Open Water Swimming

From Openwaterpedia

noun - Open water swimming is swimming in natural or man-made open bodies of water such as oceans, bays, lakes, reservoirs, rowing basins, lidos, canals, dams and rivers. The sport is generally understood to be longer than 1 kilometer in distance, but can include swims of shorter distance.


The triathletes practice open water swimming in the lake every Saturday.


marathon swimming, rough water swimming, channel swimming, wild swimming, long distance swimming


The beginning of the modern age of open water swimming is sometimes taken to be 1810, when Lord Byron swam across the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles) from Europe to Asia]].



FINA conducts world championship events in the 5 km, 5 km Team Pursuit, 10 km and 25 km distances.


Marathon swimming records can be set by being the first to swim a specific distance in a specific course in a specific open body of water or the fastest or the oldest or the most prolific (i.e., the most number of times in a specific location). Records are authenticated by independent observers and are defined by distance, gender, age, location and time. Distance is separated into marathon swimming records (at least 10 kilometers) and open water swimming records (under 10 kilometers).

Half Century Club

The Half Century Club is a list of open water swimmers over the age of 50 years who have successfully swum across major channels around the world.

Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming

The Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming includes three famous marathon swims around the world: (1) 21 miles (33.7K) across the English Channel between England and France, (2) 21 miles (33.7K) across the Catalina Channel in Southern California, USA, and (3) 28.5 miles (45.8K) Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in New York, USA. Membership in the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming requires completion of these three swims.

Oceans Seven

The Oceans Seven are open water swimming's equivalent of the Seven Summits. The Oceans Seven include (1) North Channel between Ireland and Scotland, (2) Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand, (3) Molokai Channel between Oahu and Molokai Islands in Hawaii, (4) English Channel between England and France, (5) Catalina Channel between Santa Catalina Island and Southern California, (6) Tsugaru Channel between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan, and (7) Strait of Gibraltar between Europe and Africa.



When covering large distances, swimmers may head off course due to current, waves, wind, and poor visibility. Typically, buoys are stationed periodically across a large expanse provide guidance. However, buoys are often invisible due to interference from choppy water and reduced visibility through goggles. Swimmers are encouraged to 'triangulate' by looking for two aligned, easily visible objects on land that are directly behind the destination (such as the end of a pier as it lines up with a hilltop), and to make sure they continue to appear aligned during the race.


Drafting is the technique of following another swimmer so closely that water resistance is reduced. When swimming closely alongside or behind a swimmer in the lead swimmer's wake, resistance is reduced and the amount of effort to swim at the same speed is correspondingly reduced. In calmer conditions, or when facing surface chop, swimmers can also significantly benefit from swimming immediately behind or closely alongside a swimmer of comparable or faster speed. Not all race organizer permit drafting, and swimmers can run the risk of disqualification if they are caught.

Beach Starts/Finishes

In shallow water, it is quicker to high-step into the water and at hip depth, begin dolphining through the water. Before the race, check the nature of the bottom to determine if it is rippled, which can cause an ankle sprain if you are high-stepping across an uneven surface. Dolphining is to dive forward hands first into the water and angle down to the bottom, press against the sand to begin coming up, and dive up and over the water again. In heavy surf conditions, dive deep and grab sand to get under a crashing wave. Upon entry and when circling buoys, swimmers will often be in a very crowded environment and may be jostled as swimmers climb over one another to get to open space and create an advantage. On the exit, a significant advantage can be gained from body surfing as far up the beach as possible, and then high-stepping across the shallows.

Wetsuit Usage

Various types of wetsuits of varying thicknesses are used in open water swimming. Some employ high-tech materials and workmanship, others are of basic materials found in surfing and diving wetsuits. Some designs cover the torso, arms and legs, while other designs leave the arms and shoulders exposed.

When a person floats motionless in the water, their legs tend to sink. When a person swims freestyle, the legs rise toward surface because water passing underneath the body pushes the legs up, similar to how the wind can lift a kite into the air. In addition, a proper kicking technique will bring the legs all the way to the surface, creating a more streamlined profile for the arms to pull through the water. Both of these mechanisms of becoming horizontal require a small amount of energy from the swimmer. When a person wearing a thick wetsuit floats motionless in the water, their legs tend to float on the surface. Theoretically, this obviates the small energy expenditure mentioned above, although an additional small amount of energy is required to continually flex the wetsuit during swimming motions.

On a given swim, not all swimmers benefit in terms of speed or endurance from wetsuits. Whether a given swimmer will benefit in these ways depends on other factors as well, such as water temperature. When the water temperature is too warm, swimmers can overheat in a wetsuit.

History of Open Water Activities In The USA And FINA

At 1974 AAU Long Distance Committee meeting in Washington DC, the AAU was responsible for administration of the Long Distance Swimming Committee as an entity separate from the AAU swimming program. Dale Petranech was appointed the National Vice Chairman and assumed the Chairmanship of the Long Distance Swimming Committee, replacing Glen Hummer.

A Brief Chronology - AAU

The National AAU Long Distance program consisted of a single championship race, a four-mile event for men and a three-mile race for women around a quarter-mile closed course. The AAU open water program at the time covered both Masters and Senior Open Water Swimmers. U.S. Masters Swimming focused on the pool events.

There were professional marathon events, but with the AAU’s adherence to a strict code about amateurism, those events could not be included in the AAU program. The British Long Distance Swimming Association conducted a 25K Invitational race every four years in Lake Windermere in western England.

In 1978, the AAU authorized an expenditure of US$100 each to Mary Beth Colpo and Penny Lee Dean to assist with expenses to participate in the Windermere event. This is the first time that any open water swimmers officially represented the USA in an international open water competition and received any financial assistance to do so.

The only other financial assistance to athletes was for defending national champions - the AAU required that a National Championship Meet host pay for the transportation of the previous year’s champions, both individual and team, to defend their titles.

United States Open Water Swimming, Inc.

When the Amateur Sports Act required the AAU to relinquish its administrative and jurisdictional control, Ross Wales, then President of United States Swimming, Inc., helped form United States Open Water, Inc. We honored and accepted both US Swimming and US Masters Swimming registration and sanctions. After a very brief period, US Swimming offered a merger proposal that US Open Water Swimming agreed and the merger was implemented.

USA Swimming

Under the terms of the merger agreement, US Open Water, Inc. agreed to turn over all its assets to United States Swimming, Inc. (approximately US$200.00). In exchange, US Swimming would (1) Agree to the formation of a more or less independently administered open water committee within the US Swimming organization and structure, (2) Provide for an ex-officio member on the USA Swimming Board of Directors, (3) Provide for five members of the Open Water Community to act as at large members of the US Swimming House of Delegates, and (4) The National Open Water Coordinator would be an elected national level position. US Swimming later became known as USA Swimming.

Masters Open Water Swimming

US Swimming administered and directed the Masters Open water program for approximately six years, until Dave Gray petitioned USA Swimming to transfer the Masters Open Water program and activities to U.S. Masters Swimming. There was no opposition and for many years, USMS assigned a liaison to the US Swimming Open Water Committee.

Governance - Oversight

Under Bill Maxson’s presidency, a reorganization resulted in having the interests of Open Water Swimming represented on the Board of Directors by the Program Operations Vice President.

It has always been the goal and objective of the Open Water Committee to become fully integrated into the overall USA Swimming Program. In 2004, some of rules that formerly made up Part Seven of the Rule Book, (and before that, Part Eight) were moved into appropriate positions in the rulebook. The Board of Directors have committed to making the USA Swimming program and its swimmers the best in the world. A Task Force is being formed to determine the organizational structure that can best meet this commitment.

Committee Structure

The committee structure also changed many times over the years. Initially under the AAU and the early USA Swimming, the Open Water Committee was very loosely organized and membership on the committee was anyone who showed up for a meeting. The Committee formed into two sections, one for Masters and the other USA Swimming. As stated above, the Masters split off into their own organization under United States Masters Swimming.

Now being responsible for the USA Swimming Open Water Program, the membership was defined as At Large Members and one member from each LSC. When this became administratively unsound, the Committee consisted entirely of at large members and the Masters Liaison. The committee, with an elected Open Water Coordinator, continued to oversee the Open Water Program for a number of years, until the committee decided to have the position of Open Water Coordinator be designated by the President. At the same time the committee split into two bodies, a Domestic Open Water Committee and an International Open Water Committee. The rationale for this action was to give the National Team Coach, who also serves as the Chairman of the International Open Water Committee, more time to concentrate on swimmer development and the international program without becoming bogged down in the Domestic Programs. Both the Domestic and Open Water Committee Chairmen are nominated by the committees and appointed by the President.

International (Representation in FINA)

After the 1984 USA Long Distance International Championships, a few of the individuals representing International interests met to determine how a marathon open water event could get incorporated into the Olympics. The initial plan was to create an International Open Water group and then petition FINA and the International Olympic Committee for inclusion. This was at the same time that FINA was relaxing its strict amateur codes. Dale Petranech was tasked to ask Bob Helmick, the FINA President, the best way to proceed. He advised that forming an international open water organization would not prove beneficial as FINA worked only through its recognized FINA Affiliated Organizations and that the International Olympic Committee dealt only with FINA regarding adding events to the Olympic Program, but he agreed to help. Through Mr. Helmick’s efforts the FINA Bureau approved a FINA Open Water Commission to study the Open Water question and come up with the initial rules and procedures.

The commission consisted of Mr. Berry Rickards (Australia), Mr. Monier Sabre (Egypt), Mr. Roger Parsons (Great Britain), Mr. Jaroslav Novak (Czech Republic), Dale Petranech (USA), with Mr. Gunnar Werner (Sweden) serving as the FINA Bureau Liaison. We decided that the distance of the FINA event should be 25 kilometers, as it was doubtful that a swimmer training exclusively for the pool would succeed at the 25 km distance since special training was required. Some advised that the distance should be at least 40 Kilometers. We wrote the rules with the 25 Kilometer in mind, using existing British Long Distance Swimming Association, English Channel, and USA Swimming Open Water rules as the basis for the FINA rules. We suggested that the 25 Kilometer event should be held in conjunction with the other FINA disciplines at the World Championship every four years. We felt that a FINA World Marathon Swimming Cup should be held in Olympic Years until an open water event could be added to the Olympic Program.

It was recommended that a FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Sub Committee be established and work in conjunction with the FINA Technical Swimming Committee. It was soon discovered that this placed too much additional work on the existing committee and they were unable to take on the additional responsibility.

For better administrative control and conduct of the FINA Open Water program, the FINA Bureau established the Technical Open Water Swimming Committee (TOWSC). The mission of the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee is the same as it is for other FINA Technical Committees, to establish the technical rules and conduct FINA events in that discipline.

While FINA was relaxing its amateur code, the promoters of the older Professional circuit reorganized to form the International Marathon Swimming Association (IMSA) and operated on the fringe of the FINA activities. A meeting was held with Ross Wales presiding to bring the IMSA into FINA. The agreement required the Promoters to follow FINA rules and Procedures and FINA would pay the expenses of the “FINA Marathon World Series” Commissioner (Roger Parsons) to oversee and run the FINA events and pay the swimmers a cash award based on their final position at the end of the year.

Initially things went fairly well, but several promoters had difficulty understanding they had to deal with their respective FINA Affiliated Federations. A disagreement between the FINA Executive and the IMSA FINA Commissioner resulted in the resignation of the FINA Commissioner from both his position and the FINA Technical Open Water Sub-Committee. The IMSA continued to operate and most followed the FINA Rules. However, conditions continued to deteriorate until FINA issued an ultimatum those swimmers who participate in any race not in full accord with FINA rules and procedures would be bared from all FINA competitions. After much wrangling the IMSA folded their tent and turned over operations to FINA. The FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee is responsible for and conducts the competitions in the FINA World Marathon Swimming Cup Series.

Of the initial TOWSC membership, there were only four members who had extensive technical knowledge of open water swimming. This was of great concern to some committee members, but in fact, every member of the committee brought a special skill, whether it was technical or political. The chairman had been on other FINA committees and his ability to sort through the FINA bureaucracy was unparalleled. The skills of other members are demonstrated by the fact that there was one former and eventually two future FINA Bureau members on the Committee. Other members possessed excellent organizational skills and were politically astute.

The TOWSC did an excellent job in selecting its representatives to the Open Water Technical Congresses. The recent decision to send a third non-voting representative is wise indeed. Whatever support is necessary should be provided.

One of the TOWSC strongest points has always been the cooperation and eagerness of our FINA delegates to help each other within the FINA structure. The USA Swimming/FINA team of Dale Neuburger, Ross Wales, Carol Zaleski, Sid Cassidy and Dale Petranech, with support from the National Federation, has been a viable force and has never lost sight of our mission of promoting the assisting the athletes from the United States and throughout the world.

Competition - National Team and National Team Coach

Internationally, the Open Water Committee approved the position of National Team Open Water Coach who was responsible for all aspects of the National Open Water Team and international competition(s).

The original concept was to have the National Team Open Water Coach as an ex officio member of the OIO. But for the past number of years the individual filling the Open Water Coach position was elected coincidentally by the general membership to serve as a full member of the OIO, so the ex officio position was unnecessary. The National Team Coach established the practices and policies for our National Open Water Teams and International competitions over the years, and those policies are published in the OIO Policy Manual.

Events - Domestic

Over a period of years, the USA Swimming Open Water Community experimented with program development to ascertain the best possible championship schedule of events. While we were the administrators of the Masters Open Water program, it initiated a postal meet system whereby the events became Masters National Championship events. Last year 2,265 swimmers competed in the Masters Championship One Hour Swim for Distance Postal Meet. The same was recommended for the USA Swimming program, but the Board of Directors felt that the term Championship could only be used if there were direct head-to-head competition.

Some of the events the USA Swimming Open Water committee contested as National Championship events, but which are now deleted from the program, included the One Mile, 15 Kilometer, National Team Long Distance Swim (similar to cross country), and the Quarter-mile Straightaway Four Mile. At one time the distance for women in this last mentioned event was three miles.


Our first fully funded USA Swimming Open Water Team competed in the 1980 Lake Windermere International in the Lake District in England. The first International meet in the USA was a 15 Kilometer event in Seal Beach, California and the race from Catalina Island to the mainland in California was conducted in 1984.

Prior to the 1978 supplemental funds going to Penny Dean and Mary Beth Colpo, there is no record of any funding of American Amateur Open Water Swimming. Most of the open water swimming prior to that time and immediately following it was on the professional marathon swimming circuit. Under existing FINA, AAU and USA Swimming Rules no contact with the professionals was permitted. In fact, at the time, a swimmer could not compete in an amateur event and also as a master swimmer.


From the beginning, safety considerations have been paramount in our planning and conducting of an event.

The first USA Swimming International event contested in the United States in 1984 was a race across the Catalina Channel. Special training was conducted for all escort and safety craft, close liaison was established and maintained with governmental authorities. We even had a “Seaweed Alert”, code for shark sighting, and most important, a written safety plan.

At one Lake Windermere Invitational, Coach Penny Dean reached into the water and touched a hypothermic swimmer who was leading by approximately a half mile with less than a mile to swim, thereby disqualifying her. Coach Dean felt that the safety of the swimmer was more important than a possible victory. Coaches have always considered the safety and well being of the swimmers as the most important factor in their coaching and training efforts. The USA Swimming authorities have not sent teams to events when they thought the water temperature would be a health hazard or the political situation in a particular country seemed a threat to safety.

The ‘line them up, shoot the gun, and hope that all the swimmers finish’ method that prevailed early in the sport’s history cannot and will not be tolerated. Inferior safety plans needed to be and were improved and replaced. The sport may never reach perfection, but its administrators must never stop trying. The United States has led the world and will continue to be the leader in safety considerations and implementations in Open Water Swimming.

Considerations for Future


FINA TOWSC is responsible for the officiating at all FINA events. USA Swimming has long supported this effort by assisting with event officials briefings at the events and special officials seminars sponsored be FINA. Often USA Swimming Open Water representatives present these briefings and seminars, especially when a FINA TOWSC member is not available. In USA Swimming we hold annual and supplemental officials orientations at the USAS Convention and Championship sites. Recent efforts resulted in an Open Water Swimming Committee member being assigned to the Officials Committee with the goal of entirely incorporating Open Water Officiating into the main stream of USA Swimming Officiating. An officiating plan has been developed and it is now our responsibility to amend it as necessary and implement it on a national level. Some LSC have excellent officiating programs but more are needed.


The sport must continue to look toward the improvement of its safety efforts. The sports' rules and regulations and policy procedures require that safety is the number one concern. This is essential because of the several inherent safety problems facing all open water events that are not usually found in pool events to include, but not limited to hypothermic, hyperthermic and exhausted swimmers, the transport of an injured swim to an appropriate medical unit for care, briefing escort personnel, and preparing a written safety and evacuation plan for each meet and meet site.

The USA Swimming Open Water Guidelines hint at several items and their solutions, but every meet director, official and sanctioning officer needs to be aware of potential safety concerns. The sport has an excellent safety record, but all parties need to work at keeping this fine record.

Political Capital in FINA

Depending on the individuals filling key positions, often the Honorary Secretary is more powerful and has more clout than the Honorary Chairman. He/she creates the initial agenda and controls the flow of the committee’s correspondence.

It usually takes more that one term for a federation’s Committee or Board Member to learn his job and to be effective. While a life-long assignment should not be made, a multiple-year assignment should be considered. It is not unreasonable for a person to work up through the system from TOWSC to Technical Swimming Committee to the FINA Bureau.

While FINA has the final say, USA Swimming is in a position to make strong recommendations. The USA Swimming assigned FINA Technical Committee Member should be a “small unit” leader, skilled in development and implementation of longer range plans rather than the day-to-day operations. They should also be able to work well under adverse conditions and make contributions in a task-orientated organization. In addition representing USA Swimming’s interests, they must have the courage of their convictions and keep the overall good of the activity at the forefront of their actions.

Goals (Olympic Event)

From the very beginning of FINA recognizing Open Water Swimming, USA Swimming and the FINA TOWSC have been working toward inclusion of an Open Water Swimming Event on the Olympic Program, which was finally realized in 2005.

The original groups were looking toward the 25 kilometer escorted distance, but we were advised that the IOC that it would be looking to keep the numbers and distance small. A 10 Kilometer unescorted event was in line with their goals and objectives. Even with no increase in the number of participants allowed, very few federations send a full complement of swimmers to the Olympics, so the event could be hosted without increasing the total number of participants.

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