple Crown swimmer explains from another perspective, “The straight-line tangent distance is the most normalized measure of the distance, similar to sailboat races. Speed is gained by adding distance and ‘tacking’ into the current/tide. The sea conditions, currents, tides and weather are all part of the sport and need to be planned for as best as possible. GPS provides interesting data for the swimmers and their pilots, but I see it more as a navigational tool during the swim for real-time adjustments based on swim conditions and swimmer speed [rather than a means to measure the distance of the swim]. If the search is for actual swimming distance, it will be complicated since consideration would have to be given to both horizontal and vertical distance. We would need to find a method to account for wave height in the distance as well.”

Jim Barber, another Triple Crown swimmer, brings up another point to avoid complication, “Measuring point A to point B is the way to go. We can’t start measuring what a swimmer swims in total distance because this becomes way too subjective for readings and measurements.”

Captain Tim Johnson of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and author of the book, History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming, agrees and brings up a different point about land-to-land and stage swims. “The straight line distance should be used unless there is a land mass that a swimmer or boat would have to deviate around in which case it would be the shortest swimming distance going around the deviation. If a swimmer starts or finishes from an in-the-water point, I could consider a swim where the start or finish was located in the water adjacent to land where adjacent means within sight and hearing of spectators. Using a navigational buoy is a useful substitute because they are marked on charts. GPS is great for finding locations and I used it on Skip Storch’s swim down the Hudson River which was a stage swim. Skip would pick up his swim from a point behind where he left off the previous stage (day) and use GPS to mark the finish of a stage in order to use for resuming the swim the next time. GPS uses a reference to an imaginary grid laid over the earth and, as such, there are an infinite number of locations. The issue with records is they have to be repeatable so another person can attempt to break a previous record so the starting location is key. Before GPS there was Loran, but no one used or claimed a record based on Loran readings as far as I know.”

In summary, governing bodies, swimmers, coaches, administrators and media representatives use the straight-line distance measured in kilometers, statute miles or nautical miles. Using any other means of measurement only confuses the situation.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association