The image of a solo swimmer courageously and patiently swimming across tides, currents and waves in a channel is the iconic image of marathon swimming.
But an increasing number of open water swimmers are choosing to do tandem swims in point-to-point swims across channels or lakes. When two or three swimmers join together, it is always interesting to learn how each of them either compromises or increases their natural speed in order to swim shoulder-to-shoulder.
However, when the number of swimmers in a tandem swim is increased to larger groups, the coordination and meshing of everyone’s natural speed becomes an absolute necessity.
Jean Craven of Madswimmer has done a number of big group swims in the past. “Madswimmer‘s largest team effort was 28 swimmers across Lake Malawi in October 2016. We swam 25 km together in just under 7 hours.”
This Friday, Craven will join 11 Pan-American Colibrí Swimmers (Nado Panamericano Colibrí) from Israel, New Zealand, Mexico and the United States in another group tandem swim. The 12 swimmers from 5 countries will swim together from Imperial Beach in San Diego, California to Playas de Tijuana in Tijuana, Mexico. As they cross the USA-Mexican border, they will have to swim 6.56 km together, escorted by 5 kayakers and 1 escort boat.
How will the 12 swimmers coordinate their pace? The Pan-American Colibri swimmers explain below:
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Everyone naturally swims at different speeds. How do you determine what swimming speed to start?
Jean Craven: We’re swimming as a team. The team swims at the pace of the slowest swimmer. There’s normally a discussion the previous evening to the swim where we kind of ascertain who swims the slowest and then the person will normally lead with the balance of the swimmers swimming alongside or behind.
Dan Simonelli: Generally in groups, especially if we haven’t swum together before, we simply jump in and feel out the pace as we go, slowing down and stopping as needed to keep the group together.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: When one or two swimmers are slower than the average swimmer, does everyone slow up naturally or is there talk among the swimmers to slow the pace down?
Jean Craven: We’ll slow down to the slowest swimmers’ pace. There is normally a break, say every 45 minutes to have supplements. This is a time to also quickly reflect if we’re swimming to slow or too fast and who needs to lead, if a change needs to be made.
Dan Simonelli: If the original intention is for the group to stay together, then it’s either understood or explicitly directed for those in front to keep an eye on not getting too far out ahead and either adjust their pace or stop as needed.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Does everyone stop for a feeding break at the same time?
Jean Craven: Yes, normally 45 minutes, but one can also do 30 minutes or 60 minutes, if required by team members. The break is quick 3 – 5 minutes is enough to recuperate and take in fluid and/or food.
Dan Simonelli: Yes. Likely we will set a predetermined interval, say 20-30 minutes. But, that can be flexible of course if anyone needs or wants to stop for any reason.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Is it harder to be the slowest swimmer in the group – or the fastest swimmer in the group?
Jean Craven: Perhaps the slow swimmers sometimes build a bit of a guilt feeling. But this not necessary as it’s a team effort. The faster swimmers can keep an eye out on the group dynamics, who is swimming skew or who is falling behind.
Dan Simonelli: Different reasons. I’ve been both at different times in groups. As the slowest swimmer, you’re always pressing and feeling the pressure to keep up. You can’t relax into your own pace and it is not that fun. As faster swimmer, the water temperature can be a factor if you’re having to slow your pace and keep stopping, you can get cold. Faster swimmers, if they need to keep up their pace to stay warm, can zigzag or go back and forth or circle around, staying within safe distance with group for communication.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What kind of discussions are held among the swimmers before or during the swim so everyone stays together?
Jean Craven: Normally a few swimmers have watches to take the pace. A pace discussion is always a part of the discussion, water temperature and off course if any sea life was spotted. And then off course a prep session to keep everyone’s spirits up.
Dan Simonelli: It is mutually agreed upon prior that we’re staying together. During the swim, it’s common to have to call out and remind faster swimmers that they need to slow down or stop and let people catch up and regroup.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What is the maximum distance the group will be apart: 20 meters, 50 meters, 100 meters?
Jean Craven: We should in theory not stray over 10 meters from first person to last person. We should keep in a group. If, by accident, a swimmer falls behind, a kayak should be escorting any stragglers until the next water break where we need to regroup.
Dan Simonelli: 50 meters is probably maximum to be able to maintain visual (especially in choppy conditions) and auditory communication.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Where will the escort kayakers and escort boat be positioned relative to the group: on either side, in front or on one side?
Jean Craven: It’s good to have a lead kayak showing us the pace. I normally tie a thin rope to the lead kayak with a small weight which drags the line 1 – 2 meters below the surface. This is a nice guide rope for the swimmers and then you don’t need to lift your head to see where you swimming too. Besides the lead kayak, the other kayaks on both sides and then a sweeper kayak at the back. A good tip is to distribute the drinks and food over all of the kayaks. It’s easier to access than a boat.
Dan Simonelli: It’s very important, especially with larger group, to be able to spread out a bit so we’re not hitting or kicking each other. So, I expect the pilot boat will be mostly out front, assuming the exhaust isn’t drifting right into our faces. In which case the pilot boat can adjust either farther ahead or to either side and we navigate or follow from the side, leading and navigating while the kayaker and paddler support will be on sides and behind, circling around as needed.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Does everyone swim side-by-side or in a larger circle where some swimmers are ahead and some swimmers are behind?
Dan Simonelli: I think spread out in larger circular mass will likely be the more comfortable configuration.
Mariel Hawley: I have only swam tandem with both my kids once with each of them 6.4 km. Both swims have been the best and most memorable experiences of my life. I was able to swim first with Lalo when he was 12 years old and we swam El Reto 6.4 km in Acapulco Bay and then with Andrea when she was 13 years old on the same swim. Different moments of life, but both experiences full of love.
I also did tandem swims in group with my son Lalo, Nora, Antonio Argüelles and myself when we swam the Strait of Gibraltar. For me, it was a very special swim, supporting my boy who wanted to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar after my husband passed away after a year of a terrible brain cancer. Lalo wanted to swim Gibraltar to honor his dad and in his memory. I think about that swim and tears come to my eyes.
Jean Craven: First 2 – 4 swimmers normally side-by-side and then balance in their wake.
In our Lake Malawi swim , you can get an idea of the ‘line’ under the water behind the lead canoe. Here we swam in three groups because of the size: fast, medium and slow pace. After 45 minutes of swimming, the fast group stops and takes a feeding break; the slower groups get picked up with boats and dropped at fast group, so we reset the whole team every 45 minutes together. The teams never drift too far apart. In this instance only, the faster group does the whole swim and normally the slower groups cater for relay swimmers.
During this week’s Pan-American Colibrí Swim, we will all swim together. In the photo below, the lead canoe with a guide line is attached underwater. Notice the front swimmers alongside and then the slower swimmers swimming in their wake. This can help up to 30% in energy saving for the slower swimmers.
For more information about the Pan-American Colibrí Swim, visit here.
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