Cold and choppy waters, strong tides, and abundant sea life—these are only some of the obstacles facing long distance, open water swimmers. While it seems like this sport would attract only the insane few, marathon and distance swimming is rapidly rising in popularity. The 2008 Olympics were the first to have a ten kilometer (6.2 mile) event and numerous long course races and solo journeys are done worldwide every year. Although I’m a regular swimmer, and have done some mile-length swims in open waters, I can’t imagine doing some of these notably difficult distance swims.
1. The English Channel
Considered the ultimate endurance swim, this twenty-one mile swim goes from Dover, England to Calais, France. Swimmers are always accompanied by a pilot or crew, but are not allowed (if they want it recognized by ISF) to wear a wetsuit. Many use “grease” to protect their skin from the water, which is usually around 60° F. According to the Web site 10kswim.com, only 811 people have crossed the channel, but many more have tried and failed due to hypothermia, strong currents, unpredictable tides, and inclement weather. Since there are no official races, most people try the Channel solo, with boat assistance, from June to September, oftentimes swimming farther than twenty-one miles due to changing currents. The fastest time is just over seven hours and the slowest is close to twenty-seven hours; most people average around thirteen hours. Double and triple crossings also take place; in 1958 a Danish Olympian named Greta Anderson was the first person to do a double crossing of a major channel, it took her close to twenty-seven hours. Perhaps one of the most impressive (or truly insane) was the crossing by Vicki Keith, who swam the entire length doing the hardest stroke—the butterfly.
2. Manhattan Island Marathon Swim
The 28.5-mile swim, which circumnavigates the island, might be the best, but most difficult, way to see Manhattan. The race takes place every year in June and has a cutoff time of nine and a half hours. Temperatures range from 64–67º F and racers must contend with shipping traffic. According to the hosting organization, NYC swim, there may be “random jetsam and flotsam in the waterways.” I can only imagine that a lot of this is not from the sea. The NYC Swim group also hosts a 17.5-mile swim in honor of Gertrude Ederle, a Manhattanite who swam from the Battery in lower Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey in 1925.
3. Catalina Channel
Swimming the Santa Catalina Channel is comparable to the English Channel; the water is cold and choppy with strong currents. There is abundant marine life on the twenty-one-mile trip, and although I’ve been delighted to see pods of dolphins from a ferry deck while heading to Catalina Island, I can imagine swimming among them might be more than a bit distracting. Completing the English Channel, the Manhattan Marathon Swim, and the Catalina Channel is considered the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, something only twenty-seven individuals have done.
4. Irish (North) Channel
The channel between Ireland and Scotland is often considered to be the most challenging channel swim because of the water temperature (54º F), the cold ambient air temperature, and the unpredictable weather and water conditions. The twenty-one-mile swim also boasts large groups of jellyfish. It has been attempted almost eighty times but only eight people have successfully swum it in its entirety. Strong currents, hypothermia, and bad weather have sidelined most.
5. Alcatraz Island, San Francisco
There are a few well-attended swims and multi-sport events that require swimming from Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay back to the shore, but the longest is the circumnavigation around Alcatraz Island. Swimmers start in Aquatic Park and head around the rock and back, for a total of 3.25 miles. The water is usually cold, below 60º F during July, when the swim is held, and fast currents and changing tides can be particularly challenging. But views from the water of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco make it worthwhile. Other notable swims in the choppy, cold waters of the SF Bay are the swim under the Golden Gate Bridge (1.85 miles) and a 10K from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge. Although there are small, harmless sharks that bottom feed in the Bay, great whites are almost unheard of, so the distance is the real feat. Only one swimmer has gone out to the treacherous Farallon Islands—a great white shark feeding ground—for a swim. In 1967, Stewart Evans swam about twenty miles from the Farallon Islands to Point Bolinas. Not surprisingly, his record hasn’t been challenged.
6. Around the Island Atlantic City Swim
Strong tides and currents, a wide range of water temps (from the mid-fifties in the ocean to the eighties in the bay), and the 22.5 miles around Absecon Island, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, make this swim one of the hardest races in the world. But, unlike many of the other races, it offers prize money.
7. Cook Strait
Cook Strait, the channel between the North and South Islands of New Zealand, is sixteen miles across. The water is cold, ranging from 57–66º F, with high waves, jellyfish, and sharks. About one in six swimmers see a shark on their crossing, but apparently they aren’t harmful, as they’ve never attacked. Rock cliffs greet you at the end of the swim. About seventy people have completed the trek.
There are numerous other races and solo journeys that people attempt every year, including swims in the Danube, crossing the Gibraltar Straight, altitude swims in Lake Titicaca, going down the Parana River in Argentina, and crossing Lake Tahoe. Any channel, straight, lake, river, or ocean has been or will be attempted at some point. Distance swimming and open water challenges are becoming more and more popular and new bodies of water and distances are being tackled every year. What’s so exciting about the field isn’t so much about what’s been done, it’s what yet to be accomplished.