Two Golden Rules of Open Water and/or Marathon Swims

During the recent Diana Nyad swimming circus, and some discussions around the place and online, I went for a swim. And we know what happens out there, don’t we? Yeah, stupid ideas.

Captain Matthew Webb, Dover Memorial

On the marathonswimmers forum there was an excellent suggestion that we (an unaligned but traditional-rules-following group of marathon swimmers) agree some guidelines for media reporting of marathon swims. These would mainly detail what the basic criteria of a marathon swim are and which guidelines a swim is following, (for example whether English Channel, English Channel-derived like Cook Strait or MIMS or non- English Channel and how assistance, wetsuits, stage swims etc should be reported). And all that’s fine and all agreed.

But I thought about the expression “if you are explaining you are losing”. The media never cares about complexity, about the specifics of a particular pursuit. In swimming nothing crystallizes this fact more than the Diana Nyad affair. Complicated messages are lost, nuance is invisible, subtlety means nothing. So the idea that came to me while swimming was a simple Golden Rules of Open Water/Marathon Swimming. Yeah, I’m still not good with names.

We need some way to unify all these various types of swims, marathon swims under traditional rules, wetsuit and other assisted swims, stage swims, adventures swims etc. I think it is the confusion between these different types that causes the practitioners to be both misunderstood and angry, often at each other (this includes me, see my opening line above).

  • What is the minimum information that could or should be conveyed about a swim?

While swimming I came up with Three Golden Rules. I didn’t write them down when I got home that night so when I went back the next day to write, I couldn’t remember the three, only two, and I took that as a good design indicator.

The scientist and author Isaac Asimov was once asked what the maximum amount of information you could impart to a later generation about the world if you only had one short sentence to do it. So I asked myself: What is the least amount of information required to explain any type marathon swim, whether English Channel rules at one end, or a wetsuited relay stage swim with an elephant and Mongolian* swimmers only named Bataar at the other end?

How about another mention of Isaac Asimov: “I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.

I propose that only that Two Golden Rules are required:

  1. The swimmer/organisation must fully disclose** all the rules and criteria of the swim beforehand.
  2. If the swim is be recognised somehow, then the swim must have trusted Independent Observation for verification that the swim meets these stated rules. (And the participants must be fully cognizant of all the rules).

Rule One is of course a bit of a kludge, because it allows for further sub-rules. But if the swimmer is under this geas***, then we all can appreciate and support every swim for what is (or isn’t). If the swimmer follows this rule, then the media at least stand some chance of conveying an accurate framework. When I wrote last year that I had no further interest in Diana Nyad, that was because she essentially cheated her supporters and followers by misleading them about what her swim was.

Rule Two is just as vital. As I’ve found myself writing a few times in the last week, independent observation and verification is at the heart of marathon swimming. Many swims do not have Independent Observers because they are outside the auspices of any organisation or framework.

Let’s say you want to do a new swim around South Georgia Island. Since there is no South Georgia swim Association, whom you need for Verification is a registered swimming club member “in good standing” as the phrase used to go. Verification protects all swimmers from false swim claims. Verification is literally the most important protection we have, so people can’t claim to swim the North Channel, I was out on a training swim and I just decided to keep going****.

However the observer must be Independent. For most of us this isn’t a concern, we are low-rent, no-one has any particular interest in us. But if you are doing a high-profile swim for charity or just self-publicity like Diana Nyad, then your Observer can’t be involved in promoting, sponsoring or otherwise being part of the team. Can you know the swimmer? Of course. Practically speaking there aren’t enough marathon swimmers and observers in the world that everyone must be unknown to each other. Independent Observation ensures we all can celebrate honestly our own AND others swims, secure in at least some kind of impartiality. You can tell all your friends you swam the North Channel but without the ratification of an Independent observer you are humming in a hurricane.

When I showed up on the Dover slip, it was astonishing and humbling that my Official Observer should turn out to be one of the world’s greatest ever swimmers, the King of the Channel, Kevin Murphy. Kevin is byword for both integrity in Observation, and for doing what he can for a swim to succeed, while staying within the rules. He will advise crews, berate pilots, dictate to swimmers. All perfectly legal. My Channel swim would not have completed as the boat could not have gotten close enough. So Kevin swam in and saw me stand up on dry land. (And then made me get back in and swim back to the boat before I’d even begun to comprehend what happened. due to the danger of the situation).

These two rules are a bit like the old school-work rule:

Say what you are going to do, then do it, then show that you did it.

Nothing Great is Easy: That should be a guideline as well as an assertion.

* This blog still hasn’t any readers from Mongolia. Mongoliaaaa!

** Publish, disseminate, circulate, explain.

*** Old Irish term for a magically-imposed inviolate prohibition or commitment. I’d wave a dead chicken over my head, hop on one leg, and cast a spell if I thought it’d stop people misleading the public about swimming.

**** This has actually happened, a claim to have swum the North Channel with no Observation because the swimmer claimed they on a training swim and just kept going. The Irish media never once questioned the claim.

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