Wetsuit or Skin?

Open Water Swimming is a sport with no limits and little homogenization. Despite MSF’s efforts to enhance them, the only regulations that the industry seems to recognize globally are still the “English Channel rules” that have been around for many, many years. These effectively mean that the participant must complete the swim like Captain Webb did the Channel in 1875 – helpless and wetsuitless.

The sport has no doubt blossomed around the world in the past few years and just like triathlon, it is mainly started or practiced by aged individuals (some may even say people in their mid-life crisis!) who have the time and the money to do so. Most are able and keen to possess the latest gear and try to enjoy the sport rather than suffering with it, so the pressure to allow wetsuits is increasing around the world. In fact, most races now rank separately wetsuit and non-wetsuit competitors.

Speaking in Fahrenheit, it is said that a water and air combined temperature of 160F and more carries a danger of overheating for the swimmer, and one of 100F or less, a danger of hypothermia. Since after US professional swimmer Fran Crippen died in Abu Dhabi in 2010 with a combined temp of 187F, FINA only celebrates races in waters between 60F (16C) and 88F (31C). It also made wetsuits mandatory for water temps between 60F and 64F, and optional until 68F – which infuriated some people. 

Two weeks ago, I ran a poll among my 2,100 FB followers and 80% preferred to swim skin. A day later, I was swimming in Gran Canaria in 64F waters with 80% wetsuiters.

The reality is that every swimmer is different, and “cold” and “hot” are very relative terms. But cold can be trained both mentally and physically. Ever since I started preparing for cold waters, I’ve made a slow but steady progress: I was in the 10% of the swimmers escaping Alcatraz “naked” a few months ago in waters below 60F and I swam in New York's beaches last Saturday with a combined water + air temperature of 68F (0C). And I don’t think you need to gain too much fat for that.

Winter swimmer in progress

I hate cold water (more than any mileage and night swimming), but if you are tackling some of the OWS Feats, I am afraid you have no choice but to become a winter swimmer. My plan? Being conscious of my limits, being healthy and going slow, so that I can swim a kilometer in Antarctica in November – obviously, with no wetsuit.