Critical Start Timing and Boat Availability
Timing is critical for MIMS as swimmers and applicants are essentially told, as a MIMS Selection Committee Member points out; “MIMS is timed very precisely – on a specific kind of tide, at a specific point in the cycle – to give everyone a good chance at finishing.“ NYCSwim’s selection committee selects and approves the swimmers. For anyone to later imply that some swimmers were too slow is therefore disingenuous. Two swimmers were due to start twenty minutes before the rest of field because of their relatively slow speeds (though both are very experienced marathon swimmers). But all swimmers started late and the swimmer start-waves intervals were compressed.
Well, 55 minutes for the first wave, 58 minutes for the second wave. Almost an hour later than the adjusted start time, NOT the original schedule start time, over which it was delayed by 75 minutes!
The adjusted start time was a late change time to the start time in the NYCSwim/MIMS schedule which had been available to the swimmers for six months.
The two swimmers who should have been set off early were delayed by 70 minutes. The extra twenty-minute gap that was intended to allow the two slowest approved swimmers make gains on the tide disappeared and the next wave entered the water mere minutes later.
Why did this happen?
MIMS say all of this was because insufficient boats showed up at the start (that there was a shortage of ten boats), as many had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy nine months previously, and some boat owners only discovered problems late.
I have an issue with this explanation, illustrated by a question that every swimmer I’ve spoken with (and also prospective MIMS swimmers, three international race directors, a publisher and a lawyer) has asked in some form:
- What is the entrance fee primarily for, if not for a boat?
When one pays for an English Channel pilot (or any other major world marathon swim), one signs a contract, one knows that whatever else happens and all other considerations aside, there is a boat and pilot and crew waiting, with an agreed contract, binding and protecting both parties, swimmer and pilot/organisation. If for some reason the boat has a mechanical breakdown and the swim can’t go ahead, or if the weather doesn’t comply, the swimmer is usually not charged other than their association fee and deposit, (subject to the differences between contracts and regions). With many pilots the swimmer doesn’t even pay other than an association fee and deposit until there is certainty that the swim will go ahead. But when a swimmer is accepted into MIMS, they must pay the entire fee on-line immediately.
Does the MIMS fee of $2150 in 2013 not specifically include a boat? I don’t know.
What is NYCSwim’s ongoing discussion and relationship with its pilots?
One MIMS 2013 swimmer wrote to me: “I had to keep my [pilot] in [the] loop about time changes etc, during the tropical rainstorm on Friday, he got no email to say the swim was still on.. he was in contact with me for confirmation”.
That also is a shocking indicator of the poor or non-existent communication procedures to manage the boat availability.
Here’s a quotation from NYCSwim in correspondence with a swimmer, following a direct complaint about this year’s MIMS (yes, the swimmer gave me permission to use this quotation, as others did for any quotation I’ve used):
“I know it sounds incredulous that we did not anticipate the boater shortage and the problems that spun from that, however it is the case every year that we do not have enough boaters signed up as the event approaches . . . and then they come out of the woodwork as a result of our final push in the days immediately beforehand. This year, the opposite was happening – we were losing more boats than we were gaining. Boaters who had signed up in the winter expecting that they would be able to get their boats repaired in time found that they were not able to do so due to a huge backlog of repairs needed and limited resources.”
That’s an astonishing admission and NYCSwim’s own words.
That that the best-known marathon race relies on chance to provide boats for the swimmers who have paid significant entry fees and travelled from around the world and that the organisation continues to do so year after year. In an area with over three hundred miles of seafront and boating communities, the organisation is incapable of planning for sufficient boat cover. NYCSwim seems guilty of institutional blindness to its own failings. Every single organisation has problems. Difficult as this is for those caught up in them it is realistic, as no organisation is perfect. But recurring problems that arise because of repeated and unaddressed institutional failings are the real issue here.
I’ve been asked, “what would you have done differently without the benefit of hindsight“?
I think people can see the obvious answer to that. It’s MIMS2013 that has demonstrated to the global swimming community that NYCSwim didn’t have a process to ensure sufficient boats. That the substantial fee, paid in the year before the swim, wasn’t actually ensuring a boat per swimmer. None of the fee was later allocated to hire any additional boats at a late date, which would have seemed entirely possible given the lack of procedures and on-going checks for sufficient boat cover. It’s not hindsight to NYCSwim that they’ve relied on chance to provide boat cover for the swimmer’s who have paid such substantial fees, in-toto, well in advance of the swim.
One swimmer told me that, had they have known of the problem, they would and could have provided their own boat cover at short notice, something that maybe no other swimmer could have arranged, but also demonstrating the possibility and the willingness of at least some swimmers to adjust to a situation, had they know of the problem in advance.
Given also the substantial amount raised from entry fees (forty Soloists plus two relay teams) that would have been raised from the fees1, (not including fuel surcharges which previously have been $125), had a procedure been in place to check ongoing boat availability, there should have been sufficient resources to provide backup boat cover. That is, if an organisation was willing to spend the money it had received to provide for which swimmers actually thought they were paying.
NYCSwim has pointed out that due to heavy rainfall the previous day, tidal currents were affected. One swimmer reported that their pilot, with nineteen years of MIMS experience said that the rains of the previous day had shortened the swim window in the East River. The same pilot is reported as saying that even had the swim started on time, many swimmers would not have made it. So the conditions were challenging anyway, without virtually ensuring non-completion by the lack of boat cover and late start.
As another swimmer pointed out to me, NYCSwim are the locals, understanding and planning are part of their remit. This expands the question of the purpose of the fee. Since it isn’t for a definite boat, as we now know, isn’t it partly for local knowledge also? In the English (or Catalina or Gibraltar or Tsugaru or North or Maui or Cooke Channels), swimmers are paying pilots for a boat and expert knowledge. Expert knowledge doesn’t guarantee certainty that something will happen, sometimes it’s to say something won’t or shouldn’t happen. Did either happen at MIMS 2013?
Should one feel like absolving NYCSwim of these issues (the lack of boat cover, the rain and changing currents) as something they couldn’t have known or have planned for because natural events are unpredictable, the same was said by NYCSwim in response to a late start in 2009. Yes, it’s the case that some swimmers have previously been caught by tides due to a late start. NYCswim have made mistakes, as we all do and how they respond to rectify those mistakes is the true measure of the organisation.
In 2012 I was previously asked to NOT cover my negative comments of MIMS 2012 on my blog by a member of the Selection Committee, and to send my concerns to them. There was no response to the issues I raised privately (though none were as serious as this year’s events). This avenue was used again this year as this Selection Committee member had seen it acceptable to step outside the Selection remit. Some swimmers from this year who have submitted detailed complaints to members of the NYCSwim selection committee have gone unrewarded with any answer. Given this is not the task of the Selection Committee, obviously, the reason I consider noteworthy is specifically because the community often operates on and trades in friendship and relationships. Some have said they have received an apology from NYCSwim and a virtual (but not categorical) guarantee of a place in next year’s MIMS (at the full price).
We’ll leave Part Two with a reframing of the critical point: MIMS entrants pay, well in advance, a significant entry fee and complete a comprehensive entry process. They assume, in common with all other marathon swims, that this fee includes a boat (and of course a pilot). They also assume it includes local expertise. The events of MIMS 2013 would seem to indicate otherwise.
In Part Three, I’ll look at the problems of shared boats and water contamination on the day.
1 While an extra cost would have made swimmers unhappy, it would have been less of a burden than another entry fee plus future flights and accommodation for those who might wish to attempt MIMS again.
- MIMS 2013 – Part 1 – An outsider’s opinion – Introduction (loneswimmer.com)