There is a certain amount of misinformation reported in the media about open water swimming. The World Open Water Swimming Association looked at the data in an attempt to distill fact from fiction, reality from rumor.

One issue that is commonly reported in the press is that “More people have been in outer space than have swum across the English Channel.”

This oft-used quote is a dramatic indication how difficult it is to swim across the English Channel.

But is it true?

Open Water Source used the universally accepted data on astronauts from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and the English Channel database of solo swimmers maintained by Julian Critchlow, the Vice Chairman of the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, for comparison purposes.

Critchlow’s database has a historical list of 1,683 English Channel crossings (England-to-France or France-to-England, including two-way and three-way crossings) completed by 1,245 individuals from 1875-2011.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale defines spaceflight as any flight over 100 kilometers. As of 2010, 517 individuals from 38 countries have gone into space according to this guideline. 3 people completed only a sub-orbital flight, 514 people reached Earth orbit, 24 traveled beyond low Earth orbit and 12 walked on the Moon.

So currently English Channel soloists are ahead: 1,245 swimmers vs. 517 astronauts.

So while this numerical comparison between astronauts and Channel swimmers is now in favor of swimmers, when was the statement that more people had been in outer space than swam across the English Channel true?

In 1961 when Yuri Gagarin of the USSR was the first person to reach space, there were already 137 people who had crossed the English Channel.

When man first walked on the moon in 1969 and there were only several dozens of astronauts, the number of English Channel swimmers had reached 200.

As the number of astronauts increased throughout the rest of the 20th century, so did the number of Channel swimmers. While 517 people have gone into space as of 2010, 517 swimmers had already successfully crossed the English Channel by 1985.

So it seems the number of English Channel swimmers have always maintained a lead over their aeronautical colleagues…with no sign of ever losing their numerical advantage.

Footnote: There seems at least one comparable between these two groups: the number of person-days in space vs. the number of person-days in the water.

Astronauts have spent over 29,000 person-days (or a cumulative total of over 77 years) in space. This number compares favorably with the number of person-days spent training in the water for a Channel attempt. If we assume that the average English Channel swimmer trains 2 hours per workout, 24 workouts per month and 12 months in advance of their swim (a very conservative training plan), then the total number of person-days spent preparing for the English Channel among the English Channel swimming community is 29,880 days ([2 hours x 24 workouts x 12 months x 1245 swimmers]/24).

Other commonly held beliefs among open water swimmers include:

1. When there are dolphins in the oceans, the swimmers is safe from sharks (read here).
2. Most body heat escapes through your head in the water (read here).
3. Commercial jellyfish ointments will prevent jellyfish barbs from firing into the skin of open water swimmers.
4. Black wetsuits lead to shark attacks (read here).
5. Shark risks increase at dawn and dusk (read here).

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association