The Most Unique Equipment In Open Water Swimming

The Most Unique Equipment In Open Water Swimming

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

When I think of the various bits of equipment used in the open water swimming world, I can point out GPS, smart goggles, techsuits, drones, bone conduction devices, burkinis, shark cages, Shark Shields, stinger suits, transponders and Garmin devices,” observed Steven Munatones.

But perhaps the most unusual and expensive equipment used in the sport is the sonar safety system – a modified fish finder – that swept the murky, warm-water course at the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China.

Made by Japanese company Koden Electronics, the sonar system was used to keep athletes safe due to the extremely warm air and water temperatures in Shanghai, especially coming after the death of Fran Crippen in the UAE in October 2010 at a FINA race.

Two separate sonar units cost US$300,000 and sweep the entire course geometric course every 20 seconds. The purpose was to alert the rescue personnel along the course, poised to act while waiting in safety boats if any competitor falls below the surface of the water. Dennis Miller, FINA Liaison for Open Water, explained, “If we do have an issue with someone going down, we can pick it up by the color of the screen.

The systems where housed in a main boat that was located in the middle of the course with a monitor, a receiver and a sensor. Koden Electronics was founded in 1947 and is headquartered in Tokyo. It business is centered around the development, production, and distribution of marine electronics equipment, industrial electronics equipment, and information systems equipment.

Each sonar system scanned 720 square meters each and was initially proposed by Ronnie Wong of Hong Kong who was the chairman of the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee whose members planned, organized and officiated the 5 km, 5 km team race, 10 km and 25 km races.

Operators of the system could if any swimmer slipped under the surface – as Crippen did unseen the year before in Dubai. The sonar system overlays the course with a minute grid that is monitored by an underwater sonar system that pings the entire course every one second. “If they see the color changes on the monitor, they’ll know right away that someone or something is sinking and they can send divers there right away,” explained Wong.

Each machine costs US$150,000, and Wong convinced the local organization team to purchase two systems by convincing them that they could sell them to organizers of future races. Wong said, “Sonar has been in use for shipping for many years and I used to work in shipping.”

In the case that a swimmer went under the surface of the water, the sonar safety system alerted a team of scuba divers who were immediately transported to the area by power boats where the athlete was reported to go under at the Jinshan City Beach.

Munatones said, “Because the water clarity along the course is minimal due to silt at Jinshan City Beach, the new sonar system is a key element of the overall safety program and was a major investment in this system that is used to find fish. Ronnie Wong was to be highly commended to get the system funded and implemented.”

In the aftermath of Crippen’s death, this was a critical element. “If something happens and a swimmer goes down, they can find him immediately,” said Germany’s head coach Stefan Lurz who was at the race in Dubai.

The key is speed: the speed to identify a swimmer in distress and the speed to initiate and complete the rescue. It is more likely in open water swimming competitions that rescues are initiated by other swimmers in the proximity. “The key importance is making sure that we have the safety procedures to make sure that if athletes get into trouble, there’s a quick response,” said Pierre Lafontaine, formerly the head of Swimming Canada.

But the sonar system was never used to initiate a rescue. Instead, rescues were initiated the old-fashioned way: with human eyes and understanding of the situation and swimmers. At the 14th FINA World Championships, 20 athletes earned berths in the 2012 London Olympics 10K Marathon Swim. Of the 20 swimmers, 18 countries qualified for the Olympics.

Courtesy of RecintoMoxo

But it was the circumstances of the last swim of the competition, the 25 km race that caused angst in the open water swimming community – and identified flaws in the safety system. “At the end of the day, safety is entirely dependent upon the awareness and experiences of the officials, crews and coaches,” said Munatones. “As the water temperature hovered about 29°C all week during the 5 km, 5 km team time trial and 10km events, the temperature rose to 31°C (87.8°F) in the early stages of the 25km race.

The water temperature was monitored by a water thermometer that hung off of the FINA Safety Delegate’s boat. As the sun rose higher and higher after the early 6:00 am start, the race officials and coaches constantly checked the rising water temperature.

But, as the athletes understood before the race at the Technical Meeting, the 31°C mark was not the ultimate standard – a trigger to call the race. After the internal FINA discussions about implementing a maximum water temperature due to the death of Crippen, it was clear in mid-race that there was no clearly defined maximum water temperature – or how to measure it. 31°C turned out to only be a guideline. The ultimate decision to stop or shorten a swim would be left in the hands of the FINA doctor on hand and the FINA Safety Delegate.

During the race, it was also clear that there was an expectation of many swimmers that the swim would be called or at least shortened when the water temperature increased to 31°C. The most experienced swimmer in the field, Petar Stoychev who has dominated the ultra-marathon FINA circuit for a decade, was one of those athletes. “I picked up the pace when the water temperature was increasing to 31°C because I thought the race might be shortened,” he commented after.

But the 31°C mark was judged by FINA as a guideline, not as a rule. So despite rising temperatures throughout the competition, FINA’s doctor, in consultation with FINA’s Safety Delegate, had the leeway to allow the race to continue. Munatones recalled, “Before the race, they added more safety personnel on the course and encouraged teams to add more coaches for each of their swimmers on the two feeding pontoons on the 2-loop 2.5 km course. But, in addition to elevated water temperatures, they determined that other atmospheric conditions were important elements to consider. In making a judgment call to either stop or shorten the race, they took into consideration the humidity, wind speed, air temperature and amount of solar radiation (based on cloud cover).

Sam Greetham, the FINA Delegate repeatedly communicated the water temperature to the officials and coaches on the course. Some of the coaches had their own water thermometers hanging off the feeding pontoons. After the 31°C was exceeded, the FINA doctor and FINA Safety Delegate went out to the feeding pontoons and consulted with the coaches about the possibility of canceling or shortening the race. The coaches concurred with the FINA doctor and FINA Safety Delegate that the race should continue.

While most athletes forged on, other athletes either could not continue or were pulled from the water. The justifications to continue the race varied:

1. The top athletes could handle these conditions,
2. FINA had held races in even warmer conditions and nothing happened,
3. The coaches on the course supported this decision,
4. There were adequate number of safety personnel on the course.

Munatones said in response to the offered justifications, “My opinion was different. I believe the race should have been immediately called once the 31°C point was reached. This set a terrible precedent, not only for disregarding FINA’s own rules, but also because it enabled race directors around the world to justify their own races in warm water conditions.”

But the race was completed to the end where Stoychev and Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil won their first 25 km world championship title.

While I greatly appreciated the investment of the sonar safety systems, I still believe to this day, nearly 10 years after the fact, that FINA had a great opportunity to demonstrate its leadership in making a decision that unequivocally placed the safety of young athletes ahead of any other possible consideration. Simply because well-prepared athletes like Stoychev and Cunha could perform superhumanly does not mean that FINA’s guideline should be extended to all athletes. While FINA had several doctors on call during its World Championship, what happens at other FINA events that are held with fewer and less qualified doctors are on call? While FINA invested in a sophisticated US$300,000 sonar tracking system at the venue that can pinpoint if a swimmer collapsed and submerged under the water surface, what happens at other FINA events where the $300,000 sonar safety system is not a viable option? There were just so many issues and questions that were left unaddressed.

The race itself was strategic, but many of the top athletes never go to the finish line. Two-time world champion Valerio Cleri was pulled while the two reigning world 25 km champions, Alex Meyer and Linsy Heister, did not even start the race. The same decision was made by multiple world champion Thomas Lurz and Olympian Brian Ryckeman. “When conditions are such that the two reigning world champions protest through a DNS (Did Not Start), the sport moves from a world-class competition to an extreme sport duel between athlete and Mother Nature,” said Munatones.

The decision to continue because the top swimmers looked good is a confusing message to send to the global open water swimming community. We strongly believe it is important to establish and adjudicate rules that are appropriate to ALL athletes, not primarily aimed at the elite athletes. In this case, FINA made its decision heavily based on the performance of the athletes in the front of the pack, not in the middle or rear of the pack. And as nearly every race director knows, problems are usually not encountered by the lead swimmers, but by those in the middle and rare of the field.

Furthermore, the decision to continue the race because other races at other times were held in similarly warm conditions does not justify its decision. In the open water world, every race is different with swimmers of all ages, abilities and backgrounds participating. While FINA sanctions races aim at the elite athlete, its influence is undeniably global. But when it pushes the envelope into the extreme realm, then many race directors, coaches and athletes believe the same standards are suitable for them.

There were other fundamental issues related to safety on that day on that course – that were replicated elsewhere. Safety personnel were on the course for sure, but they were fully clothed and some could not swim. They were manned by plenty of boats and communication equipment, but were they fully prepared to immediately jump in the water to save a life? Or even understand the basic principles of lifesaving? The hallmark of any competent safety personnel is the ability to not only identify a distressed swimmer before they go under, but also to make an immediate decision to jump in the water, fully prepared.

It was clear during the race that the Chinese safety personnel were not prepared for extreme conditions. On several occasions during the event, safety personnel were called for back-up help by the race officials, but the personnel were either inexcusably delayed or just simply never showed up. Perhaps it was a communications problem, but the result was the same.

For example, the German coach asked the race officials to get his swimmer out of the water, Antje Mahn. It was a request bordering on an order. I heard the request over the radio and directed my boat over to Mahn. She did not look good at all. I directed the boat to move alongside her and called her name while reaching my arm out to her. It was clear that she was in no condition to finish the race. Lurz, the German coach, knew that. I kept on yelling at her, increasingly louder and then jumped in. As a trained lifeguard, I had done this before and knew to hold her mouth above the water and hold her from behind. Her body immediately went limp and she stopped swimming when I grabbed her. She instinctively knew that the race was over to her as her eyes appeared nearly lifeless. Our safety boat called for assistance when I jumped in the water and other Chinese safety personnel finally arrived. But it was clear that a strong eggbeater and swimming ability were not their strengths so I motioned to the others to stay in the boat while I took Antje to shore. Without a doubt, I felt more like a lifeguard out there than a race official. Under those conditions, officiating took a backseat to simple lifeguarding.

This was something that the sonar system did not catch and proves that human experience and diligence still remains at the forefront of swimmer safety whether it is a channel swim, mass participation event, or an amateur or professional marathon swim.

While medical personnel, administrators, officials and lifeguards have opinions, knowledge and expertise on topics as hypothermia and hyperthermia, no one experiences the open water like the athletes themselves. They are the ones who feel the pain and discomfort of extreme conditions in the open water, whether it is extremely cold or extremely warm.

2011 FINA World Championships, 25 km Men’s Results in Shanghai:

1. Petar Stoychev, Bulgaria 5:10:39.8
2. Vladimir Dyatchin, Russia 5:11:15.6
3. Csaba Gercsák, Hungary 5:11:18.1
4. Francisco Jose Hervas Jodar, Spain 5:11:20.4
5. Trent Grimsey, Australia 5:11:28.2
6. Allan do Carmo, Brazil 5:11:32.2
7. Vasily Boykov, Russia 5:11:36.3
8. Joanes Hedel, France 5:13:03.1
9. Yuri Kudinov, Kazakhstan 5:13:08.6
10. Libor Smolka, Czech Republic 5:13:20.1
11. Bertrand Venturi, France 5:13:26.9
12. Erwin Maldonado, Venezuela 5:14:03.5
13. Guillermo Bértola, Argentina 5:14:29.9
14. Simon Tobin, Canada 5:19:43.1
15. Xavier Desharnais, Canada 5:20:44.2
16. Samuel de Bona, Brazil 5:27:38.1
17. Han Lidu, China 5:32:02.1
18. Gabriel Villagoiz, Argentina 5:37:25.9
19. Weng Jingwei, China 5:47:16.0
DNF Josip Soldo, Croatia
DNF Valerio Cleri, Italy
DNF Rok Kerin, Slovenia
DNF Tomislav Soldo, Croatia
DNF Rostislav Vítek, Czech Republic
DNF Gergely Kutasi, Hungary
DNF Angel Moreira, Venezuela
DNF Codie Grimsey, Australia
DNF Edoardo Stochino, Italy
DNF Benjamin Konschak, Germany
DNS Tom Vangeneugden, Belgium
DNS Islam Mohsen, Egypt
DNS Alex Meyer, USA
DNS Brian Ryckeman, Belgium
DNS Mazen Mohamed Aziz, Egypt
DNS Thomas Lurz, Germany

2011 FINA World Championships, 25 km Women’s Results in Shanghai:

1. Ana Marcela Cunha, Brazil 5:29:22.9
2. Angela Maurer, Germany 5:29:25.0
3. Alice Franco, Italy 5:29:30.8
4. Olga Beresnyeva, Ukraine 5:29:35.6
5. Martina Grimaldi, Italy 5:29:36.2
6. Anna Uvarova, Russia 5:29:38.9
7. Celia Barrot, France 5:29:40.8
8. Margarita Dominguez Cabezas, Spain 5:29:42.0
9. Silvie Rybárová, Czech Republic 5:29:51.3
10. Cecilia Biagioli, Argentina 5:29:58.7
11. Maria Bulakhova, Russia 5:34:21.2
12. Karla Šitić, Croatia 5:37:49.8
13. Esther Nuñez Morera, Spain 5:38:09.6
14. Tash Harrison, Australia 5:53:35.4
15. Cao Shiyue, China 5:54:21.9
16. Sun Minjie, China 5:55:16.3
17. Nika Kozamernik, Slovenia 6:00:43.8
DNF Jana Pechanová, Czech Republic
DNF Zaira Edith Cardenas Hernandez, Mexico
DNF Antje Mahn, Germany
DNF Claire Thompson, USA
DNS Linsy Heister, Netherlands
DNS Haley Anderson, USA

Epilogue: Not only did Stoychev win the warmest competition in FINA history in Shanghai in 2011, but he also competed in the most southern and coldest competition at the Antarctica Ice Kilometer Swim in the Southern Ocean in February 2018 finishing the 1 km ice swim in 11:08:49 in -1.4°C water.

Copyright © 2008 – 2021 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Steven Munatones