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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Defining Open Water Swimming Relays

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

The relay genre within the open water swimming world is currently in its heyday with swims – record-setting attempts, charity events and relay races – being held all over the globe.

The relay genre can be defined and separated into eight general classifications:

1. Channel Relays
2. Competitive Relays
3. Charity Relays (including eco relays)
4. Staged Relays
5. Freestyle Relays
6. Masters Relays
7. Team Pursuit
8. Distance Relays

Channel relays have always been popular in the English Channel and Catalina Channel where six swimmers rotate in one-hour segments. The order of the swimmers must not change throughout the swim and every swimmer must complete their leg. If the order or the length of any rotation of any swimmer is compromised, the relay is not certified as following the rules of these channels. These traditional relay rules can be found here.

The fastest relay time in the English Channel was set by the USA National Swim Team in 6 hours and 52 minutes in 1990 (which is only 5 minutes faster than the all-time solo record). The two-way relay record in the English Channel (14:18) was set by the USA National Swim Team in 1990, which is 1 hour and 52 minutes faster than the all-time solo record. Amazingly, Philip Rush’s three-way solo record of 28:21 is faster than the fastest three-way relay record in the English Channel, set by Sport City (Mexico) in 2007 is 30:07. But Sport City (Mexico) has the fastest four-way relay record in the English Channel, set in 2007 (going from England to France to England to France to England) in 42:11.

In the Catalina Channel, the fastest relay records from Catalina to the mainland (mixed at 7:02, female at 7:04 or male at 7:11) are just slightly ahead of the solo record of Penny Dean (7:15).

Competitive relays follow the same general principles as the traditional channel relays with some modifications. While the number generally remains the same (i.e., six), there are variations in the number of swims and the length of the legs. In the case of the Trans Tahoe Relay, swimmers must stay in the same order, but on each rotation the swim time changes from 30 minutes on the first leg to 15 minutes on the second leg to 10 minutes on the third leg (that continues to the end). In the Maui Channel Relay, swimmers stay in the same order, but the first rotation is 30 minutes in length and then the second and subsequent rotations are 10 minutes in length. In the 45K Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and the 26K Lake Zürich International Self-Transcendence Marathon Swim, as two other examples, the relays can be two or four people and vary in time length.

Charity relays, including relays that aim to raise money or awareness for ecological or environmental causes, come in all kinds of rotations, duration and can follow their own rules unless they specifically state they will follow certain rules. For example, while traditionalists eschew wetsuits, numerous charity relay swimmers can wear wetsuits. The 25K Swim Across The Sound, as three other examples, the relays can be two or four people and vary in time length.

Stage relays< are a type of timed relay competition conducted over the course of two or more consecutive days where the distance of the individual stages can vary on each day and the starting point of the subsequent stages begins at or near the same point as the finish of the previous day's swim. The overall final time of each relay is the culmination of the swimming times of the individual stages. The overall final distance is the distance measured from the starting point to the finish point in miles, nautical miles or kilometers. The finish on the final day can be at the same location or at a different location than the start on the first day. These staged relays have been held from Siberia to San Francisco.

Freestyle relays allow the team members to decide the length of time for their rotation or the distance they wish to swim. In the Fiji Swims relay, the always victorious relay teams from Australia take this freedom of choice to an interesting extreme. Their six swimmers often swim at 1 – 2 minute segments so each swimmer is swimming nearly all-out with relatively short rest.

Masters relays can use any pre-determined format and are becoming increasingly popular around the world. Their age groups are generally the cumulative ages of the swimmers and can be either one or mixed gender teams.

Team pursuit is one of the newest relay formats in the open water swimming community and will debut at the 2011 World Swimming Championships in Shanghai, China. Teammates will start, swim and finish together, but are randomly set off in staggered starts, separated by (generally) 60 seconds. Like cyclists, the Team Pursuit encourages swimmers to form an aquatic peloton. In the Team Pursuit, the official time of the team is the time that the last swimmer finishes which places a premium on drafting, positioning, navigating and pacing. The closer and straighter the swimmers swim, the faster the time. The start order is randomly selected and the teams can be either single- or mixed gender (i.e., either 2 men and 1 woman or 2 women and 1 man). If one team catches up to another team, they can draft off of or pass the slower team, but the rules of unsportsmanlike conduct or impeding still is in effect.

Distance relays come in all forms. Relays such as the Ventura Deep Six Relay or the Night Train Swimmers follow the traditional rules of English Channel relays where no wetsuits are allowed and one-hour legs in the same rotation are strictly maintained. On the other hand, the Camlough Relay in Ireland and the Lake Cane 50K relays have larger numbers of athletes and can swim for a specific distance (50K) or time as long as the relay continues non-stop. In these relays, the team members can either be entirely on an escort boat or waiting on land for a relay exchange. These relays can be held in an ocean fighting against the elements or gain the benefit of swimming downstream in a river. They can be held over one period that can continue for days or weeks. For example, the 1500K Round Ireland Staged Relay Swi in 2006 was the first circumnavigation relay while the Camlough Lake Relay, also in Ireland, covered 680K over 10 days when 220 wetsuit-clad and non-wetsuit-clad swimmers came together to set a record that was recognized Guinness Book of World Records.

So take your choice of the eight fundamental types of open water swimming relays.

Photo above shows the Italian pursuit relay team.

Copyright © 2010 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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