What Happened from Start to Finish on Nejib Belhedi’s Swim Between Italy and Tunisia?
Update 2023: We wish to inform our readers that the record for the “Longest duration ocean swim (marathon swimming, male)” achieved in 2018 and recorded in the Guinness World Records by Nejib Belhedi is currently under review. The World Open Water Swimming Association is committed to upholding the integrity of open water swimming achievements and as such, we are conducting a thorough investigation into the veracity of this record. Further details will be provided as they become available.
Swim Between Italy and Tunisia
Though WOWSA was not involved in Nejib Belhedi’s pre-swim planning, WOWSA did send a letter of support of his swim and was aware of his swim dates.
WOWSA initiated a post-swim review of his attempt including requests for his swim documentation to review on June 20, 2022.
The following is the analysis of data that Nejib Belhedi submitted and explained as a result of this review:
The Swimmer and His Support Team
- Nejib Belhedi: a 69-year-old swimmer who completed a crossing of the English Channel in 1993 in 16 hours 35 minutes.
- Chokri Ettaieb: boat captain and pilot
- Samir Slama: official observer
- Billel Ezrelli: crew member on his escort boat for the 3+ days.
Nejib Belhedi’s Testimony and Self-reported Documentation
Hours Awake and in Water According to His documentation
Nejib stated he started his swim from an in-the-water point in the Sicilian Channel northeast, offshore from Pantelleria Island (37°28’47.7″N 11°36’19.7″E) in Italian jurisdictional waters. He walked onshore to the Tunisian shoreline at Hasdrubal Beach Yasmine Hammamet (36°21’15.0″N 10°31’50.0″E), and had been awake for over 3 days including the time that he swam, was on his escort boat, and for additional hours before starting the swim.
Prior to the start of the swim, his vessel, the Lancora SF 2823, traveled approximately 200 kilometers from Port El Kantaoui Marina located in the town of Sousse in Tunisia to the start point (37°28’47.7″N 11°36’19.7″E) in the Sicilian Channel. He stated he left Port Port El Kantaoui at noon on June 15, 2022.
According to Nejib Beheldi’s documentation and self-reported observer logs:
Nejib Beheldi reported the following:
Estimated number of hours awake
From: Wednesday, 15 June 2022, 8:00:00
To: Saturday, 18 June 2022, 17:10:00
3 days 5 hours 10 minutes, a total of 77 hours 10 minutes + media interviews
Estimated number of hours swimming (including the number of hours he was onboard his escort boat due to mechanical problems 26 km offshore of the Kelibia port)
From: Wednesday, 15 June 2022, 21:00:00
To: Saturday, 18 June 2022, 17:10:00
2 days 20 hours 10 minutes, a total of 68 hours 10 minutes
Estimated number of hours onboard his escort boat
From: Thursday, 16 June 2022, 05:00:00
To: Thursday, 16 June 2022, 15:00:00
10 hours, 0 minutes, and 0 seconds [note: this is an estimate and cannot be confirmed]
Therefore, the total number of hours he swam according to his testimony under these estimates is 58 hours 10 minutes over a 155 km distance – or 2.67 km per hour.
According to his testimony, he swam a 29 km in the first 3 hours from June 15 at 21:00 to June 16 at 24:00.
Post-swim information submitted to WOWSA did not include:
GPS and/or location tracking data so all information was based on conversations and recollections. Due to this lack of information, the post-swim analyses defaulted to other visual clues and one-on-one interviews.
Post-Swim Problems and Conclusions
1. Post-swim appearance
Nejib had been swimming in the salt water for over 58 hours and awake for more than 3 consecutive days. Visual confirmation of his post-swim appearance after such a long immersion in salt water leads to questions for the following five reasons:
Nejib’s skin did not appear sufficiently waterlogged (i.e., wet-wrinkling response) as is normal after swimming in salt water for 58 hours. In cases where swimmers are in salt water for over 12 hours, this wet-wrinkling response is normal, but it was visually lacking in the case of Nejib.
Sun – Nejib swam with a pair of goggles and a swim cap. However, there was a visible lack of obvious and clear suntan lines around his goggles around his eyes, and on his forehead. These suntan lines are always visible for swimmers with any skin tone, especially after swimming and being in a boat for over 3 straight days under mostly sunny skies.
Swollen Tongue – There was no visible evidence of severely swollen or chafed tongue and lips or a swollen and sore throat. When a swimmer is in the salt water for so long, their tongue, lips, and throat become swollen. This is a physiological fact and cannot be avoided, no matter what skin ointment is applied or if fresh water is consumed en route from the start to finish.
Speaking Lucidly – Nejib spoke lucidly and clearly immediately after the swim. After swimmers swim for so long in salt water, and go without sleep for over 3 days, the ability to speak clearly and lucidly is difficult for any athlete despite their abilities and motivations.
Standing Up – Nejib stood up almost immediately and without great difficulty on shore after swimming in a horizontal position for over 58 hours and being awake for over 3 days.
2. GPS Data
Nejib has not provided GPS data, either from a SPOT tracker or from a GPS app or even location data on the mobile phones of Chokri Ettaieb (escort boat captain and pilot), Samir Slama (official observer), and Billel Ezrelli (the only other crew member on board).
He declared the captain lost his phone at Port El Kantaoui Marina due to a delay in port authority documentation and that he acquired a new phone without the GPS app.
A screenshot of the swim route was mistakenly submitted as GPS data. The screenshot image is of a plotted way-point route on the Navionics app. The pink line does not depict real time GPS data or the recorded GPS tracking.
When asked to export the GPX data from the Navionics app multiple times, the captain’s response was it was a trial app without GPS tracking.
Nejib declared there was an electrical malfunction on the boat due to water infiltration 60 kilometers into the swim at a point 26 km offshore of the Kelibia port and that the VHF of the vessel broke down. Even after repairs at Kelibia port, the VHF did not function even though a marine-band VHF radio is obligatory.
No members of the crew or captain while on board the vessel or on land in Kelibia port thought it necessary to download onto their Android phones one of many free GPS tracking apps or even open location data on Google maps on their phones.
3. Boarded the vessel
Nejib admitted after the submission of ratification documentation that the vessel broke down on June 16, 2022, at 5:00 AM 26 km offshore of the Kelibia port in Tunisia. In the follow-up review and interviews, it was discovered that Neijib boarded the vessel for approximately 10 hours and started swimming again at 3 PM on June 16, 2022. It is unknown what his exit waypoint was or what his re-entry point was.
In the rules of a solo unassisted marathon swim, the swimmer can not touch or enter the vessel. At the moment Nejib boarded the escort boat, his swim can no longer be considered a solo unassisted marathon swim.
On the other hand, a swimmer can board the vessel in a traditional stage swim.
In a traditional stage swim, the swimmer gets out of the water and rests on his boat (i.e., his exit point). His GPS position at the exit point is documented. When he re-enters the water, he must get in at the same exit point based on the documented GPS waypoints. In other words, he swims, he stops, he boards the boat, his crew notes the GPS waypoints, and the boat anchors or stays in position. After the swimmer is rested and prepared to continue his swim, he gets back into the water at the same exit point. This pattern continues until the end of the swim.
Nejib’s GPS position at the exit point was not noted; neither was the point he re-entered the water.
In theory, it is possible that Nejib’s swim could be defined as a non-continuous stage swim where his exit point(s) and new entry point(s) are in different positions, but with a lack of data, this possible definition remains unaddressed and unknown.
4. Escort Crew and Observer Log
There were only three people on the escort boat. They had to travel from Tunisia to Italian waters at a normal speed. Then they had to travel from Italian waters to Tunisia at the pace of Nejib’s swimming speed. Much shorter swims always have more crew members. While having three people on his escort boat does not mean that Nejib did not do his swim, it is a very important fact that hints at a core problem.
He reported his official observer fell ill at the boat break point and could not fulfill his duty to update an observer log. An observer log is a necessity in order to ratify a swim.
The observer log was prepared after the swim by Nejib and not during the swim.The observer log contained multiple errors on stroke per minute, swim time, wind speed and direction. The data was cross-checked against historical data available on NOAA’s mariner version real-time forecasts and observations maps.
5. Military and Coast Guard Escort Boats
At various stages of the swim, it was reported he was accompanied by Tunisian military boats and Coast Guard. It is our understanding that the authorities were in visual (and quite possibly radio) contact with Nejib and his crew during the swim. No documentation has been provided from the Tunisian military or authorities to Nejib or his crew. It is our understanding from Nejib that no certified documentation of the facts of this swim have been or will be provided by the Tunisian government or military.
Very few photos and videos were submitted. On examination efforts were made to extract EXIF data on photos and videos. No EXIF data was available.
7. Public Announcements
Nejib announced his own record in his lucid interview at the swim finish. A record – and notably – a world record is announced after a swim is ratified, but not before and certainly not by the athlete himself.
8. Sleep-Swimming in Current
In the post-swim interviews, Nejib addressed the length of time that he was awake. He said that he fell asleep during the swim. When asked at what coordinates he was asleep during the swim and what currents carried him, he pointed them out in a post-swim interview on a map. He reported that he floated while sleeping face down with his arms outstretched from midnight June 17, 2022 to midnight June 18, 2022 while he covered a distance approximately 29 km. We compared those points to the current maps available on the NOAA website and found there was only a light current on that date. But the fact is that no human can sleep in water, especially face down during a swim of 155 km, for any amount of time perhaps beyond a few minutes.
The exact conditions and duration of Nejib’s swim cannot be determined or verified. His swim cannot be defined by WOWSA as a traditional solo unassisted marathon swim as was self-reported by Nejib, because he boarded the vessel and the required data and information is not available. Furthermore, he did not inform WOWSA until after being interviewed that he boarded the vessel or that he covered 29 km while sleep swimming face down. Lastly, the visual appearance of his skin, tongue, lips and throat is inconsistent with that of a swimmer who spent 58 hours in salt water. To maintain the integrity of the sport, WOWSA relies on factual data, photos, videos, GPS data, and observer reports to confirm and report on swims. Obvious misinformation, falsification of data, and exaggeration to cover up facts are not tolerated and is not consistent with the integrity of the open water swimming community.
In summary, WOWSA does not believe Nejib Belhedi swam as he initially intended or ultimately claimed.