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How do you schedule a marathon swim?

June 4, 2013

Now that you know what a marathon swim is, I thought it MIGHT be interesting to know how one gets planned. Mostly of us have experience with applying for a running event, triathlon, kid’s summer camp, etc. Usually for those events, there is a website and a date that registration opens. From there you put in your information, provide your credit card and then wait to see if you made the cut. If you get the coveted Yes email, you maybe need to book flights and hotel to be in town for the race day. There is typically a designated race day where everyone participates.

Marathon swimming has some events that are planned like that for example the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. However most swims are a little bit more involved. Before you even schedule a swim, you have to decide what swim you want to do. Let’s use the English Channel as our example. This channel is known as the Everest of marathon swimming and as such is a coveted swim.

The first step is to schedule a boat pilot. There are around 15 pilots approved to escort swimmers across the Channel. The Channel swimming season is from late June – late September. There is no ONE day to swim the Channel. There is the season and then tides within the season. More on this in a bit. As a swimmer, you spend time researching the pilots and the organization that they escort under. You ask around and try to determine the BEST pilot. Then you start calling the pilots to see what if anything they have available. Most Channel pilots are booked 2-3 years in advance, so you best be planning way ahead of time. For my July 2012 English channel swim, I booked with my pilot July 2009.

The pilots then let you know what if anything they have available. Neap tides are scheduled first, as they have the least amount of water flow between daily high and low tides. Spring tides equals more water flow during high and low tides. Each tide window is anywhere from 5 – 10 days depending on the moon cycle. Confused yet? Don’t worry, I’m 6 years into this educational journey and I still get totally messed up.

On each neap tide, there are 4-5 slots for swimmers. If you get a desired 1st slot, it means that you have the first option on a good swimming day during the tide window. The 1st swimmer can decide to pass or swim, if they pass it is offered to swimmer #2 on the tide. If swimmer #1 takes the day, then swimmer #2 has to wait for swimmer #1 to finish and for there to be another weather window. And so it goes down the line of swimmers. During the tide window, you will call your pilot every evening. At this point, they will let you know if tomorrow is THE DAY for the swim, so you have about 12 hours notice before you and your crew have to be on the boat and in the water. This means that you and your crew have to be available for the whole tide window that you are scheduled.

If the weather never cooperates in your tide window, nobody swims. Let me repeat that one, I spent 3 years planning, training, funding and preparing for my July 2012 English Channel swim. If the weather didn’t cooperate, I wouldn’t have swum at all.  If this happens, the pilots do their best to reschedule for later that same year or for another year in the future. At which point, you will start your organization of crew, flights, accommodations, etc all over again.

Once you have secured your pilot and paid a pretty hefty deposit, then you start to look at registering with the organization. Registration occurs in the year that you are going to swim. To register, you contact the organization secretary and pay an application request fee. The application requires medical forms, medical tests in some cases, qualifying swims, crew details, etc. It is pretty extensive. When you send back in your application, you have to pay a membership fee, application processing fee and an observer’s fee. (Side note: An official observer is assigned to the boat on the day of your swim to ensure that the swimmer, crew and pilot are following the Channel swimming rules to the letter.) After this step, you are pretty much secured your swimming position and tide, no guarantees on weather.

So boat pilot and registration is checked off the list of To-Dos. Next you have to find crew members. This can take many forms of begging, pleading, cajoling and deeply honest conversations. You want people that know you and can tolerate you in all your glory – good and bad. For the swim duration be it 10 hours or 40+ hours, the crew are on alert and there to take care of you. It isn’t an easy or glamorous job. In fact, it can be downright miserable. These people are literally your life line during the swim. Their main responsibilities are to feed, monitor, and make major decisions during the swim. It helps if one or more of your crew members have a medical background. It is the crew and the pilot that will ultimately determine your health during a swim. They will determine if your hallucinations, shivering, vomiting, etc. will pass or if it is a life threatening condition and the swim needs to be aborted. They will determine if your complaining is serious or something to be ignored. There are times when the swimmer has lost the ability to make healthy decisions. As you can imagine, if you have invested 2-3 years in planning, training, budgeting for an event, you may not want to leave the water.

Besides helping to keep you alive, your crew members are your only source of entertainment, so it helps if they look like they are having a good time. I have and have had some of the most amazing crew members. They have dressed up in costume. They have done skits. They have looked like they were on a pleasure cruise when it has been pouring rain, incredibly cold and they’ve been seasick. I mimicked their emotions and laughed when I probably felt like crying. I’ve sang songs when I felt like screaming. All this because my crew was there to support me. They have left family, submitted vacation time or taken unpaid leave, and come to sit on a boat to watch me swim. I owe these people my intense gratitude and love.

Ok crew members secured. Now you have to coordinate flights to England, a place to live, and a way to get around once there. With crew members flying from all over the States, it can get pretty tricky coordinating flights and trying to land everyone within a few hours of each other. In addition, you are doing your best to accommodate their flight preferences be it airlines, times, etc. Then there is the place to live. Often I try to locate a vacation home for rent for me and the crew. This way we have our own kitchen and our own home base during the waiting period, which is really nice. It does also tend to have the added benefit of being a little bit more economical. Then there is the driving. That is an blog post all to itself. Let’s just say driving is its very own adventure.

While you are navigating all of the above components, you also need to start watching the financial market. When the US dollar is strong, you want to buy currency for the country you are visiting. While it may be pennies on the dollar, this is another way to save money on your adventure. Plus many activities are easier to budget and manage if you have cash on hand, especially if your credit card charges a foreign transaction fee.

That’s how to schedule an English Channel swim. Bet you are just dying to jump right into planning, aren’t you.

One Response to “How do you schedule a marathon swim?”

  1. Gary says:

    Wow! That’s an amazingly complicated project.
    Thanks for the explanation. I love these blogs.

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