Ice Mile Dilemmas – VI – Safety and Experience

As you will recall from the previous article the IISA says one of its primary objectives is:

Promoting Safety in Extreme Swimming Events.

Let’s consider that.

One overseas organiser of a reputable Ice Mile swim said: “We should be going above and beyond the IISA rule to make sure someone does not die from inexperience or neglect.

For both Lough Dan Invitationals in 2013 and 2014, Eastern Bay Swim Club added some local rules for extra safety:

  • All swimmers had to maintain a training log of cold swims, that may be requested. (In my case at least I did not have to present it, as Fergal and I chatted regularly, which covered my recent swims. I have also maintained a swim log for many years anyway, which includes sea temperatures and immersion time).

  • All swimmers were either known to Fergal or an existing Ice Swimmer who would vouch for them.

  • A clearly marked out course of minimum official length (in this case four 400 metre laps with swimmers required to swim around a buoy at one end and touch a pontoon with a turn judge and timekeeper at the other).

  • A course observer and a touch and timekeeping official.

  • Front crawl only. No treading water, no breaststroke.

  • Present were a Medical Doctor with defibrillator, a nurse and three paramedics.
  • Two time limits:

    • Swimmers had to be on the last lap by thirty minutes.

    • A cutoff time of 40 minutes, or swimmers to be making definite forward progress to the finish.

It’s not just Eastern Bay and Fergal that take extra precautions:

One American Ice Mile swim “follow[s] all of the IISA rules, but we also make sure the swimmers have open water experience and that they have trained (exposing themselves to cold water for increasing amounts of time). We have at least one paid, official EMT present before, during, and after the swims. The EMT has portable defibrillators and emergency transport. We educate swimmers and volunteers on the dangers of hypothermia and what should and should not be done with someone suffering from hypothermia. We have at least one kayak/swimmer as well as rescue swimmers (trained rescue swimmers in wetsuits) shadowing them along the shore. We have a warm room where the swimmers prepare and recover slowly (suffer through the “after drop”). The swimmers also have access to showers, a steam room and a sauna. We have at least 2 IISA members present to officiate and witness the Ice Miles”.

So the Lough Dan rules weren’t just a notional idea by Eastern Bay Swim Club. They came about from experience and lessons learned in previous swims, in personal and other organised cold water swimming events. They are very much in line with the thinking of other Ice Mile organisers, some of whom go even further.

In these cases the local organisers have more comprehensive rules than the IISA.

Taken as a whole these additional rules improved safety and swim integrity; monitoring swimmers, observing both safety and adherence to required distance. The front-crawl-only option works to keep swimmers generating heat and as an indicator of trouble should swimmers switch stroke or stop swimming. Having a time limit with a limited degree of flexibility removed any reason for indecision from safety personnel. The time limit can be adjusted based on organiser’s familiarity with the aspirants.

The original plan for Lough Dan 2014 was nine swimmers and had we not had one no-show, and two swimmers pull out on the day, then we could have had a greater number of severely hypothermic people all finishing within minutes of each other. IISA require one trained medical person per four swimmers. In hindsight, I’m no longer convinced we were right even with our reduced ratio of 8:5. Given my arguments here I will be arguing that if there is a Lough Dan Ice Mile Invitational next year, excepting any change in IISA rules, that the ratio of swimmers to medical personnel be reduced.

These are not the only possible improvements. One correspondent has argued cogently that by Ice Mile standards the large groups in Lough Dan (six and eight swimmers respectively each year) or elsewhere, are by definition dangerous and makes a very persuasive counter-proposal; “when I hear that people think these swims should only be done in big groups, I’m quite baffled! I don’t know that most hospitals have the resources to handle multiple hypothermic patients simultaneously. I also don’t know that eyes are really on the swimmers still in the water when one swimmer begins to need assistance. Having swimmers share safety personnel seems like it is relying on at least some of the swimmers having no problem at all. I’d prefer to have one EMT for each swimmer than to find that there weren’t enough trained professionals to help if multiple swimmers have emergencies.

In my email to my correspondents, I had argued against small group swims precisely because of the questionable swim we witnessed last year.

The argument of individual medical and observing staff is entirely reasonable, and I am now largely convinced, though in part for a different reason to which I will return in a later article.

Is ten swimmers too many? I now believe so. But is one swimmer too little? That’s dependent on the swimmer’s intentions and safety crew’s ability and experience. If the crew are experienced, there is adequate safety cover including the requisite medical support (and the swimmer isn’t planning deceit), then a one swimmer/one medical person swim is likely the optimal situation, though the companionship of others is often significant in sporting achievement.

Taking all this into consideration, despite my own experiences in a larger group, I am far more convinced that a small group is the best way to improve and promote safety both during and post swim. As I’ve said above there are reasons for this to which I will later later in this series.

Here’s another quotation:

I was so worried about [x] as [they] recovered— the leanest of the three swimmers, [x] was in for [n] minutes, and the water was just 3.5 C, with colder air. It was scary— I knew [x] wasn’t in [their] head at all for a solid 20 minutes as [they] shivered uncontrollable and flashed some of the scariest faces I’ve ever seen on a human. Now if I didn’t know [x] as well as I do (we train together all the time, right there in that water, so I had some idea of what to expect with [the] recovery process and was reasonably sure [x] was going to be OK, just having a tough go of it) I would have been frantic.

That’s quite a similar description to how I was after my 2014 Ice Mile. It’s not the only such comment I’ve heard; another told me that my description of black rain was uncannily like their swim. This also highlights another concerns of mine, that the actual difficulty of the Ice Mile is not being communicated.

Over the years, I’ve become convinced that the reputation system (as used in mountain climbing) is vital and fundamental in open water swimming even at short distances. It is up to everyone to build their own experience incrementally. The more you swim, the more you build reputation and a network of contacts, and reputation is literally priceless in open water swimming. There are circumstances where no money in the world should allow an inexperienced swimmer to tackle something beyond their capability.

I would never support an unknown swimmer who just showed up to do an Ice Mile. My email correspondence shows that this actual situation has already arisen at least twice, at two different organised Ice Mile swims, and that’s just with the people to whom I’ve spoken. In both cases unknown swimmers showed up wanting to swim, one even insisting they be allowed to participate. Both were refused but those people who refused were very experienced. In one case the Ice Mile swim was in question because the participants had decided to cancel if the unknown arrival had decided to continue. What would happen if an organiser hadn’t similar experience and judgement?

Any completely untrained and inexperienced swimmer can organise an Ice Mile so long as they adhere to the basic criteria. This may have been deemed valid (though I would disagree there also) when trying to build a coterie of Ice Mile swimmers but given the number of experienced cold water swimmers worldwide, and especially in the countries where Ice Miles are more likely, it should be possible to organise a network of knowledgeable and reputable individuals. However this may be just my small country provincialism speaking. As one correspondent says: “For [ ], which is a huge area, we have just 1 ambassador. If [they have] to be present at every swim and answer every request for information about swims, that’s a big burden.” Many Ice Mile swimmers are not doing so to have such a burden imposed on them: “its something I would not do myself.This may be a difficult problem to address, but the solution isn’t to ignore the problem.

I believe all these problems and shortfalls demonstrate the IISA’s failure to promote safety in extreme swimming events, one of their own primary objectives.

No Experience Required

One of, if not the single most agreed concern amongst all my correspondents is that the IISA has no guidelines or rules for training, or requirements for prior experience, or entry criteria and little about organisation of swims.

Organisers’ use of an Invitational system based on training buddies and logs and local reputation is one, but not the only solution.

Another solution and which was suggested by a few of my correspondents, is pre-clearance of Ice Mile attempts by either the IISA itself or a country or regional IISA Ambassador or a committee of Ice Mile swimmers. A person wishing to attempt an Ice Mile would have to submit an application, a medical certificate with ECG, including any previous or family history of cardiac problems, experience and possibly even training logs. I have in the past been critical of triathlons for substituting wetsuits for experience. The mortality rate in US triathlons is quite significant, twice as dangerous as marathons, with 30 out of 43 occurring during the swim leg. After a study one of the significant factors identified was a lack of previous experience. Here in Ireland open water swims of only 1500 metres often require prior experience. An Ice Mile that’s significantly more dangerous than a 750 metre triathlon swim leg or a 1500 metre open water swim currently requires no approval or proven experience beyond what local organisers may impose. Right now only those who complete an Ice Miles can become IISA members, which is contrary to how most organisations operate and allows the ISSA a deniability about its own place in promoting responsible attempts. It also means that any problems that arise in an attempt don’t fall at the feet of the IISA.

A person can currently attempt an Ice Mile without ever having swum in water colder than a hot bath or further than their local pool length. That’s the reductio ad absurdum conclusion used to demonstrate the insufficiency of the IISA rules. The primary protection for people right now is the organisation and experience of most aspirants, and insistence on safety by experienced swim organisers.

One organiser says it clearly; “I feel ice/winter swimming is a specialist pursuit; only to be attempted by those who diligently prepare through regular submersion in open water and acclimatisation over a number of months.

There are further possible solutions including an IISA-approved qualifying swim. The IISA has this year introduced a one kilometre swim. Currently this uses the same safety rules, but doesn’t result in IISA membership. A one kilometre organised swim would allow the possibility of a vetted and observed qualification swim. Yet another possibility is that Ice Miles are only attempted using a network of experienced local organisers.

*

In the next article, which will be final part of this rules discussion as I move to other aspects, I’ll look at  some more serious flaws in current IISA rules,  briefly consider the ridiculous age limit, and ask why the IISA doesn’t require Best Practice in Ice Mile swim organisation.

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One thought on “Ice Mile Dilemmas – VI – Safety and Experience

  1. Pingback: Ice Mile Dilemmas – VII – Failure To Apply Best Practice | LoneSwimmer

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