In open-water swimming, wetsuits are the exception, not the default

In open-water swimming, wetsuits are the exception, not the default

One of the more popular long-distance open water races in the US is the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. A 4.4-mile point-to-point swim across the bay and between the two spans of the Bay Bridge, the GCBS routinely sells out months in advance.

The 2012 GCBS was today. A couple friends were swimming, so I was browsing the results just now. And I was reminded of why I will never do this swim.

Here are the results. They probably don’t mean anything to you… but what if I told you that eight of the top ten finishers wore wetsuits! Yet the main results page doesn’t specify whether the swimmer was artificially assisted by neoprene. There’s a separate non-wetsuit results page – but it’s relegated to a separate link. As if it’s of secondary importance. As if they are the exceptions.

Nor do the age-group awards distinguish between swimmers and wetsuit-assisted swimmers.

I respectfully disagree. Skin swimmers aren’t the exceptions. They are the default. This is not triathlon. In open-water swimming, wetsuits are the exception. If you want to offer a “wetsuit-assisted” category, fine – but don’t intermingle their results with swimmers who did it for real, without assistance.

What about the two skin swimmers in the Top 10? Fred Hviid (a Spanish Olympian) and my friend Abby. Is it accurate to say Fred finished second overall, and Abby finished 9th (2nd female)? Um, no. An accurate statement would be: Fred won and Abby was second (first female). The other eight swimmers were wearing wetsuits, and were competing in a different race.

The water temperature in the Bay today was 75F. The air temp was in the 80s. I don’t care if you have 6% bodyfat – you don’t need a wetsuit. What about safety? If you can’t safely finish a 4.4-mile swim without a wetsuit to keep you afloat, perhaps you shouldn’t be doing a 4.4-mile swim in the first place.

Who am I to tell the GCBS how to run their race? I am nobody. Just a guy with an opinion. And my opinion won’t matter – clearly the GCBS doesn’t need my business.

Anyway, congrats to Fred on the win, and congrats to Abby on being the first female (second overall).

42 Responses to “In open-water swimming, wetsuits are the exception, not the default”

  1. Dean Shaw


    I couldn’t agree more. Wetsuits are a crutch and its amazing how lenient open swim races are with their use.

    • Evan


      Thanks for the comment, Dean. I’m OK with offering a wetsuit category (like USMS-sanctioned events do), as long as the results are separate and not intermingled with skin swimmers in the overall standings. I think this policy encourages participation, while still incentivizing people to swim without them if they can. The GCBS does the opposite, unfortunately.

    • Doug Saar


      I’m a 20x finisher of the GCBS. I am in full agreement here! Wetsuits correct the worst stroke flaw….poor body position. I’ve written Lin-Mark…….will also contact Chuck Nabit to try and help influence an awards ceremony that rewards old fashioned technique & performance over technology.

      • Evan


        Thanks Doug. I can’t imagine I’m the first one to make this complaint, so I’m pessimistic about effecting any sort of change. On the other hand, perhaps the decision in recent years (alluded to by Franco P) to separate out non-wetsuit results was prompted by similar pressure.

        Again, though – it’s the wetsuit results that should be separated and put into their own little box, not the other way around!

  2. Adam B


    This is right down the road for me, relatively speaking, and I’ve never bothered with it. The lottery entry and the wetsuit rules make it more of a mass-participation event rather than a race. Which is fine, whatever, it’s their event, but it’s a shame there’s a large organized race over a nice distance…that maintains the triathlon wetsuit status quo. Everyone I’ve known that has done it has said something to the effect of, “I’d rather not wear a wetsuit, but I have to to be competitive.” Enhh.

    • Evan


      Like I told Abby, you are fast enough that it almost doesn’t matter :) Incidentally, you two should train together.

      I agree, it’s a shame. A very interesting swim, good distance… tarnished by bad policy. I choose to opt out.

  3. d barra


    amen brother!
    but the reason to do this swim is to indulge in a feeding frenzy of crustacious bliss (i know crustacious isn’t actually a word) an any of the nearby crab shacks while the rubbered ones are collecting their medals.

    • Evan


      Crustacious is an excellent word, and I intend to start using it in everyday conversation.

  4. Brian Rucker


    I shave 4 minutes per mile off my times in a wetsuit, so like you said, they had two different races.

    • Evan


      4 min/mile! Wow!

    • John White


      Hi Brian, usually we figure a wetsuit gives us at most 5 seconds per 100 yards. I have a hard time seeing even that much of a boost, with one of the best wetsuits and a lot of comparative swimming. That still gives 1:30/mile for the best case… not quite 4 minutes, but plenty to skew the results. Over 4.4 miles that’d be a best case of 6 minutes! With 75 degree temperatures! Rather ridiculous; I can understand everyone’s annoyance with the rules and the results format.

      In the triathlon world, none of those results would count as the cutoff for competition is 73 degrees (still toasty warm for any experienced swimmer). How did they not overheat?!

      • Evan


        Depends to some extent on one’s natural body position. As a sinker, I get somewhat more benefit than floaters. But yeah, 4 min/mile seems like a lot.

  5. Jay Peluso


    That is a real shame. We will be hosting a 5mile swim here in Richmond in October. We do have a wetsuit category but results will be split with overall and age-group winners for non-wetsuit and wetsuit. As a race director I can say that in order to keep registration fees reasonable, participation numbers are key. Insurance for open water events is crazy expensive as you can imagine. The wetsuit category encourages more people to come out thus controlling fees. Super stoked for Abby regardless.

    • Evan


      Thanks, Jay. I get what you’re saying from a race director’s perspective, and I favor getting as many people into the water as possible. What I don’t favor is incentivizing use of wetsuits by people who don’t need them; and I don’t favor presenting results in a manner that fails to distinguish. Wetsuits should be the separate category, not the skin swimmers.

      • John White


        Perhaps a temperature cut-off for wetsuit times to be counted at all (and of course separate results)? Granted, that cut-off will probably be too high to truly satisfy the cold-water swimmers, but it could be a step in the right direction. It’s absolutely silly to have wetsuits in 75 degree temps; clearly a crutch when used in those conditions. The results wouldn’t stand in the tri world – everyone but the skin swimmers would be ineligible for awards or championship slots.

        • Evan


          It would be interesting to take a survey of GCBS participants to gauge how many of them actually *wanted* to wear wetsuits – compared to the number who were only wearing them to keep up with the competition. I would guess that reversing the incentives (via presenting the results differently) would have an enormous impact on wetsuit usage.

  6. Fred Hviid


    Thanks Evan for the posting. Before I go into my comments, I do have to admit that last year, my first open water event ever after an 11 year hiatus from competitive pool swimming, I did wear a wetsuit. I didn’t know any better. My bad. I thought I would be that sucky. After that Chesapeake Bay Swim last year I felt like a cheat. I really did.

    I beat the second swimmer by 6 minutes and decided as you referred to in your post, anyone who can swim fast should not wear a wet suit. I think the more challenging the race, the better. It was simply too nice of a day yesterday to be honest. Temps were good, water was calm, skies were clear. Only two instances were the swells made us work a little harder.

    Regardless of outcome, I was very happy with my swim. I was much more “satisfied” with my swim since I did do it without the wetsuit. Compared to last year which was hotter at 78 (!!), I thought that there was a higher number of skin swimmers this year, but still only about 140 or so out of the 650.

    I also see Jay Peluso’s point in driving the numbers to the race. Remember, this is a race, but it is first and foremost a charity event, so we have to look at it as such.

    It is a great event and speaking of Jay I do hope to sign up for the 5 mile “To the Bridge and Back” event he organizes in October.

    I hope to post a recap on my blog in the coming days. Evan, best of luck in your training. I commend you for the ultra marathon swims. I only wish I had the moneys to pay for that NY 28.5 miler. ; )

    Isn’t it a $1,750 entry fee!! Yikes!

    • Evan


      Thanks, Fred. You had an awesome swim – and I commend you on your attitude about the whole thing. Re: MIMS, I think it’s even more than that now! An expensive swim for sure, but each swimmer gets their own motor boat and kayaker. Other swims of similar distances are in a similar price range. Marathon swimming ain’t cheap!

      As I said on your site, I hope to see you around at a race sometime.

  7. Franco P


    I respect your opinion Evan but this event claims to be a charity swim and the main purpose to raise money for the charity. They don’t claim to follow USMS, USAT, or any channel swimming rules. You are correct that it does encourage wetsuit use but that is their intention so as many as possible will finish before the cut-off times.

    You and many of your friends are elite swimmers that have a legitimate shot at an award in this event and I appreciate your argument. Most of the roughly 700 swimmers don’t and just want to finish up as high as they can on the list. I would prefer to swim it without a wetsuit but I would rather finish higher than lower.

    I have done Little Red Lighthouse and had many finish above me wearing wetsuits. They aren’t listed in a separate category. They aren’t eligible for awards but no one will ever know they wore a wetsuit versus me not wearing one when they look at the results. At least GCBS breaks out the swimmers. Not a knock on LRLS because I know this going into the race and still choose to go. You swam in that event and didn’t boycott it because of its wetsuit policy. Does it only matter when it affects those likely to win an award?

    Regardless of the (what I also consider to be a flawed) wetsuit policy, GCBS is a great event with an awesome course. If you ever change your mind and get past the policy, I would be happy to take you out for some crabs if you come to town.

    • Evan


      Hi Franco, thanks for stopping by! I understand GCBS is a charity event – and good on them. However, it costs them nothing to make a simple change to the presentation of the results: non-wetsuit swimmers only in the main results; separate results for wetsuit swimmers. They will still sell out months in advance and will raise just as much money for charity. The difference is: People won’t be incentivized to wear wetsuits when they don’t need them. The people who truly need them in order to finish will, hopefully, wear them – and probably these folks are not competing for awards anyway.

      And with the water temps in the Bay this year and last year, I would argue the GCBS policy on wetsuits is actually dangerous – especially for those who are swimming at an aggressive pace.

      LRLS policy is a bit more sophisticated – they have a water temp cutoff of 68F for wetsuits’ eligibility for awards. The year I swam LRLS it was 69F, so wetsuits were ineligible. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about competing on a non-level playing field.

      The Great Hudson River Swim has a similar policy, but the temp cutoff is lower – 61F I think. Last year when I competed in GHRS I was beaten by several wetsuits, and it was aggravating. Aggravating to an extent that I will probably never do that race again unless I happened to live in the city.

      • Franco P


        I agree that this policy is flawed and incentivizes the use of wetsuits. I really wish it were different. This is not uncommon for charity swims though. I still participate in them because of the opportunity.

        It would certainly be better with separate categories and separate awards but I don’t think the organizers feel any need to do so. It wasn’t until recently that they even started to list non wetsuit finishers. I still tend to think that they feel safer with as many as possible in wetsuits and that is their reluctance to change policy. It is a lot of swimmers for them to look after.

        I do think that if they just changed results posting as you suggest that the number who shed the wetsuits would go up significantly.

        • Evan


          The organizers may “feel” safer with more people in wetsuits, but are they actually safer? I’m skeptical. Almost all deaths-by-drowning in OWS happen in triathlon. The one exception I can think of – also relevant to GCBS – is Fran Crippen, who overheated in overly warm water.

          If they can’t keep track of everyone, get more safety people out on the course. They charge a lot of money for this event; they should do it right.

          btw – thanks for the invitation for crabs. Barra speaks highly…

          • Fred Hviid


            I’ll add this to the topic of safety and wetsuits. I did do the Chesapeake Bay Swim with a wetsuit last year. The water was 78 – really warm. I remember finishing the race and being really out of it, dizzy and seeing spots. It took a lot of fluid for me to feel better.

            I was dehydrated. I was clearly close to having had an episode. I know others felt the same. Again, wetsuits are a choice for the Bay Swim, but past a certain temp, they should clearly be banned. If you can’t complete it unassisted, then maybe you should just aim for the 1-miler which is earlier in the morning.

            If safety truly is that big of a concern, then let’s take the higher than usual water temps into account and have a cut-off.

            On a personal note for the athletes, be smart and put your health ahead of your ego. You might be slower without the wetsuit, but you’ll have the pride of doing it right.

          • Evan


            Thanks for this comment, Fred. It’s interesting… my original point was more about justice and fairness, but with all this discussion (and some offline comments) it’s become clear that safety may be the more pressing issue, at least with this particular race. Even USAT has a temperature cutoff for wetsuits.

    • Donal


      FYI: I’d point out that here in Ireland, temperatures are between 50 and 56, (maybe 58 for two weeks if we get a good summer, which rarely happens), and almost all races, (of which most have a fundraising component to a lesser or greater extent) segregate wetsuit and non-wetsuit, and in fact, the slight majority of swimmers are non-wetsuit (except usually where they have been organised by triathlon clubs, who are a bunch of babies :-) ).

      I’m a mid-pack swimmer, and it’s equally as important to me as Evan, as it is for friends who are tail end swimmers, because when we look at the results we disregard the wetsuit swimmers, as we are engaged in two very different sports.

      To think those of us who aren’t in the top ten don’t care is a misunderstanding, as I’m sure most of us train as hard as, and race as hard as Evan and the other top swimmers. For me the training INCLUDES the ability to endure cold. By not separating wetsuit and non categories, it actually penalises people who have trained in favour of artificial aids. Why not allow fins and paddles also so?

    • Patty


      I agree with Franco. This is for charity and your elitists attitude is shameful. While those of us don’t begrudge your choice to not wear a wet suit, why does it bother you so much that some do? I have no problem separating the categories to be fair to everyone. But implying that wetsuits should not be allowed says that only the top swimmers can attend. What about those that wish to accomplish this who may be handicapped?, or a cancer survivor and not in the same shape as aeveryone else, but who meets the cut off to qualify? We are a divers group and THIS IS FOR CHARITY…IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU!!! Except for the narcissists, you would not get this anyway!!!

      • Evan


        Hi Patty, thank you for the comment. Unfortunately you got so caught up in taking offense that you didn’t read my post very carefully. I did not say wetsuits should not be allowed. I said there should be separate categories of results, so as not to incentivize use of wetsuits by people who don’t need them. I also think there should be a water temperature cutoff. Swimming in a wetsuit in water close to or above 80 degrees is dangerous. The fact that an event is for charity doesn’t excuse unsafe policies.

  8. Evan


    Yet another reason the policy is dangerous: The start at GCBS is notoriously violent and aggressive, which as an anonymous friend in yesterday’s race pointed out, “is a problem if you’re the only one who doesn’t float.”

    Women are at even more of a disadvantage, being generally less strong.

  9. Chicken O'Sea


    Do they have an Athena division?

  10. Chicken O'Sea


    Oh I’m already there!!!
    Really though, this race has never looked appealing to me and the wetsuit business confirms it. Maybe it’s more scenic in real life (I have only seen photos of the venue).

    • Evan


      Oh I doubt that Chicken! But realistically in OWS, the Athena/Clydesdale division is known as “channel swimmers.”

    • Rob D.


      I was a little turned off by the amount of rubber in hot water I encountered the year I swam this race (2010) but you can’t help but like the course, it is fantastic. The bridges make for basically the world’s biggest lane lines and the vibe before and after the swim is pretty cool. In all fairness as a midpack swimmer this whole awards problem tends to not apply to me. For this race I actually raced in a rash guard since practically everyone had on a wetsuit anyways… figured I’d save myself the sunburn

  11. Evan


    From an email subscriber:

    “Amen to the letter on wetsuits,they are nothing but a crutch. I did a triathlon in which you could wear them but you would forefit any award won. I almost wore one but didn’t. I’m happy I did not after getting third in my age group. I now try not wearing them as much as possible. Let’s keep this sport clean.”

  12. Fred Hviid


    So, to anyone interested, I had mentioned on a comment above that I would write up a little recap. Here it is:

    You can skip through the pleasantries at the beginning of the post and get into the race further down the page. I’ll need to take some notes from Evan’s posts here to better write my recaps.

    Evan, I made mention of your blog and this post since it seems to drive some conversations about the topic.

    • Evan


      That was a very classy post. Sounds like an exciting race, even if the playing field wasn’t level. I appreciate the mention. Also sounds like, in general, you have a knack for this open-water swimming thing. Scary for the rest of us! Hope you get a chance to do MIMS someday; it’s an incredible experience.

  13. Tony


    At first I’d agree with you… however, I remember any bike race and I think the default is what the majority of the competitors are doing… If in this race <50% of the competitors are wearing wetsuits then you are correct and there should be a "wetsuit assisted" category, if not then I think the skim swimmers are the exception and is correct to say "skin swim" category. I said "bike race" because those races have the same issue. Almost all competitors use a geared bike (24 to 30 speeds), but there are some that race fixed bikes (1 speed). Obviously, the guys on the fixed are in a big disadvantage (like the skin swimmers), and someone really good will finish in the top 20 overall at the most (even worst than skim swimmers), and they have a "Fixed Category" (like the skin swimmers). Should the overall list include only fixed and a secondary "Geared" category for everybody else? I don't think so, because the default is geared.

    Probably 50% is a little number and the default should be more that 70% or 80% (in bike races is above 98%), but my point is that default = majority.

    In the other hand, if the wetsuit is creating a safety concern because the water is too warm, then they should ban them completely (there is no safety concern regarding geared/fixed bikes, but your knees love geared bikes)

    Just my two cents…

  14. mori


    I’m not sure when they started to consider wetsuit swimmers in the same category as naked swimmers. Although I have participated in open water competitions in the bay with a wetsuit on, I’ve never expected to be compared to naked swimmers nor would I ever want to be considered a winner over the naked swimmers. Wetsuits are an advantage, period. So wetsuit is a different category. Clear. It’s these event producers that want mass swims to make money that encourages or does not understand this point.

  15. Daniel


    Could not agree more

    I dont swim in togs, Only in a wetsuit a few times here and there.

    I must admit though that swimming without one for me would make things harder so have only pure admiration with folks that do it the ‘proper’ way


  16. Sarah


    I’m a little late to this conversation, but I did this swim in the year you mentioned. The draw was the fact that I’d grown up and done some considerable work on the Chesapeake and swimming across it just seemed like a fun thing to do! I flew up from Florida after getting in on the lottery in the first round (I have my own wonderings if it was rigged, a quick young woman traveling all the way from Florida to race?…) and left my wetsuit at home on purpose. My family had been reading blogs about the race and was convinced I’d need it to do the swim.

    Background on my wetsuit. My mother told me if I wanted to continue open water swimming, after a bad episode of getting far too cold, panicking and having to bail on a swim, that I’d have to invest. I’ve worn it a small handful of times.

    I was very glad I went without. It was a warm day and the water was quite nice. It was a really beautiful swim. After driving over the bridge so many times it was awesome to see it from the underside!

    Everyone had opinions on this swim, and they want to share them with you right up until you’re in the water starting. Stay to this side, or the other. Whatever, relax. If you’ve put in the training, enjoy the beautiful scenery and the swim.


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