Guest commentary on open water swimming rules

Posted by Penny Palfrey, 2 March 2013

As I enter my 20th year of marathon swimming and having swum the English Channel (twice), Cook Strait, Gibraltar Strait (3 times including a double crossing), Manhattan Island marathon swim (3 times), Tampa Bay marathon, Santa Barbara Channel Islands (3 including Catalina), Hawaiian channels (several), Rottnest Channel (9 times), Tsugaru Strait and others, I feel I’ve gained enough experience along the way to have a point of view with regard to the various sets of rules between many of the swims. Various, because I’m yet to find more than two organizations that have exactly the same set of rules.

Ironically the two organizations that operate in the English Channel have differing opinions when it comes to the suits swimmers are permitted to wear. One allows jammers (suits to the knees) the other does not. Swimmers start and finish on dry land or by touching a cliff face.

Moving on to the Catalina Channel, where the suit rules are the same as the CS&PF (English Channel Swimmers & Pilots Federation) but the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation insists that a swimmer starts and finishes on dry land. The Catalina Channel also differs with both English Channel organizations in that swimmers are not limited to one hour on one hour off pace swimmers. On some occasions, more than one swimmer crosses at a time.

As for the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association, the suit rules are the same as Catalina however a swimmer is permitted to start or finish by touching a cliff face and does not necessarily have to start and finish on dry land. Just up the road a little to San Francisco are the Farallon Islands. Here a neoprene cap is allowed because the first two swimmers used neoprene caps during their crossings in 1967. The other difference is that swimmers do not start/finish on land at the islands themselves; in fact they do not even touch the shore. The swim starts/finishes at a marker buoy because the islands are a wildlife sanctuary. Bravo for the organizers of this swim for having respect for the environmental restrictions and the first swimmers to have accomplished this great feat.

Hawaii does not have any suit rules other than no wet suits allowed. It makes sense that swimmers can protect themselves from jellyfish which have life threatening venom. Swimmers must start and finish on dry land. This is tricky in that permission is required to land on Kahoolawe or Niihau Islands. Where in the case on Niihau which is a private island, swimmers are greeted by men with guns.

Tampa Bay is a race and organized under USMS therefore FINA rules apply for this swim. FINA changes its rules from time to time. When Chris and I swam Tampa Bay in 2007 having checked with Ron Collins the race organizer, Chris chose to wear a full body suit, while I wore a regular suit. Both were deemed legal at that time. Start and finish was on land.

Rottnest Channel allows full suits and even a suit and a rash guard. These are permitted to protect swimmers from jellyfish stings and sunburn. Though I understand this rule has or is about to be changed.

In my opinion there should be two categories “swimmer protection” and “swimmer aids”. Swimmer protection should be acceptable, along with GPS, weather forecasting, modern boating equipment, training methods and nutrition. The use of aids should be acceptable in a separate category, like a wetsuit category/assisted swim category.

Aids: An aid “artificially enhances” swimmers ability.


Advancements in technology: Since Captain Matthew Webb’s first crossing of the English Channel in 1875, there have been huge advances in technology in every area of channel swimming. From the support boats, weather information, coaching methods and feeding. These days’ family and friends can even follow the swimmer from the other side of the world courtesy of GPS tracking devices, facebook and mobile phones. We’ve come a long way from the days of a row boat with a lantern and being fed with beef tea and brandy.

In my opinion safety is the responsibility of everyone involved in a swim and should be taken very seriously. Namely the swimmer, the crew, the pilot and the race or swim organizers. Our sport is growing rapidly and for the enjoyment of future generations of swimmers, we must take care and be responsible now.

Where tropical waters are infested with jellyfish with life threatening venom, I do not believe it’s cheating to wear a protective suit that does not artificially enhance a swimmers ability. On the contrary I believe it’s being responsible. In fact they do actually make a swimmer slower and cause problems such as extra drag and chafing. I know the dangers of venomous jellyfish first hand, not only from my experiences as a marathon swimmer but also from living in North Queensland, Australia where the lifeguards are not permitted to take part in any club activities without wearing full stinger protection, even when training inside the stinger protective swimming enclosure. The reason for this is because our waters are inhabited by Box Jellyfish and Irukandji jellyfish which are both potentially fatal.

Protecting humans, sharks and our sport.

What happens if a swimmer’s attacked by a shark during a marathon swim? To date I think we, as a whole, have been very lucky. There have been very few shark attacks during a marathon swim; the only one I’m aware of is Mike Spalding in Hawaii who was bitten at night by a Cookie Cutter shark. As marathon swimmers, we have an obligation to take care of the environment in which we swim and that includes sharks. By protecting swimmers we are also protecting sharks; what happens if a swimmer is bitten by a shark? Quite often people are sent out to find the shark in question. The more responsible swimmers are, the less risk and the less negative publicity our sport will receive, therefore swimmers will be able to continue to enjoy the freedom of the sport we do today. I imagine if there were several shark attacks during English Channel swims for example, swimming the EC could become an official nightmare.

Well that’s my two bobs worth, safe and happy swimming to all,

Penny Palfrey

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