HOW TO: Crew selection in marathon swimming

I was reminded in a phone conversation with Oldest, Coldest and Fastest North Channel swimmer Fergal Somerville that I’ve been meaning to write this for a couple of years.

In all the training and preparation for any Channel or marathons swim, most effort goes into swimming of course. A well prepared swimmer will also consider feeds and feed schedule, pilot, tide, weather and accommodation.

But it’s a remarkable fact that quite a few swimmers either ignore crew selection, leave it too late, or choose the crew based on incorrect assumptions.

Every Channel pilot will be able to tell stories of swims aborted early or ruined because of poor crew choices. Individual stories aren’t necessary but the various problems can certainly be categorised into the two main problems:

  • Debilitating seasickness
  • Undue concern for swimmer

If you’ve never experienced or seen severe seasickness up close, it’s easy to imagine that it’s something that one should be able to think their way out of, or at least endure, like going to work for a day with a head cold or mild ‘flu. But severe seasickness can be completely debilitating and the afflicted can often do no more than lie in one place with eyes closed, every second a minute, every minute a day, rousing themselves only to throw up.

Severely seasick crew may be utterly unable to carry out essential functions such as regularly mixing feeds, following a feed schedule and feeding and monitoring a swimmer. A swimmer left without a crew must then rely on the boat crew or the observer, who have other essential tasks and responsibilities.

Many swimmers do know to pick crew with sea experience, but don’t extend the requirement to the necessary extent. When choosing swim support crew based on sea experience, that experience must include time spend at on a boat in a slow or unpowered state. What does that mean? Just that many people won’t experience seasickness while whizzing around on a powered RIB or cruiser but a boat moving at swim speed is far more subject to the vagaries of the ocean state and will bob and heave far more significantly. For my own English Channel swim I asked my friend Clare, herself a very experienced open ocean sailor, as I knew she had sea-legs for all conditions. The other side of a seasick crew , apart from a lack of support for the swimmer, is the possibility that it will distract the swimmer if they see extreme distress in a loved one, something that has stopped a smaller number of swims.

The second problem above is less initially clear. It’s best illustrated by an anecdote. A friend was crewing for an English Channel solo they didn’t know, having answered an online request for crew. The only other crew was the swimmer’s girlfriend.  At six or seven hours into the swim, my friend went below decks to heat water. When she returned only mere minutes later the swimmer was climbing out of the water. The girlfriend, concerned about the swimmer’s exhausted looking state (quite normal) told the swimmer he should stop. A moment of weakness by both was all that was needed to allow the swimmer an exit. No-one is really to blame, but experienced Channel crew would never have offered the option unless the swimmer was in real trouble.

Personal concern for a swimmer in the moment, can stop some people from seeing the swimmer’s greater goal. A lack of understanding or experience of what a Channel requires from a swimmer, both physically and mentally, can make looking at the wracking hardship in a loved one quite difficult. Some partners or close family of course can understand what a swim means to the person and may be actually able to provide extra motivation better than anyone else, but this isn’t a gamble that really should be taken for the first time in a Channel swim.

Crew working.resized
Crew busy with different functions during Trent Grimsey’s record-setting swim- watching, preparing feed and communication, encouragement and photo recording.

Choosing crew

Given these two constraints there are still options to find crew. The first most obvious step is to simply ask experienced swim crew. There are key sources of experienced swim crew which go along with the main sources of Channel swimmers and training locations; Dover, London, Cork, Dublin, San Diego, Los Angeles, New York, Perth, Melbourne and Chicago are all hotbeds of Channel swimming. Many of the Sandycove swimmers have crewed for each other for example. Visiting Dover or California it’s certainly possible to do so without any crew and find one or more of the local swimmers who will crew. The same works for most of the major Channels.

The optimum is to find someone who has already crewed, which gives a good (but not absolute) indicator of their likely utility. Someone who has swum will be very useful in understanding what the swimmer is going through, and is less likely to be either too unconcerned or too soft. The best crew choice is probably a combination of both, people with swim and crew experience.

If you aren’t part of one of these groups, then the most popular way is to put a request on the Google Channel Swimmers chat group (you’ll have to join first). Many people who are contemplating a solo will take this option to see the Channel up close. The more information one gives about swimming experience, current crew and a good understanding of a Channel swim will result in a better response.

Here’s a simple request I sent to the group in 2012:

“We’re looking for a third UK-based crew person for a solo in the window from the 6th to 14th of September. Obviously being UK-based, you wouldn’t need to be there for the entire window.

The swimmer is Alan Clack, coming from the US. The two Irish crew members already on-board, so to speak, have both soloed and crewed the EC.

We’d prefer someone who has already crewed, and/or has either soloed or is already signed up for a solo, or has been out on a relay”.

This request explained the nationality of the crew, in case that was an advantage or problem, that Owen and I already had experience so any volunteer wouldn’t be expected to know and do everything. This request resulted in Jim Boucher, a two-time English Channel Soloist joining the crew as third person.

Experience has also shown that every crew should have a crew-chief. This is the person who is in charge of the swim from the boat. So this job is usually best done by a swimmer, as it may require decisions on feed or feed schedule changes and a good idea of when to push the swimmer. The person doesn’t have to be the person communicating with the swimmer, but the task of swimmer communication should only be done by one person. This reduces confusion and lost time over the course of a long swim and leads to a quicker and simpler swim.

Watching Alan - Jim & myself busy with Alan, Owen on camera
Watching Alan – Jim & myself busy with Alan, Owen on camera

Which brings me to the final part; how many crew do you need?  The accepted rule-of-thumb for a one-way is three swim crew (excluding boat crew and Observer). This reduces the chance of all being struck down by mal-du-mer. With three crew and thirty minute feeds, one person can act as crew chief, who’s principle function is swimmer communication and watch. The other crew can mix and pass out feeds and update social media. It’s certainly possible to do it with less. I took two reliable crew but when conditions became very bad, they could have used another hand. Gábor took six and only two of us didn’t develop seasickness and we were very busy. Trent Grimsey had four crew for his English Channel record. For longer swims such as two-ways, crew will require rest, unlike the swimmer, so four or even more may be required. Relay teams may not need crew, but the recent Irish two-record team of Crosoige Mara with two-way English Channel swimmer Lisa as crew showed it to be beneficial.

Your crew selection is a critical part of any marathon swim. You should pay due attention equivalent to any other component, as none of us are really solo swimmers and a crew can make or break a swim.

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2 thoughts on “HOW TO: Crew selection in marathon swimming”

  1. Thanks for this, Donal. Good crew is everything. As someone who is literally immobilised by seasickness to the point of being unable to focus on and reach out for an object without throwing up, it always annoys me when people say that it’s all in the mind and you can just think your way out of it. Take it from me – not everyone gets like that, but if you do, you are no good to anyone and the most supportive thing you can do is stay home and not clutter up the deck. The sight of me wrapped around a bucket and praying for a stray tanker to come along and put me out of my misery isn’t going to help anyone.

    But I’d also say that the ‘no family’ rule can be qualified by careful delineation of responsibilities. My partner was one of two crew on my Channel swim, and agreed to come on board on the condition that he would not have responsibility for pulling the swim. By taking that completely out of his hands, he was able to focus on his task as crew / supporter without that extra concern. Plus, he apparently has no problem watching me suffer so it was never an issue anyway, and I don’t know if I should be pleased or worried about this! More recently, on the Mallorca swim, he did take on the responsibility for calling the swim and did so at just the right time, but I think that this came partly from the confidence of having seen me do other swims, giving him a reference point by which to judge my decline.

    The other point to consider is that the swimmer may find themselves worrying about their family member – are they cold / bored / ill etc? this can also be very distracting to a swimmer and undermine their resolve to stay in. So just as Peter is able to override any personal concern about my suffering, I also have to be able to suspend normal social relations and not worry about his well-being during a swim. Sometimes I wonder if this is a healthy sport….

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