FAQ + Best Practices for MSF Documented Swims
We've gotten a few questions lately about whether single-witness swims will pass muster to be documented by the Marathon Swimmers Federation. I'm pasting in below answers to these questions as drafted by the rules co-authors--me, Donal Buckley, Evan Morrison and Andrew Malinak)
Q: Can my swim be crewed, observed/documented, and piloted/navigated all by a single person?
A: No. Although we are sympathetic with the manpower challenges and expense of marathon swimming, MSF Documented Swims require at least two people to assist the swimmer to cover the three critical roles involved with supporting the swimmer. One role is observer, the second is navigator/pilot/kayaker who charts the course, and the third is the crew who feeds the swimmer. How these roles are assigned across a two-witness event should be based on safety considerations and common sense. If a third person is available, that’s considered ideal because then each role can be given primary attention by the individual performing it.
The reason these roles are split across multiple individuals is because each requires specific skills and attention. It would be unsafe (and impractical) for the pilot or kayaker to be required to also observe a swim. In some instances, the kayaker charts the course and feeds the swimmer simultaneously, but they cannot also act as the official observer, not only for safety reasons, but also because of the potential for a conflict of interest. If the official observer - who is intended to be an independent, impartial witness to the swim - is also invested in feeding and guiding the swimmer, their objective independence may falter.
Generally speaking, the more witnesses there are to a swim, the greater the credibility of the claims.
Q: Can I use a video camera as my independent observer/documenter of my swim?
A: No. Although digital media technology improves every day, we believe it will never be able to completely replace an experienced observer. This independent witness can comment on potential infractions and issues that a camera may not show. Also, GPS devices and video cameras are notorious for failing partway through a swim, and because of this unreliability, raw footage of a swim is not considered authoritative enough to substantiate claims submitted for MSF Documented Swim status as a standalone source. Video is a wonderful secondary substantiation of a swim when submitted with a thorough observer’s report from an objective, impartial witness to the swim.
Stop me if you've heard this one...
A grasshopper walks into a bar...
I noticed that GPS tracking data are required for all MSF Documented Swims starting this year (2017).
But what if I don't own a SPOT tracker and/or can't afford one? And what if the tracker fails midway through the swim? Will you not ratify my swim due to a technology failure out of my control? That seems unfair.
SPOT trackers are nice, because they provide real-time public tracking. But you don't need a SPOT tracker to record a GPS track. Any Android or Apple smartphone, or GPS-enabled fitness watch (e.g., Garmin, Suunto, Apple Watch), serves as a perfectly good GPS track recording device. See this article for details.
GPS trackers do sometimes fail. Therefore it is always advisable to utilize multiple trackers on events where GPS data are critical for documentation. Redundancy vastly reduces the chances you will fail to get a track of your swim.
Familiarize yourself with the technology beforehand, so you're not fumbling around during the swim itself.
Personal anecdote: Even three years ago, on the very first MSF Documented Swim (Craig Lenning's Farallon Island swim), I was using three simultaneous trackers (SPOT, Garmin watch, and smartphone) to track the swim. Ironically it was the SPOT (usually the most reliable option) that failed -- but I had two backups, so no problem.
Now in 2017, the technology is even better, cheaper, and more ubiquitous. With redundancy and good planning, you can nearly ensure good GPS tracking data.
Good to know! Thanks team!
Suggested Best Practice for reporting times in marathon swims
Record the date, time of day, and time zone of:
"Time of day" means:
Reported times of day should be synchronized with official International Atomic Time.
Elapsed time of the swim should also be noted, but should always derive from the difference between start time of day and finish time of day.
GPS coordinate formats
When reporting coordinates of marathon swim routes and GPS tracks...
Degrees + Minutes + Seconds (DMS)
Degrees + Decimal Minutes (DDM)
or Decimal Degrees (DD) ?
Examples for my favorite swim spot, Promontory Point in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago:
Decimal Degrees (DD) are most practical for computer applications (e.g., track.rs) - but please use at least 6 digits of precision, otherwise the stated location may not be what you think it is.
And don't forget the negative/positive at the front. 41.795393, -87.575501 (Chicago) is much different than 41.795393, 87.575501 (northwest China) !
For live observation purposes, Degrees/Minutes/Seconds (DMS) are probably most practical, because it minimizes writing.
e.g., a given swim in Lake Michigan may take place entirely within the 41st degree North of latitude and the 87th degree West of longitude, so you can exclude the "41" and "87" for all but the first of the log entries.
DMS, DDM, and DD can all be interchangeably converted... but whatever you do, please do not mix more than one of the three formats in the same log!!!
Great info, very helpful!
Q: What's the deal with GPS watches? Can I wear one on an official Documented Swim?
In general, devices (worn by swimmer) that offer real-time direct feedback about pace or navigation are prohibited by (intentionally purist) MSF Rules.
Technically, some currently-available GPS watch models do, in fact, have the capability of real-time feedback on pace and navigation. Therefore, they are disallowed by MSF Rules. Simple analogue watches (time of day) are specifically mentioned as standard equipment.
Realistically, I doubt any marathon swimmer has gained a significant benefit --
to date -- from wearing a GPS watch. If anything, the bulk of current models (2017 or earlier) would contribute to performance-reducing drag on the wrist.
But why should MSF be responsible for policing specific models of GPS devices, their respective capabilities, and whether swimmers are using them to their full potential (or future potential)? Seriously, we don't have time for that.
Sarah Thomas and Chloe McCardel did world-record swims without wearing GPS devices directly on their bodies - why do you need them? Answer: you don't. Let your kayaker or boat pilot take care of it.
How to measure & record the wind when observing a marathon swim? Three options:
Beaufort Wind Scale for Swimming
Here's my adaptation/simplification of the official Beaufort scale description (see Wikipedia) for swim observing purposes:
Q: What if I can't find a trained/experienced observer or well-known fellow marathon swimmer to document my swim? Can my swim still be ratified?
Short answer: Yes, possibly, but the margin for error in the documentation is much smaller. In the absence of a known observer, the swim documentation needs to be of extremely high quality. Which means:
That said, recruiting a known observer or fellow marathon swimmer or local swim official to document the swim confers a much higher level of credibility. If there is any problem with the documentation (and more often than not, there are at least a couple small problems), it can be "offset" by the personal attestation of someone who is well known to the marathon swimming community.
For sanctioned solo swims, the credibility is conferred by the local governing body itself (CSA, CS&PF, CCSF, SBCSA, NYOW, SSO, MOWSA, NOWSA, ILDSA, CLDSC, etc.) -- because they provide independent observers who represent the organization. For these swims, the documentation quality is less important than the reputation of the organization.
MSF Documented Swims uses a different model of authentication. MSF does not provide independent observers - so the quality of the documentation provides the credibility. This credibility is further enhanced if the documenter is a known observer or swimmer.
Observing/documenting isn't rocket science, but it requires attention to detail. Experienced observers are much more likely to get these details right.
Exception to above statements: Extremely high profile swims (Cuba-Florida) or record claims. In these cases, there's really no excuse to not have an experienced/qualified/known swim observer.
Written vs. Typed Observer Logs
It's traditional and perfectly acceptable to write observer logs by hand. Download the MSF observer forms here.
But writing on boats can be a messy business.
So, unless your log is very legible (example), it's a good practice to transcribe/type at least the "Notes" column of the log, with timestamps, so the "story of the swim" can be easily read in a web browser.
For MSF Documented Swims, please submit both the scanned original handwritten logs, and a digital transcription of the Notes (e.g., in a Word doc). It is the observer's responsibility to submit documentation that can be read and reviewed.
Q: What about tow buoys like the SaferSwimmer? Can these be used on official Documented Swims?
Tow buoys are highly useful on training swims (for visibility, security of belongings, and increased self-sufficiency), but by definition are considered "Equipment that may increase buoyancy" and thus prohibited by MSF Rules on official, observed swims. We cannot think of any circumstance in which a tow buoy serves an essential function on an official solo swim, which wouldn't be better served by a kayaker or paddleboarder.
Q: How many photos should I submit?
One major pain point in processing/ratifying swim documentation is wading through (in some cases) hundreds of photos and video clips taken during swims.
It is great that you took lots of photos, but please do not submit "photo dumps" - i.e., every single image taken during your swim.
Please instead select a representative collection of the best photos and video footage, and include captions (in a separate text file) describing what they show.
We usually don't use more than 20-25 photos and a couple minutes of video for MSF Documented Swims. Please don't make us do this work for you -- winnowing 500 photos down to 25. We might not pick the ones you want!
For video submissions, we're looking for some brief footage of the swimmer's stroke "in context." 30 seconds from the mid-swim is fine, preferably with contextual cues to indicate the location. Start and finish are also good things to get on film.
If you have video editing skills and want to put together a longer swim-documentary, that's great. Upload it to Vimeo or YouTube, and send us the link.
Are Shark Banz and things like that okay to wear?
I can't imagine the current models of Shark Banz would have any effect on swim performance other than a bit of drag on the wrist or ankle. So IMO these are not assistive equipment.
If future models of Shark Banz integrate a tempo trainer or other "smartwatch" type of functions, then it would be a different conversation.
Q: What if my observer is unable to observe the start and/or finish and/or some other part of the swim, due to obstructions that prevent the escort boat from getting close enough?
A: Find a way for your observer to get close enough to see it directly. If you can swim it, they should be able to observe it. You may need to plan ahead of time. Continuous observation is a non-negotiable requirement of MSF Documented Swims. Perhaps that means putting the observer in a kayak, or even having them swim with you. See the description of the last part of this swim.
Q: Can you please ratify my swim by [insert specific date]?
The use of pacing devices being disallowed, makes perfect sense, and I completely understand.
I'm wondering whether it would it be considered an assistive device if a GPS enabled watch (e.g. Garmin) that could also collect HR data were place inside the cap for tracking and HR data collection purposes (swimmer would have to wear a HR strap, most likely)? Would it be sufficient for the observer to be able to attest that the settings on the watch when it was turned on (worn on the wrist or placed in the cap) were set such that pacing was turned "off" in order to make the effect be a stopwatch?
Adding to the above comments on this topic:
GPS watches, HR monitors, and the biometric devices of the future -- these are useful training tools. I'm still waiting to hear someone explain why they are so essential on official swims.
I personally enjoy data & technology as much as anyone. I've spent at least a couple thousand hours developing a live tracking system for swimming (track.rs). But marathon swimming is a purposely minimalist sport! Man and woman against the elements. Swimsuit, cap, goggles. Leave the Garmin on the kayak or boat.
Why should observers be responsible for knowing the capabilities of various GPS devices and deciphering their settings? Aren't there more important issues for them to worry about?
I really like that thought.
Q: If my observer's log notes are messy and illegible, should I transcribe or type them before I submit as part of a Documented Swim package?
Messy, illegible observer notes should be transcribed -- but the observer should do this, not the swimmer!
Or alternatively, submit transcribed notes along with the originals.
Please do not submit observer logs in the swimmer's own handwriting! I am kinda laughing that I even need to say this
Q: How much video footage should I take?
I agree wholeheartedly with this. If you can't have a headset to listen to music, or books with, then why should you be allowed ANY wearable device that could absolutely help you with location, pace, hr, elapsed time, etc? So many devices do just that. And to think that no observer would lie when "attesting" to the device being on the up and up. Stop it. I think if an event wants to allow these things, and notify all swimmers beforehand, then that's their prerogative. But, I totally agree that for an officially rated, documented swim, it should just be cap, goggles, suit. Period.
What about marathon swims in the pool?
Why on earth would you need a Garmin or GPS in the pool? Counting laps and looking at the clock isn't that hard. Also, I'm pretty sure marathon pool swimming isn't a thing. I could be wrong. I'm all for music in the pool however. Just for sanity's sake.
I get bored in the pool so I let my Garmin do the counting on long intervals. Plus my workouts are recorded in their database so I can recall the data when I am entering my swims in my training log. Certainly easier than writing them in a notebook like I did pre-Garmin. Garmin isn't perfect in recording pool distances particularly in kick sets I have been told. I never do kick sets.
Indoor "Marathon" swims seem to have been dreamed up a couple of years a go.
The format seems to be take a 10 lane 50m pool like the London Olympic pool. Swim up and down each length in turn then when you reach the 10th get out and walk back to the first. Repeat 10 times.
At first thought it sounded like an interesting winter training event but thinking about all the disruption from constant overtaking and being overtaken it rather lost its appeal.
I'm thinking what is the minimum realistic setup for a low-key non-extreme official MSF documented swim of a few hours near shore (e.g. a 10 km island circumnavigation).
Are the following setups possible?
A. There are 1 crew and 1 observer, each on an individual kayak, where the crew guides the swimmer and the observer does his job without involvement in the swim logistics.
B. There are 1 crew and 1 observer on a fishing boat as the support boat, where the crew operates the boat to guide the swimmer and the observer records and takes photo / video on the boat.
I had always thought that the observer could not be on a kayak, was I mistaken?
Several MSF Documented Swims have been done without a boat escort, i.e., observer on kayak.
Is it more difficult to observe and document a swim from a kayak? Definitely. I recommend a foot-pedaled kayak to free up the hands. Is it impossible? No. Ultimately it is the observer's responsibility to complete the required documentation, regardless of their means of transportation.
Realistically, executing a formally documented marathon swim without a boat is not advisable from a safety perspective unless the route is close to shore the entire way (as it was for the above three swims).
The main point of Elaine's comment quoted above is that we don't recognize swims with only a single witness.
@evmo thanks! I did not know that!
Is a current-assisted 10 km sea swim eligible for ratification? Also, is a 2-way in tidal water, each leg 10 km, timed to get current-assistance both ways, eligible for ratification?
If they are repeatable routes defined by natural geographic features, then yes.
At the bottom of the MSF standard observer log there is a statement to be signed by the observer:
[Side note: If it's a super-long swim and there are multiple observers, then there's an implied modification of the statement: "We, collectively, witnessed the swim in its entirety...."]
This is the concept of "continuous observation." What does this mean? Pretty much what it sounds like: For the full duration of the swim, start to finish, there is at least one observer with eyes on the swimmer.
Is this because we expect the swimmer to cheat when we're not looking? No. I believe most people in this sport implicitly trust one another. There is never an expectation of cheating. It's because that's the right way to do it. The most rigorous way. If anyone ever questions the swim, being able to point to continuous observation is a powerful rebuttal.
Sometimes, achieving continuous observation is not trivial. Especially at night. So you plan ahead of time, and find a way to make it work.
The Round-Trip Angel Island swim in San Francisco offers an interesting case study. The start and the finish are inside Aquatic Park cove, where power boats are not allowed. How can the observer see the start and finish if the escort boat can't go inside the cove?
For my RTAI swim this past February, my main observer (Lisa Amorao) was on the escort boat, which idled at the Aquatic Park opening at the start and finish. The beach is ~400m from the opening - visible during the day but not at night. A deputy observer (Scott Tapley) joined me on the beach to film the start, record the time when I entered the water, and communicate that time to Lisa via marine radio. A 2nd deputy observer (Amy Gubser) was on the beach to record the finish time.
Complicated? A bit. But doable with advance planning. Are we going to DQ a swim that has a snafu where the swimmer is temporarily, briefly out of sight from the observer? Probably not. But we want to see a good-faith effort to achieve continuous observation.
A good practice is to NOT tell anyone that you are planning to do a swim that you would like to have documented if they have in mind to do it first, and have the ability to do so.
Lots of questions about observers lately, and this can definitely be a tricky issue.
Q: Is my observer required to have formal qualifications or previous experience?
It depends. Because marathon swim observer training programs are limited to certain geographic areas (Los Angeles, New York, Dover), for many independently organized swims this is often not a realistic expectation.
If it's a high-profile swim or significant record attempt, then yes, you definitely want at least one trained, experienced independent observer, preferably even two. This is necessary for the credibility of any swim for which there are relatively "high stakes."
For most other swims, the main considerations are:
Q: Which is the better choice to observe my swim: My dad (a trained, experienced CS&PF English Channel observer), or a different person (not related to me) who has no previous observing experience?
Your dad shouldn't be the observer due to the appearance of or potential for bias, but you can still utilize his experience and knowledge. Suggestion: Designate the other person as the official observer, but have your dad make himself available to this person to advise and help plan the observation.
I'm planning a swim that I know will take 14-15 hours (I did it last year without an observer). I'm guessing this qualifies for a swim long enough that it is permissible to have multiple observers?
It is always permissible to have multiple observers, but for overnight swims or any swims longer than about 12 hours, it is highly recommended to have more than one.
I want advice from MSF on my planned super-secret marathon swim. Will you sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before I provide details about my swim.
No. But your secret is safe with us
This might seem like a silly question, but under standard equipment is a two-piece tie-back bikini allowed? Based on the criteria it sounds like it would be permissible, plus Gertrude Ederle wore a bikini. (I hate having fabric on my belly.)
"One swimsuit made of porous, textile material. For males, the suit must not extend below the knee or above the waist. For females, it must not extend below the knee, onto the neck, or beyond the shoulder."
@AngieSwims - yes, definitely allowed. We should probably add some language to the rules to clarify this.
Is the "minimum documentation template" still a thing that exists? The link up thread no longer works.
No. It didn't get used, and doesn't have a use-case among any current MSF projects. I removed my 2017 post above to avoid any future confusion. Message me if you'd like to discuss further.