Thursday, February 19, 2009

No Drafting - Nothing Great Is Easy

How far is the Great Channel Swim? 18.1 nautical miles or 20.568 land miles or 36,200 yards or 33,521 meters from Shakespeare Beach, England to Cap Griz Nez, France.

Typically, the elite swimmers - who are very familiar with one another on the professional marathon swimming circuit - closely draft off of one another during their races up to 88K (54.6 miles) - see the example below. But, according to the established rules of the English Channel, there is no drafting on solo swims and a pace swimmer in front of any swimmer is not allowed.

So the world's best marathon swimmers will have to swim by themselves, ultimately and completely depending on their pilots. We wonder what swimmer will be piloted by Michael Oram, a pilot with over 500 swims to his credit including the record-breaking swims of Petar Stoychev (6:57, shown above), Christof Wandratsch (7:03) and Yvetta Hlaváčová (7:25).

We wonder if all the swimmers are going to head off in the same direction or if their pilots are going to take them in different directions. In the English Channel races of the 1950's, the swimmers were all spread out across the Channel, but of course, the pilots of yesteryear did not have the benefit of GPS, AIS transponders, radar, chart plotters or computers. At the mercy of the weather, water and the years on the ocean, they just hoped their course was good enough to find a beach to land on.

We can imagine the closest equivalent to what may happen occurred in August 2007 when Petar Stoychev and Yuri Kudinov went mano-a-mano in the Channel.

According to Michael Oram (shown on left), Petar's pilot on that marvelous day, Yuri and his pilot Dave Whyte on the escort boat Ocean Breeze started 25 minutes behind Petar and precisely followed Petar's course. Michael was simultaneously plotting both Yuri's and Petar's routes on the boat computer, enabling Petar to know exactly his position relative to his top competition. At 15-minute intervals, both Petar and Michael knew when Petar had either gained 50 meters or lost 30 meters.

Using the sophisticated electronics, Michael guided Petar right upon the rocks at Cap Gris Nez, the closest point to England in France. But, Yuri, following behind, was carried a bit down the shoreline due to the tide and took a few more minutes to land on the French shoreline (see a YouTube look at Yuri's finish on the French shore below).

Because the pilots like Michael Oram and Dave Whyte will be able to read each other's courses and speed from the AIS transponders, we can imagine the Great Channel Swim being not only a competition among the athletes, but also an amazing match between the navigational skills of the pilots.

Additionally, there will be 8 men and 6 women in the solo race. The two groups will start an hour apart ... and that hour is going to make a difference although both groups will be on spring tides. With the aerobic conditioning of the athletes (who are capable of swimming 4.85K every hour for 7 hours), the modern navigational tools of modern mariners and the well-honed skills of the pilots, the best pilots can usually plot a course to arrive within 100 meters on the other side of the Channel and within 20 minutes of a predicted time.

But, as Michael, Petar, Yuri, Christof, Yvetta and all the other 1,000+ Channel swimmers know well, anything can happen in the Channel with winds and tides always having the upper hand.

As the race motto says, "Nothing Great Is Easy."

Photo of Lac Memphremagog professional marathon swim by Dr. Jim Miller. Photo of Petar Stoychev below is by Pei Qingsheng.

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