Navigating With The First Couple Of Open Water Swimming

Navigating With The First Couple Of Open Water Swimming

There have been many couples who have graced the sport of open water swimming:

* Audrey and Ray Scott
* Valerie and Roger Parsons
* Penny and Chris Palfrey
* Esther Nuñez and Damian Blaum
* Angela Maurer and Nikolai Evseev
* Laura and Michael Miller
* Sally Anne Minty-Gravett and Charlie Gravett
* Pilar Geijo, Diego Tricarico
* Michelle Evans-Chase and Bruckner Chase
* Patty and Dr. Jim Miller
* Nadine and Christian Reichert
* Edith van Dijk and Hans van Goor
* Poliana Okimoto and Ricardo Cintra.

And numerous others throughout the annals of open water swimming on every continent.

But the reigning couple on the West Coast are Catalina Channel record holder Grace van der Byl and her kayaking husband Neil.

Grace and Neil are all over channel swims, ultra-marathon relays, solo swims, ocean races, marathon events and circumnavigations up and down the coast of California and throughout the United States from Arizona to New York.

While Grace earns the top honors and headlines for her swimming exploits, Neil is usually in the background guiding, escorting and kayaking for his wife and many other swimmers in lakes, oceans, rivers and reservoirs.

His longest non-stop solo swims that he has supported were around 15 hours. “I also helped coaching the support paddelers for the 42-mile S.C.A.R. Swim Challenge including the night stage. The longest distance was Tina Neill‘s 52-mile (83.6 km) 28 hour 41 minute San Clemente Island to mainland swim. We rotated multiple observers and support kayakers for that one, but total headcount of 6 or 7 was lower than the typical [crew of] 10 on the Outrider [for Catalina Channel crossings] which in hindsight worked out very well.”

He has seen the changes on how technology has helped swimmers manage the dynamics of the ocean over the years, improving safety and navigation. “To the left is a picture of how I plot courses on the observer sheets. This manual process occasionally helps us outline tracks where the swim philosophy is to ride the current.

These days, it is in addition to the GPS and mostly a nice memento of highlights usually at 30-minute intervals or after feedings. The nice thing about these plots are they give the swimmer an indication of velocity – stretches where they got a push for instance – versus purely the directional overlay with standard incremental updates – where speed is less visible.

Compare the plots to the above picture of a modern-day GPS spot tracker. As you can see, a much higher communication frequency rate using Google Maps with topography overlay

We asked Neil about the use of this technology and the benefits it provides the pilot, support crews and swimmers in the dynamic environment of the Pacific Ocean:

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What year did channel pilots start to use GPS?

Neil van der Byl: I believe the Outrider was refurbished and retrofitted between 2007 and 2009. Other channel swims might have started GPS usage earlier.

The frequently used Outrider is captained by John Pittman and is a 50-foot fiberglass sport fisher built by Delta marine in 1976. It was purchased, rebuilt, and refurbished from 2005 to 2007 and has been updated with all the latest, state of the art electronics, navigation and safety equipment, two radars, dual-screen Furuno fish finder, two chart-plotters with computerized navigation system, wesmar side-scanning sonar, satellite communications and two steering stations

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What did you/pilots use before GPS?

Neil van der Byl: When I started supporting swims, we already had sophisticated GPS on the Outrider. The [also popular] Bottomscratcher [captained by Greg Elliot], I believe received newly updated GPS equipment in the last couple of years. Before that, I believe they used marine navigation equipment, which I think included compass, radar, and radio navigation.

Even today, in local races without large support boats, kayakers still rely on sight and landmarks for line and drift compensation. In the Tour of the Buoys swim in La Jolla, kayakers have to sight landmarks like trees, hotels, and mountains in order to see if they are being pushed or pulled off course by currents between buoys. This technique is not as accurate as GPS navigation of course, but very helpful when you have to navigate lots of kelp beds which GPS units can’t predict. A minimum of two points of reference are always needed in order to understand the line and drift.

At night, without fog, kayakers sometimes use the lighthouse at Terranea for a rough reference of where they are heading on a Catalina Channel crossing. This is sometimes important when there is a delay from the support vessel due to buddy swimmer pick-ups, alternate kayak exchanges, etc. During this time, the kayaker can hold the course with the swimmer for a short while until the large boat and observers can catch up – usually within a minute and less than 100 yards. This can be helpful when trying to prevent hypothermia or during record swim attempts. Other landmarks if visible can be of the same value during day-time, in which case kayakers can also get a second reference point behind them on the Catalina Island for instance, for a more accurate course and drift avoidance.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What advantages does GPS give pilots?

Neil van der Byl: The GPS allows for direct plotting from the starting point to the desired landing point which is not always at Terranea or Doctor’s Cove [in the case of Catalina Channel crossings]. Some swimmers or relays prefer a beach landing for instance. In addition to a precise directional course plot, the latest equipment if connected to capable vessels can also assist the captains with automated vessel steering for precision. They merely need to adjust for speed or other uncommon events such as avoidance of obstacles or traffic. This is especially useful when there are currents, swell, or tides steering the large hull off course – this is also true for wind.

There are two philosophies pilots can use in planning and executing a swim. They can either stay the course and ensure the shortest distance per the GPS readings, or they can opt for a strategy of “riding” the current in hopes of the slight off-course current perhaps aiding the swimmer with a bit of a push, but with the risk that the swimmer might have to fight their way back on-course for a safe finish in case the same current prevails. Of course, they might luck out with another directional aid from currents pushing them back on course towards the end, which might mean no need to fight the current at the end – this is basically a gamble based on both their experience in the channel (more prevalent in the English Channel judging by the “S” course swims), as well as based on research by the team (which could include elements such as weather (wind, swell, and tide) forecasts, and surface current predicions based on websites such as the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System. Either philosophy could get the swimmer there in the shortest amount of TIME depending on currents, but not always the shortest distance if opting for “riding the current” philosophy

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What benefits does GPS indirectly or directly provide a swimmer, if any?

Neil van der Byl: The addition of GPS navigation benefits the sport of swimming in many ways. First, it adds an element of safety to the swim. This is obviously of paramount importance – especially in challenging conditions which can appear from nowhere. Today’s more sophisticated GPS devices can also point out marine navigational points of reference, which is important in channels with lots of boat traffic, especially the larger tankers and container vessels that sometimes need miles to turn around or stop in the Catalina Shipping Lanes. In addition, it is paramount that other vessels know where you are even if conditions are good. This is important because some fiberglass vessels don’t reflect radar very well and there are often high-speed ferries between major connecting points that would need to know exactly where you are. The addition of GPS coordinates to audio (radio) confirmation of presence greatly improves awareness and safety (e.g, during foggy conditions).

Secondly, the swimmers benefit with the most direct swim possible. This means, in theory, ultimately less time spent in sometimes cold water. Some swimmers, like Gracie, are very particular about how far they still need to go. This is of course a relative concept to time and conditions, but for some, it really helps to manage their intake, speed (pace), and overall mental calculations between feeds. Obsessive swimmers can predict feeding times by counting strokes (usually within a few second), and many of them play scenarios in their heads about progress and goals. Towards the end of the swim for instance, they might forego a last feeding, usually risking hypothermia due to the stop, if the landing is within a quarter-mile. This might not be recommended by observers and coaches if energy depletion could add risk of hypothermia especially if it is more like a half mile to go and the swimmer’s feedings usually take longer than 20 seconds. All of this is today possible with near-100% accuracy in GPS positioning. However, the impact of elements like rip tides typically require a trained watermen / seaman with experience in the area and conditions before they would recommend an alternate course of action based on accurate distance and line readings.

Thirdly, swimmers can now use mobile GPS’s during training swims, which greatly improves their ability to plot courses and reach goals. Earlier, this was usually a lot more difficult to predict with a level of accuracy before the addition of GPS. Swimmers can then share their courses and even velocity with other swimmers and coaches in order to help them adjust their training plans to meet their goals. Luckily for the average consumers, GPS’s are now even integrated into smart phones, so even kayakers can easily use this technology to help swimmers with training swims where they want to reach a certain distance – say 3/4 of the total distance of their goal swim before they start tapering. Kayakers can also relay important information about their speed and progress during the feeding in case their goal was to reach that distance within a certain amount of time.

Finally, there are consumer-ready devices called Spot trackers which relay GPS locations to websites for people to track progress even though they are not physically on a support boat. This technology is widely used by swimmers, organizations (like the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association), and even races (like the Manhattan Island Marathon swim). The larger versions of these devices are more commonly used by hikers and mountain expeditions where you can easily get trapped or lost. They have the ability to relay pre-defined “OK” status update messages as well as notify authorities in cases of emergency situations.

For the sake of the visibility of the sport, this is most likely the most important benefit in terms of attracting and engaging the audience. It is not always practical to build an open water stadium or have natural resource for the sport to attract large audiences – even the Manhattan Island Marathon swim with infinite audience capability, will have limited spots at the finish. Tracking technology can put the audience right there with their favorite swimmer in the absence of real-time TV broadcasts. A $100 solution for a million dollar problem.

There are many other implied and/or obvious benefits to having this technology on your swim versus not having it, but the fact remains, if real-time information can help improve accuracy as well as add an element of safety to swimming, it is a no-brainer

Grace and Neil run the Southern California Swim Support for interested open water swimmers.

The Southern California Open-water Swim Support (for crew / kayakers) is posted here. For swimmers who are interested in kayaking support, visit here.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones