Tag Archives: Golden Rules

The Unwritten Rules of Open Water Swimming

Once again my mind was wandering during a swim. I’d had a conversation earlier in the day with someone about the “giving back” aspect of open water, how most swimmers were also involved in some way or other in maintaining the community aspect of the sport, which in turn maintains the sport itself.

This led me to think about some unwritten rules of the sport, things that are implicit or taken for granted, or even often discussed but rarely  explicitly written down.

One thing about a list such as this, is it contains items I myself think are  important or should-be-obvious precepts or even may have a local Irish flavour. But I would like to think that while there may be more, all these are built into the underlying assumptions of open water swimming.

It’s difficult to investigate assumptions while swimming or driving a keyboard, as we are usually blind to them. (Maybe we need a proper sociological investigation of rules by Channel swimmer and sociologist Dr Karen Throsby).

Rather than the assumptions of the culture though, I was thinking about, as I said above, sporting rules. Of course a rule that isn’t written down isn’t a rule. So what generally agreed guidelines do we or should we try to adhere to, that maybe need to be explored or explained?

1: If another swimmer is in difficulty, you must assist where possible. Forget the race, the title, your dreams, the sponsors. You are not required to put yourself at risk however.

2: Always think safety. The best safety decision are (yawn, here I go again) made outside the water.

3: Don’t cheat. Don’t lie or mislead supporters, sponsors, charities fans, media, friends or anyone at all, about what you are doing or planning to do. In a way this is the most common and unspoken rule of all sports, and observed by the breaking as well as by the adherence.

4: If another swimmer has a pioneering swim planned, do not steal it, by getting in before them, just to do it first. It doesn’t matter what your relationship is with the other person, this just shouldn’t be done.

5: You do not bootleg or pirate a swim where an official organisation exists to govern that swim.

6: Give back. Open water swimming is only possible through the actions of volunteers. Make sure you are doing something to help others, the variety of ways in which you can do so is very wide. You aren’t obliged to insert yourself into everything but you can organise an event, or maybe you can assist another. You don’t have to be a great swimmer, you don’t  have to have a huge ego.  You can be safety, marshall traffic, crew on boats, even write a blog. Hell, no-one knows better than a few of us that any average swimmer can get involved in something big. The range of ways in which you can contribute the sport is far wider than immediately obvious, and it’s up to you how you want to contribute, not to others to dictate to you. This one is less obviously a sport rule and crosses also into the culture domain.

7: Where applicable, follow the Two Golden Rules. (Disclose all the rules being used, such as the Marathon Swimming Federation Rules, and use an Independent experienced Observer).


I’m sure there are more I can’t think of right now. When I wrote the first draft of this, I thought of four items. Then I wrote another three months later. I’m pretty sure that the day this gets published, I’ll think of something else, and of course, the wisdom of crowds will think of more.

I’m looking forward to hearing your wisdom.

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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HOW TO: Lane swimming etiquette

Following last week’s rant, here’s a quick round up of lane swimming etiquette:

Lane direction signs

Rule 1: Never get in an occupied lane if another is empty.

Rule 2: Never get into an occupied land without letting the person/people already swimming know you are entering.Do this by dangling your legs into the water or standing to the side at the end of the lane when they are turning.

Rule 3: If there is only one other person in the lane, the lane can be split with each person taking half the lane. But you *must* explicitly agree this. Otherwise assume lane/circle swimming.

Rule 4: Once a third person joins, circle swimming must start. Make sure both people know you are joining.

Rule 5: Circle swimming is dictated by the fastest person present, not the slowest, biggest, or first in. Take note of the swimmer’s speeds before you enter. Direction is often pool specific. Check for direction signs or ask.

Rule 6: Tap feet to pass. The person whose feet are being tapped moves out of the way to the corner at the lane end. Do NOT speed up if you are being passed.

Rule 7: Move to the side of the lane end to allow faster people to pass. Allow them to turn at the centre of the lane wall. if there are more than one, allow all faster swimmers behind you to pass.

Rule 8: Do NOT turn or push off in front of faster swimmers. Faster swimmers should allow slower swimmers as much time as possible before starting.

Rule 9: Do NOT start swimming immediately behind another swimmer. They will not know you are there when they are turning. Injuries will result.

Rule 10: Swimmers resting at lane end should stay as far to the side of the lane as possible.

Rule 11: If the lane has a few swimmers doing long-axis strokes (front crawl, back stroke) do NOT do short axis strokes (Breastroke, fly)

Rule 12: Be polite. Communicate. Do your best to explain the etiquette. Remember most lifeguards don’t seem to know these. Most pools don’t have them posted.

Lane rage

Edit: given a renewed interest in this post (again), I realise this is a long list though, and impractical therefore.

Giving it some thought, I wondered what would be an effective but much shorter list of three essential rules? How about these three?

One: Never get into an occupied land without letting the person/people already swimming know you are entering. Do this by dangling your legs into the water or standing to the side at the end of the lane when they are turning. Never stand in the centre of a lane.

Two: Fastest person present has right of way. Note other swimmer’s speeds before you enter. Direction is usually pool AND lane specific.

Three: Do NOT start, turn or push off in front of faster swimmers. Faster swimmers should allow slower swimmers as much time as possible before starting. Don’t turn into oncoming swimmers.

But is even that brief enough?

Surely we can have a Golden Rule of lane swimming. I propose:

Be aware of what is going on around you.

Edit: clarified rules 2 and 3.