The Future of Marathon Swimming – New Technology on the Horizon
Posted by Scott Zornig, 1 December 2012
In the past, it was relatively easy to distinguish allowable technology used in a marathon swim. If a swimmer followed CSA and CCSF rules, the swim counted. If the swimmer used technology outside these rules such as shark cages, wetsuits and fins, the swim would not be recognized by the marathon swim organization or the event was given an asterisk. As our sport increases in popularity and swimmers continue to push the limits, new technology is being developed and used that at minimum, cloud the water while some completely goes against the spirit of our sport.
The two best examples of newer technology are the electronic shark deterrent systems (ESDS) and anti-stinger suits. Although the ESDS have been out for over 10 years, as the price has dropped more marathon swimmers are starting to use them. Stinger suits are much newer with several manufacturers in a race to develop the best option. There have been some recent marathon swims where stinger suits were used in waters known for lethal Jelly Fish.
Even more recently, Diana Nyad used two products on her attempted swim from Cuba to Florida. The first product dubbed a “Streamer,” is a piece of cloth or illuminated material that runs parallel and next to an escort boat to benefit the swimmer. The cloth is used during daytime hours while the illuminated material is used during the night for the swimmer to follow and expend less energy. The second item, named “Solar Shower,” is a large plastic bladder that is filled with water and lies on the deck. The sea water heats up from the sun which is then poured on the swimmer for some temporary relief.
There are 10 marathon sanctioning organizations in the United States and approximately 20 in other countries around the world. If my research is correct, only one organization has ruled against the use of the electronic shark deterrent system. A few more have ruled against the use of stinger suits. I don’t know if any organization has rendered a decision on the solar shower or streamers. Most marathon swimming organizations have no rules addressing these four devices. My experience is that marathon swimming organizations tend to “leave it alone” if it does not pertain to their waters or render a decision only when pressed.
It is going to get interesting as new technology is being developed and even more talked about. This new technology will make a marathon swimmer faster, warmer, safer and more confident. Here are some questions we should all be asking…which products should be acceptable and which will fall into the “assisted swim” category? Will marathon swim organizations accept this technology, refute it, or look the other way? Which devices go against the tradition of our sport? Since we do not have one governing body with universal rules, organizations may see this equipment surface in their geography. Most organizations do not have policies in place for these new products. I usually have a strong opinion, but quite honestly, I don’t know how I feel about some of this technology. Let’s face it, new technology has affected every sport there is….even in marathon swimming where we have taken advantage of things like GPS for example. Where do we draw the line since marathon swimming is supposed to be about man/woman against nature and the elements? There are some who seem to have a mentality of “let me see what I can find that will make my swim a little easier.”
Just for comparison, look at what is going on in mountain climbing … a person with a lot of money can pay to fly in a helicopter to Everest base camp where the climber is met by Sherpas who carry the gear, set up the tent, prepare the food and provide Oxygen as the air gets thin (I am quite sure I could not make it to the top of Everest even with 20 Sherpas carrying me the entire way). I know it still takes a Herculean effort to summit even with the Sherpas assistance, but doesn’t something seem amiss?
So without further ado, here is a quick description of some new marathon swimming products which are being discussed, designed, developed and/or tested:
- Microchip thermometers attached to a swimmer which measure body temperature - These devices would send periodic measurements to the support team and/or alarm if a swimmer’s body temperature were to drop below a certain level.
- Global positioning systems which keep a swimmer on course – GPS is not new to marathon swimmers as the guide boats have used them for years. However, how do you feel about a small GPS unit which is strapped to the swimmers head and send signals to ear plug style speakers that tell a swimmer to adjust left or right during the swim? This probably does not provide a huge advantage to marathon swimmers, but consider the value to open water swimmers who could “hone in” on a buoy or finish line and not have to rely on siting or drafting a swimmer during a race.
- The rainmaker – You might want to sit down for this one. This idea includes a water scoop, microwave technology which heats water on demand, and a 30’ adjustable shower arm (extended over the side of the boat) which “rains” warm water over the swimmer for the duration of the marathon swim. This conceptual product, with super-heating capabilities, uses microwave technology to heat water on demand, saving energy and providing an endless supply of hot water for the swimmer during the swim.
- Acoustic technology – Large speakers are placed next to the boat and under the water which emit an acoustic signal that is undesirable to sharks. In some studies, music played under water has actually calmed aggressive sharks.
- Spinning Magnet technology - Sharks possess electrical sensors called “the ampullae of Lorenzini”, that look like tiny freckles. Biologists believe sharks use these sensors to detect the heartbeats of their prey and to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. It has been found that a spinning magnet overwhelms those electrical sensors and can be used to keep a shark away from a swimmer.
- Rotting Shark Gel – Sharks dislike the smell of rotting shark carcasses and quickly swim away from the scent. In 1945, Navy researchers found that rotting shark carcasses off the coast of New England successfully drove sharks away from fishermen’s nets. The Navy formulating a man-made repellent called “Shark Chaser,” a mixture of copper acetate and black dye which smells similar to a rotting shark, but it proved ineffective compared to the real thing. In 1972, a University of Maryland professor found that a fish swimming in the Red Sea, known as the Moses sole, secreted a natural shark repellent. Scientists worked on replicating the milky liquid but gave up once they realized it worked only when injected directly into a shark’s mouth. Finally, in 2005 Florida scientists achieved encouraging results with a repellent based on chemicals found in shark carcasses. This synthetic liquid replicates the scent of rotting sharks and prompts them to flee when it is released into the water. Initial tests have shown that this substance can keep sharks away from swimmers and from becoming tangled in fishing nets and lines.
- Anti-shark patterns - There are various species of sea animals that are visually distasteful to sharks, and these creatures seem to have a similar skin color pattern. For example, the sea snake and lion fish are covered in black and white stripes which seem to repel sharks. The mimic octopus will even take on the same form and color of these species when threatened by a shark. The idea behind this is that a swimmer can “paint” these undesirable patterns on his or her body so that they are not mistaken as prey. Could it be that the prison uniforms actually protected Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers from predators as they made their famous escape from Alcatraz Island?
- Common Soap as a shark deterrent – The Moses sole poison mentioned above has soap-like qualities. A scientist recently discovered that sharks do not like soap and can be repelled by it. Imagine the suspicions this will create with your spouse when you take long showers before every open water training swim and leave the house smelling like Irish Spring.
- The Paddle Suit – This is a conceptual product with the goal to make the swimmer feel as if they are swimming on top of a paddle board. The idea is to use a dense layer of neoprene in areas of the wetsuit which support the swimmer. The thickness would exceed the 5mm currently allowed by triathlons. In areas of the wetsuit where the need for flexibility exceeds flotation requirements, the thickness is reduced down to 2mm. The objective of this product is to make it easy for the swimmer to go extended distances with ease while the swimmer still receives the advantages of a normal wetsuit (i.e., speed, warmth, confidence and protection).
Think about it…there may be a day when a marathon swimmer can apply an all-encompassing grease type substance that 1) provides lubrication 2) protects from the sun 3) retains body heat 4) warms up the body (similar to tiger balm) 5) blocks jelly fish stings and 6) deters sharks. The technology almost exists and we would likely have it today if there were as many marathon swimmers as runners for example. Since there is such a low demand, the product has not been developed as one. Of course, if a swimmer wanted additional protection, this all-purpose grease could be supplemented with warmed water, sound and magnets to keep the swimmers extra safe.
Our sport began with a swimsuit, goggles, ear plugs, cap, map, row boat, food and brandy. This is the absolute minimum a person requires to safely do a channel swim. Clearly this new technology will be a game changer. A swimmer can feel warm, safe and confident during their channel crossing swim if this new technology is accepted.
Where do you stand on this? Is this new technology good for our sport or are we getting too far away from the way marathon swimming was intended to be played? I obviously have opinions on some of this technology, but I am undecided on the rest. Do we evolve like other sports and allow new technology? How much do we allow? What specifically do we allow? What I do believe is that this demonstrates the need for a governing marathon swim organization which can make the difficult decisions as new technology is introduced. Marathon swimming needs its own FINA. Otherwise, our sport will become more splintered than it already is.
So here’s the deal. I am thinking of swimming from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic next year which is 70.9 statute miles … a new distance record if I make it (I’m not really going to do this. I am so out of shape that I could not even swim across a small Koi pond right now). During this swim, I am going to use the standard aids of goggles, suit, ear plugs and Vaseline. However, I am also going to add a gel like repellant made of dead sharks, soap, sunscreen and jelly protectant. I also am going to attach an electronic shark deterrent system to each of the two kayaks I will be swimming between. I am going to wear a jelly suit over the gel for a little extra protection. I will be following a streamer to keep me on course and will use a shower which will rain warm or cold water over me as needed. Finally, I am going to attach under water, magnetic speakers and play some loud ACDC. Assuming I make it across this channel, does my swim count? What do you think? If you have strong feelings about new or existing technology, please allow yourself to be heard. This is your sport!