Petar Stoychev was the first person to break 7 hours in the English Channel. Trent Grimsey became the second person to break 7 hours in the 18.2 nautical mile (20.9 statute mile) Channel. But how do these swims among the world’s elite compare to the fastest times of its near-equivalent in the Pacific Ocean, the 17.5nm (20.2 statute mile) Catalina Channel?

Even though the English Channel is longer, colder, more tidal, and rougher, the average times of the fastest are faster in the English Channel than in the Catalina Channel.

Why is that? And how do the top swimmers compare in each channel?

1. 7:15 by Penny Lee Dean, USA, MC in September 1976
2. 7:37 by Pete Huisveld, USA, MC in August 1992
3. 7:43 by Karen Burton, USA, CM in October 1994
4. 8:05 by Todd Robinson, USA, CM in August 2009
5. 8:07 by Hank Wise, USA, CM in October 2010
6. 8:14 by Chad Hundeby, USA, CM in September 1993
7. 8:20 by Gemma Jensen, Australia, CM in August 2006
8. 8:27 by Jim McConica, USA, CM in October 1983
9. 8:28 by Rendy Lynn Opdycke, USA, CM in August 2008
10. 8:31 by John York, USA, MC in October 1977
11. 8:32 by John York, USA, CM in October2000

1. 6:55 by Trent Grimsey, Australia, E-F in September 2012
2. 6:57 by Petar Stoychev, Bulgaria, E-F in August 2007
3. 7:03 by Christof Wandratsch, Germany, E-F in August 2005
4. 7:05 by Yuri Kudinov, Russia, E-F in August 2007
5. 7:16 by Vitek Rostislav, Czech Republic, E-F in August 2009
6. 7:17 by Chad Hundeby, USA, E-F in September 1994
7. 7:20 by Christof Wandratsch, Germany, E-F in August 2003
8. 7:21 by Petar Stoychev, Bulgaria, E-F in August 2006
9. 7:22 by David Meca, Spain, E-F in August 2005
10. 7:25 by Yvetta Hlavacova, Czech Republic, E-F in August 2006
11. 7:40 by Penny Lee Dean, USA, E-F in July 1978

The English Channel is definitely more tidal so there are significantly greater lateral forces against the English Channel swimmer than the Catalina Channel swimmer. The Catalina Channel is also more calm on any given swim in the English Channel because the Catalina Channel swimmer starts at night when the winds are non-existent or light in most cases. With lesser winds and therefore less surface turbulence, the incidence of swallowing water and resultant seasickness are opt to be lesser problems in the Catalina Channel than the English Channel.

Unless there are unseasonably warm spells in the Catalina Channel, the English Channel generally has more jellyfish than the Catalina Channel. Although there are more shark and whale sightings in the Catalina Channel, the probability of encounters between swimmers and sharks and whales is extremely low. While crew members occasionally see sharks and whales in the Catalina Channel, the swimmers themselves rarely encounter either of these ocean creatures.

To swim the shortest distance possible, it is definitely more difficult in the English Channel where if a swimmer misses Cap Gris-Nez in France, then the distance becomes greater. In contrast, in the Catalina Channel, if a swimmers misses the absolute shortest point on the California mainland, there is still plenty of land close by to finish on that only requires a few more hundreds of meters swimming.

In the Catalina Channel, there is a great deal of confidence among swimmers that their scheduled day with their pilot will be swimmable. The Catalina Channel may not be exactly flat or optimal on any given day, but the Pacific Ocean is certainly swimmable for the well-trained swimmer. There are specific reasons why the ocean was originally called “Pacífico” because of the calm seas encountered by Ferdinand Magellan on his journey across the world’s biggest ocean.

Contrary to the general comfort and confidence that the Catalina Channel will be swimmable on their given day, athletes facing the English Channel just never know. They could wait for days or weeks, hoping and not knowing when they will swim. The added stress of the increasing financial burden and the fundamental uncertainty can psychologically deflating and frustrating. And this uncertainty in the English Channel – so foreign to the Catalina Channel swimmer – continues not only right up to the start of the swim, but also right up until the swimmer touches land in France because of the tempestuous nature of the English Channel.

So if the English Channel is longer, rougher, more unpredictable with more jellyfish that generates more frustration, uncertainty and stress, why is it that the fastest swimmers can cross the English Channel faster than across the Catalina Channel?

It may be for a variety of reasons:

1. Many more swimmers attempt the English Channel than the Catalina Channel.
2. With so many more attempts, the pilots because more savvy and can direct swimmers across in a more optimal manner.
3. Many more fast, young, professional marathon swimmers attempt the English Channel than the Catalina Channel.
4. While the average woman is faster than the average man across the English Channel, the fastest men are still faster than the fastest women. With the exception of Chad Hundeby, the Catalina Channel has not been attempted by the top men in the world at their prime as in the English Channel (e.g., Trent Grimsey, Petar Stoychev, Christof Wandratsch, Yuri Kudinov, Vitek Rostislav, David Meca).

But who really knows? Channel swimming is notoriously fickle. In some cases swimmers like Penny Dean swim faster in the Catalina Channel (7:15) than in the English Channel (7:40) and in other cases the reverse is true (Chad Hundeby swam 7:17 in the English Channel vs. a 8:14 in Catalina).

What is universally true is that the channel swimmer in the English Channel and Catalina Channel can both Expect The Unexpected.

Photo shows Hank Wise on his 8:07 Catalina Channel crossing.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Association