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by Elaine K Howley

July 9, 2014

How you can go the distance in your open water swim

The standard rules of marathon swimming state that any swim longer than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) can be considered a marathon swim. The rules also state that marathon swims are accomplished without a wetsuit or any other external aids like flippers and floats, and can take a swimmer across a body of water, around an island, or from one point to another in any body of water. Marathon swimmers can be supported by a kayaker or a motorized guide boat, but the swimmer may not touch the boat or another person. Marathon swimmers may take in nutrition and fluids during the course of their swims, which in some cases can last upwards of two days or more, so long as they don’t lean on the boat or accept any assistance outside the rules of the organizing body sanctioning the swim.

But what about people like Martin Strel? The Big River Man who famously swam the length of the Amazon over the course of several weeks in 2007 while wearing a wetsuit? Strel and other swimmers like him are typically referred to as “adventure swimmers” and they undertake “adventure” or “staged swims.” A staged swim transpires over a course of stages on consecutive days and in Strel’s case, can cover dozens of miles a day followed by several hours’ rest on a boat docked at the stopping point. The 8 Bridges Swim, a 120-mile, 7-stage swim down the Hudson River is a relatively new offering in the staged swim world, and swimmers who participate in that event can register for all 7 or only some of the stages that take place over a week of summer swimming. In that swim, each individual segment is undertaken as a marathon swim following English Channel rules, but if a swimmer were to complete the entirety of the 7 stages, that whole endeavor would be listed as a staged swim. Yes, the rules of open water can be complicated.

A natural extension of marathon swimming is channel swimming, which to some swimmers is the original form of marathon swimming that started with Matthew Webb’s 21-hour journey across the English Channel in 1875. The English Channel is perhaps the most iconic of the channel swims and is sometimes referred to as the “Mount Everest of Swimming” because it represents the pinnacle of swimming achievement to many people. Other popular channel swims include the Catalina Channel from Catalina Island to the mainland of Southern California, the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco and the Cook Strait in New Zealand.

In recent years, marathon swim devotees have begun grouping swims together to increase the challenge. Events like the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming offer swimmers an even more elite club to join by completing three separate marathon open water swims that all signify a swimmer’s prowess in the water. The Southern California Eight is a group of swims amid the Santa Barbara Islands that no one has yet completed. The Ocean’s Seven is one of the most prestigious grouped events that includes 7 of the world’s most treacherous channel crossings. It has been completed by 4 people so far: Stephen Redmond of Ireland was first in 2012, followed in 2013 by Anna-Carin Nordin of Sweden and Michelle Macy of Beaverton, Ore., a few days later. Darren Miller, also of the US completed the 7 in 2013. The Still Water Eight groups 8 iconic lake swims around the world into a blockbuster group that no one has yet achieved.

If that’s not extreme enough for you, around the world, interest is growing in a particularly masochistic form of open water swimming, ice swimming. The International Ice Swimming Association, an organization founded in South Africa in 2009 by Ram Barkai, is the governing body for this sport worldwide. Swimmers can become members of the organization by submitting proof of completion of a 1-mile or longer swim in water that is 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) or colder while following the rules established by the organization. Though not considered a marathon swim because of their relatively short distance, ice mile swims are nevertheless being undertaken by experienced marathon swimmers who have some cold moxie. The list of swimmers who have succeeded is still quite short, standing at about 90 as of May 2014, but the list is growing quickly. It’s a brutal way to earn your stripes in open water swimming, and is not for the faint of heart. Careful preparation and acclimation in advance of an attempted ice mile is critical, and swimmers must have appropriate safety measures in place before beginning.

All of these different offerings in long-distance and extreme open water events are proof that the water is open and our imaginations can be our best allies in developing the next great swim. Where to? Anywhere there’s water, you can probably swim, so think big, do your homework, be safe, and have fun.



  • Open Water