Tag Archives: MIMS 2013

MIMS 2013 – Part 5 – Conclusion and Recommendations

Once I finally decided to go ahead with this series of posts, I decided to wait until the “Quiet MIMS” swim of Saturday the 24th of August was finished, as I did not want it to in any way interfere with any of the swimmers. A marathon swim is always a challenging prospect for swimmers and I had no wish to even slightly disturb anyone’s mental equilibrium beforehand. The title “Quiet MIMS” is NYCSwim’s term for the swim that was open to, as far as I know, a maximum of ten swimmers from July’s MIMS. (They were offered this swim, not free, or for a fuel surcharge, but at a cost of $1,225). Nine swimmers took part. All completed the course. Congratulations to all!

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Throughout this series I’ve asked you to keep to the forefront a question most swimmers would understand, a question many swimmers are now asking, based on NYCSwim’s own post-swim communication: Why exactly does MIMS cost an entry fee of $2150, if the fee doesn’t include a boat? That most of the swimmers who have ever swum MIMS have had a boat is irrelevant, when ten swimmers were left without a boat, NYCSwim did not offer any refund. I’ve previously included an NYCSwim post-swim email to one of the swimmers, and it’s worth repeating.

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.” 

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The same day as MIMS 2012, while I was swimming around Manhattan, there was a four kilometre local swim race here in Ireland with 100 entrants on the same day. Things didn’t go very well. Tide timing was off and many swimmers were pulled from the water. As I was resting in New York the day after MIMS, I saw the emails, discussions and recriminations. Within a short period of the event, participants, both critical and otherwise, and organisers had their say, and public acknowledgements were made on both sides of mistakes and future improvements.

If such maturity can be shown for local swim, which is entirely voluntary, why is it that it can’t be shown by a commercial organisation that is taking an amount per swimmer that is a multiple by a factor of one hundred, and is known globally?

The Triple Crown of Swimming, is for (self-) promotion of MIMS, “to compare to the famous American horse-racing series” as I was told by the chief organiser and executive of NYCSwim last year and two of the swims are in the US. This would seem designed to appeal to that market, when either the Gibraltar or Cook Channels would make more sense as a third leg. NYCSwim has a FAQ about the English Channel to foster this notion of equivalence to the English Channel. Yet in correspondence to a MIMS 2013 swimmer complaint it wrote:

“Our event is not a solo swim like a channel crossing, and because of this we have to handle all the arrangements centrally. This has benefits—such as making our swim more affordable—and drawbacks”.

Many of the 2013 boat-assisted swimmers, who paid a substantial amount, include successful English and Catalina Channel swimmers (and other locations of course) with a considerable body of knowledge between them of various swims at all levels, including previous MIMS swims.

It’s hard to credit NYCSwim’s claim that MIMS is more affordable. There is no refund because of organisational failings on NYCSwim’s side. Those who wish to swim again face all the same financial costs. NYCSwim seems to want to be compared to or granted equivalence with the Catalina and English Channels, yet to be granted exemption in how it conducts MIMS, and to so do without the transparency available to Catalina and English Channel swimmers. These swimmers have a contract with a professional pilot, a governing organisations with rules, and voting rights for members. Comparing with the English Channel, which NYCSwim fosters: A swimmer who has booked an English Channel solo, who doesn’t get to swim due to weather or a boat problem or other, usually loses no more than the deposit with the pilot, the deposit size varying with the pilot. The worst case scenario is a loss of fifty percent of the total as some pilots require a payment of that amount in the year ending before the booked swim.

  • Should you consider swimming MIMS?

This post has seen quite a bit of prevarication on my side. What aided my decision was when I was asked by a friend about MIMS 2014 as their next swim. I’d already written a first draft of this and put it aside but I felt the need to answer that person and this question honestly so I sent them the considerably longer first draft of this series, (which has seen over twenty drafts since then). I finally responded and told them that while the idea of swimming around Manhattan is highly attractive, as it was for me, the financial risk that a person would take now seems too high in light of events of MIMS 2013. My own feeling is that any swimmer considering MIMS 2014 (or later), should not apply unless there is a clear indication that the organisation has made significant procedural improvements for the future.

All other considerations aside, disagreements with me on any of this aside, NYCSwim’s own words speak for themselves.

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.”  

Do you want to take that risk?

Following is a list of recommendations for NYCSwim.

  • Recommendations

These are based on this one average swimmer’s experience of swimming and general requirements for safety. I have had some valued input from many friends and correspondents around the world to this list, but it mostly contains my own ideas, though I believe others will have valuable additions. I believe these actions are required for future swimmers so MIMS can regain (because it has very definitely lost) its place and credibility as a premier global marathon swim event. Some of these recommendations come from other aspects of MIMS 2013 that I haven’t even touched on in this series, which are nonetheless also an indictment of NYCSwim’s handling of the event.

  • A contract between NYCSwim and each swimmer. This should include a guarantee of a boat per swimmer or an almost full refund (excluding an NYCSwim membership cost) should NYCSwim fail to provide a boat for the swimmer, or ensure the swim starts within a reasonable period of a designated and advertised start time.
  • Refunds for those swimmers caught up in the MIMS 2013 debacle who did not get to finish and who were listed as boat-assisted, regardless of whether or not they participated in the later “Quiet Swim”, excepting swimmers who might choose to forego the refund in favour of a public guarantee and free entry for 2014.
  • A procedure to verify and ensure in advance that the boats to be used are fit for use.
  • Pairing of skippers, swimmers and kayakers with contact details to the swimmers at least a week in advance. UPDATE: Please see the very interesting comment below from Harald Johnson, MIMS 1983 winner, about how things were done before the current NYC took over,when swimmers and boats were paired months in advance.
  • Confirmation that every boat skipper has a VFH radio and is familiar with its use with guidelines to every skipper of communication and evacuation procedures and foreseeable but abnormal events.
  • Skippers and kayakers to be present at the previous day’s briefing and participation in online briefings.
  • While retaining a maximum number of two crew as reasonable, all swimmers should be able to add or substitute crew up to two weeks before MIMS.
  • Remapping of the NYCSWim.org domain name to NYCSwim.com to make clear its commercial nature.
  • Risk Assessment and Safety Plans available on NYCSwim’s website.
  • Clarification of NYCSwim’s rule on water evacuation, specifically that the penalty for a swimmer refusing to evacuate per instructions is disqualification without appeal, in common with other swims.
  • NYCSwim previously had a policy or guideline of informing swimmers should water contamination be below acceptable levels. NYCSwim should re-iterate publicly its commitment to swimmer stakeholder safety and health.
  • NYCSwim should collate and publish annual figures of swimmer illness from each MIMS swim before opening up applications for the following year’s swim as part of its avowed Mission Statement.
  • NYCSwim should publish each year’s water cleanliness test results subsequent to its major swims (in the way that it already publishes previous year’s water temperatures) as part of its Mission Statement. It should improve the reporting of water quality tests on its website and keep these current.

NYCSwim aspires to be and designates itself as a premier global marathon swimming event. I have swum it myself and loved the swim and the location. Swimmers around the world should be confident of its organisation and I make these recommendations in the hope of that the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim will address its failings, improve and prosper.

To re-establish credibility NYCSwim must make changes. These changes must put swimmers first.

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I’d like to close with some thanks once again to the many people, around the world who reviewed or contributed to this series, some of whom were consulted for their expertise in different areas: solo swimmers from MIMS 2013 and previously or eligible for future MIMS, relay swimmers, crew, volunteers, publishers, swim directors and lawyers. Without their assistance, these posts would never have been published. I am indebted to them all. I have been given permission for every quotation that I have used. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________ All facts I have researched to the best of my ability, any mistakes are unintentional and will be addressed if someone sends new, credible and verifiable information. _______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Other essential reading on this subject

Second-placed female swimmer Carol Cashell’s blog report

Initially-boat assisted and later successful Quiet swim finishers

Karen Throsby

Caitlin Rosen

The marathonswimmers.org forum discussion

MIMS 2013 – Part 4 – An outsider’s opinion – Swimmer control and some miscellaneous items

Part 1. Introduction

Part 2. Opening Opinion

Part 3. Start timing and boat availability

In Parts Two and Three, I raised a question, a question that overshadows much of the discussion of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and so needs to remain to the forefront. 

What is the significant entry fee ($2150) per swimmer actually for, if not for a boat per swimmer?

Swimmer control

The swimmers who were pulled in MIMS 2013 were (almost) all in the same region, that of the confluence of the East and Harlem rivers known as Hell Gate, the first critical timing point for MIMS.

One swimmer told me that as swimmers neared the north end of Hell Gate on the east side, (let’s call them Swimmer A, a four-kilometre-per-hour swimmer),  Swimmer A was pulled because they were told they wouldn’t get through the tide. Another swimmer (B), marginally slower, was about ten metres away behind, i.e. further into the tide. There are conflicting reports of what happened: Swimmer A says Swimmer B failed to evacuate the water after instruction, breaking NYCSwim rules. Another report is that Swimmer B never got the message1. Yet another report is that crew of Swimmer B told an NYCSwim land-based official who was stationed on the river bank to monitor in that section that Swimmer B would not evacuate.

The point here isn’t which swimmer says what or even who actually did what. It seems to me that we can actually set aside the assertions of either swimmer, both of whom I can understand and empathise with, and look at a different aspect. Whether a swimmer stayed in thereby breaking NYCSwim rules, or wasn’t accurately communicated to there results in a disturbing implication; that NYCSwim weren’t in complete control of who was in or out of the water.

During MIMS 2013, I asked NYCSwim’s twitter account, using the marathon_swimrs Twitter account that Evan Morrison and I jointly operate, if we could get the number of swimmers continuing. I didn’t ask for names or places. NYCSwim responded; “Just to note, in fairness to swimmers, we won’t be posting results on Twitter or Facebook until the official results are in”. I wasn’t owed an answer but NYCSwim’s response wasn’t directed to the question I asked.

It’s also the case that another swimmer was removed from the water later in the swim to accommodate a ferry. Having to accommodate and give way to ferry traffic is another accepted hazard of MIMS, like thunder and lightning storms.  However here it seems NYCSwim did not know until well after the event was finished and was so told by another MIMS swimmer after the award ceremony.

Open water swimming is a serious concern, which we all understand. Safety is all important. Twoof the people whom I know on the MIMS committee I also have seen to be personally and consistently highly committed to swimmer safety, above all else. If NYCSwim couldn’t account for one or two swimmers out of thirty-nine at any time, that had potentially serious implications.

Miscellaneous

  • Swimmers were told repeatedly in briefings that the course would be marked by buoys, including at the previous day’s briefing. They were told that failure to stay in the line marked would result in disqualification and this was emphasised (repeatedly according to some swimmers). Those buoys were not present on the day however. Should the inability to lay those repeatedly emphasised buoys be necessarily laid at the door of insufficient boats, it is nonetheless true that the swimmers were not told before the swim that the buoys would not be present. As any swimmer who has even been given incorrect details about a swim course, check station, buoy or similar during a short three to five kilometre swim or race can confirm, this is enough to discomfort a swimmer. Accurate information is therefore even more important in a 45 kilometre swim.
  • Another simple question that should be asked is; why the Awards Ceremony was scheduled BEFORE the race was over? What message does this send to the majority of MIMS swimmers?
  • One thing I haven’t previously mentioned, that affected a lot of swimmers and that NYCSwim put up front in their newsletter, was the unseasonably cold water. I haven’t mentioned it because that’s a swimmer preparation issue. NYCSwim weren’t responsible, it’s not relevant to the other problems. It was undoubtedly tough for swimmers not fortunate enough to have the cold waters if Ireland and Great Britain for preparation.

We all revel in the elegance of a great open water swimmer and know that the elite swimmers don’t get there by accident but through years of hard work. But anyone, anyone who thinks that finishing the course, even last, is less important to the person doing so than it is the person that finishes first, profoundly misunderstands the nature of our sport and most of its participants.

When a swimmer enters MIMS, amongst the many items they must provide are details of crew. It is not possible to change crew at a later date, and up to two crew may be named. This requires asking two people to commit to an event six months in the future, without having the incentive the swimmer possesses. Late substitutions or additions of crew aren’t possible. One swimmer added a crew member at a late date this year.

As we have seen, unlike the English and Catalina the MIMS entry fee is quite obviously NOT for a guarantee of a pilot and boat.  There’s nothing wrong with NYCSwim making money or being a commercial organisation. Channel swimmers, (Gibraltar, North, English, Santa Barbara, Catalina) pay pilots for their time and expertise and do so with signed contracts and a clear understanding of contractual obligations on both sides and therefore protection for both sides.

Most swimmers have no objection to anyone earning a living from swimming, many of us would be happy to do it ourselves, some do. But MIMS and NYCSwim seem to want to take a professional  fee from swimmers yet provide the service or (lack of) comeback of some volunteer organisations. Not all. Most volunteer organisations are responsive to their swimmers and problems, I refer you again to the swim I mentioned in the previous post in Ireland where tidal problems arose and the organisers publicly engaged in discussion.

Despite the heavy restrictions that swimmers must comply with to enter, NYCSwim, as is now apparent, don’t reciprocate and has refused refunds to swimmers who have directly requested such, being aggrieved over NYCSwim’s failures to run MIMS in a way consonant with the substantial fee.

In the conclusion I’ll ask the question many marathon and prospective MIMS swimmers will now be asking themselves:

  • Is MIMS 2014 worth the financial risk?

I’ll also consider some recommendations that NYCSwim must consider to save MIMS for future swimmers and return it to we all want it to be, a premier global marathon swimming event.

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1 I’m not sure how that would be possible given calls went out over VFH radio. I’ve also had a report from swimmer who successfully finished that their crew thought there was a terrorist attack in progress, such was the chaotic nature of the VHF calls.

This is not to say the others aren’t, I’m sure they are, it’s just that I know these two people personally and have seen this demonstrated repeatedly.

MIMS 2013 – Part 2 – An outsider’s opinion – Start timing & boat availability

Part 1. – An outsider’s opinion – Introduction

Heading down the Hudson toward GW bridge (crop, contrat, resize)

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.

How late?

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.

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In Part Three, I’ll look at the problems of shared boats and water contamination on the day.

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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.