Making Independent Swims Count

For solo marathon swims sanctioned by an established and respected local association, swimmers need not concern themselves with “proving” they did the swim. For these swims, the credibility of a swimmer’s claim is supported by the legitimacy of the local sanctioning organization. This legitimacy is derived from the marathon swimming community’s trust in the organization’s leaders and procedures.

A legitimate local sanctioning organization provides trained observers to document swims and verify adherence to the organization’s published swim rules. Although it’s difficult to “prove” an event witnessed by few, any swim ratified by trusted organizations such as the CS&PF, SBCSA, or CCSF is generally accepted without question by the marathon swimming community. A swim log completed by the official observer is viewed as the only “proof” needed (though ironically, these logs are almost never made public, and in some cases are held quite tightly by the organization).

But what about swims for which there is no well-established sanctioning association? How do you make a swim in ungoverned waters “count”, without a sanctioning association to back up your claims? (The phrase “making it count” is lifted from Dr. Karen Throsby’s book Immersion.)

This isn’t a new problem, of course. For most of the sport’s history, most marathon swims outside the English Channel have been self-organized swims in “ungoverned” waters. The sport was small and sufficiently self-contained that such independent swims could be informally vetted on the basis of personal reputation — e.g., a well-established record of accomplishment on standard, sanctioned swims. If Kevin Murphy or Lynne Cox or David Yudovin did a swim in some far-off land, it was simply accepted as truth. Lynne Cox swam; therefore Lynne Cox swam. Because Lynne and Kevin and David are known, trusted quantities.

David Yudovin in Sumatra

David Yudovin in Sumatra

In fairness, I believe many of the higher-profile independent swims of the past were observed, though much original documentation has been lost to the ages, apart from brief mentions in Wind, Waves, and Sunburn.

Recently there has been a paradigm shift in the standards and practices of documenting independent marathon swims. The shift may have been inspired at some level by certain high-profile, widely-doubted swim claims. But it was made possible by advances in handheld technology and electronic communication, and the formation of an organization — the Marathon Swimmers Federation — dedicated to supporting the promoting off-the-grid swims.

Through my role as observer on the first two successful Farallon Islands solo swims since 1967, I’ve given much thought recently to the challenges and opportunities of documenting independent swims. My report on Craig Lenning’s swim, published in April last year, was the first of seven MSF Documented Swims in 2014. Multi-dimensional, multimedia reports that have helped make independent marathon swims more transparent to the community and more accessible to the public.

As we embark on the second year of MSF Documented Swims, I’m excited to find out what adventures my fellow swimmers will dream up, and to vicariously experience these adventures through their documentation.