A sport achievement is a one of the most spectacular effect of the human need to
distinguish from the others, to achieve something what the others weren’t able
to do. It is also an attempt to go beyond barriers of time, distance, height
etc. The sea marathon races are an extreme kind of a race. Completely untypical
which can only be compared with the Himalayas and Alpine expeditions.
These reflections are based on observation of my own and my colleagues from the
Sea Medical Institute of Polish Navy, on the analysis of competitors’
questionnaires, as well as on the publications from „Lancet” treating of the
English Channel Competition.
At first some sentences about the history of Marathon swimming.
Probably, the first attempts in a long-distance swimming were undertaken in the
Sumerian times by inhabitants of subcontinent India that ends at Ceylon. Persian
warriors conquered stranger territories, swam across the sea on the leather
bags filled with air. A famous English romantic poet George Byron crossed
Gibraltar and Bosphorus straits.
Captain of the English Navy Matthew Webb was the first man who swam across the
English Channel. It was in September, 1875, and took him 21 hours 45 minutes. It
was one hundred and thirty years ago, and it’s a very good occasion to remind
some medical observations about a long – distance swimming in the sea.
In 1875, The News, wrote about Capt. Webb’s case – I quote: „It was unique, non
repeated achievement”. Of course, it was a mistake, because, from that time „The
Ditch” swam about one thousand competitors. So, the way across the sea conducts
not only from Dover to Calais, but in opposite direction as well, and even three
times distance: from Dover to Calais to Dover and again to Calais.
The first woman, who swam the English Channel was an American swimmer, winner of
the Olympic Games Gertrude Ederle. She swam a distance from Dover to Calais, in
15 hours only. It was in 1926. The youngest competitor who won The English
Channel was Egyptian girl named Abli Khari. She was only 13. Stella Taylor is
the oldest American woman who did it. She was 46. Alison Streeter is called the
Queen Channel. She crossed the Channel about 40 times. An English woman who
lives in Dover. Teresa Zarzeczańska was the first and the last woman in Poland
who managed to do it in 1975. She took part in some Baltic Marathons too, with a
During my duty in the Polish Navy, I had under my medical protection all of the
competitors who took part on the Baltic Marathon. Sea route was: for example;
from Hel to Gdynia( 18,5km), from Westerplatte to Hel (22 km), from
Westerplatte to Puck (35km).
Some rely swimming were organized trough English Channel, in the Baltic Sea and
other sea water of a round the world. The route covered distance from Kołobrzeg
to Bornholm and from Westerplatte to Hel and against to Westerplatte. The
distance was about 100 km.
Competitors wore typical swimming costume and applied fat e. g. „Lanolin” or
„Ziaja’s”. olive creme. At night they had small light attached to their backs.
In the sixties and seventies 14 Marathons were organized. I performed medical
service in ten of them, as a doctor, not swimmer, of course.
I would like to mention about two unusual cases when I was a qualifier
examiner. First: Young woman being six months pregnant. I didn’t agree of
course. Second: the man who was operated on due to spine defect (discopathia)
one year before competition, swam distance from Hel to Gdynia in good health.
The most important difference between long distance swimming in the sea
comparing with the other sports is environment. The efforts of a sport swimmer,
due to Archimedes principle are connected with the position of his/her body, and
the labor of breath muscles when the exhalation of air from the lungs in active,
not passive. The elements which influence the results of this discipline are:
the content of the sea water, its salinity, state of waves, different water
streams, lability of temperature and duration of competitions. The most
important are the temperature of water and its salinity. The state of waves and
directions of water streams can be defeated by a well-trained and fit
competitor. The effect of physical efforts is an increase of the warmth inside
the sportsmen’s organism. In an natural environment it is balanced by
perspiration of the skin, drinking cold water or wearing adequate clothes. We
know, from laboratory surveys and sea disasters, that a man’s body looses its
warmth 25 times faster in water than in the air. Sea water works in this case as
a car radiator. The loss of body warmth is growing with each degree beneath 20 C
degree. Participants have to fight not only with each other, but also they have
to do their best to keep thermal balance. The fatter the competitors are the
better for them. That’s the way, for example English doctors while qualifying
competitors are taking into account their collop.
Nowadays, doctors are able to anticipate the length of survival by the
shipwrecked persons in cold water. As far as competitive sports, rules say
precisely that water can’t be colder than + 16C degree in England and +18C
degree during Baltic Marathons.
It is commonly known that it is easier to subsist above the surface of salt
water. But there are also bad sides which appear in: maceration of the outer
skin, allergy and swelling and conjunctivitis. It can be the reason to withdraw
the swimmer. So, they have to protect their eyes with special goggles which is
not easy for several hours. It is also possible to apply ointment for
The most frequently used was „Lanolin”.( this is fat from sheep’s wool), and
„Olive cream” made in industrial plant company Ziaja from Gdańsk. Unfortunately
„Lanolin” after 10 and more hours of presence on the body, combines with sea
water, and creates a peculiar nonspecific soap, which may irritate skin
especially shoulders and groins. „Olive cream” Ziaja was better during relay
There are also other ingredients which influence dissimilarity of this sport.
First of all a stress connected with the imperceptible seashore, then
difficulties with specifying and geographical direction, getting food,
beverages, and physiological needs. Some competitors felt less active after
meals, especially after chocolate, more sleepy and vomiting. They felt pain
after micturitien too.
We observed the loss of body weigh from 3 to 5 kg, but this is not an objective
opinion because competitors were getting meals as well as drinks during the
competition. In one case the winner was about 1 cm taller after championship,
but I think it was mistake and a magazine sensation news only. Laboratory
result, ECG, was normal. Some swimmers had leukocytosis, and a little more
haematocrite. Once case leukocytosis was above 15 thousand. Probably it was due
to stress after an argument with college during competition finish, but its
difficult to prove.
The most curious observation was the skin temperature in different body places
and per rectum. It was below 2-8 C, and I’ve noticed for example 29C and even
27C degree. It depend on temperature of the sea water and the time of swimming.
Per rectum temperature was below 0.3- 0.4 strokes only.
Some swimmers declare stiffen muscles, speech problems, sometimes shivering and
teeth ache, trouble with balance, difficulties with space orientation and
automatic movement of arms after completing the competition. It was similar to
the beginning of hibernation. These all symptoms were lost after warm
shower-bath and a drink of hot tea with a few drops of rum. Surfaces massage of
all part of the body with pure alcohol, were very effective too.
1. A long distance swimming in the sea is an original extreme sport
achievement, which can not be comparable to other sport disciplines. First of
all they require adequate physical and psychological preparation, good fitness,
and adequate medical security.
2.Competitors have to have a very good health, the best once are fat body. They
must have been examinated before and after championship, and they need to be
insured against health risks and life.
3.Medical observation about the Marathon’s in the sea, are useful for helping
with the sea rescue disasters.
A long distance swimming in the sea is an extreme event and non comparable with
other kinds of sport. The first competition probably started in antiquity. It
took place from India to Ceylon. Some Persian warriors swam across the sea on
leather sacks filled up with air in order to conquer foreign lands.
Contemporary swimming trough the English Channel became famous in the last
century. The first man who made it, was English Navy captain Matthew Webb. It
was in 1875. He made this distance in 21 hours and 45 minutes. Since them over
1000 swimmers from all over the world managed to cross the English Channel.
Among them there were many women.
Teresa Zarzeczańska was the first Polish woman who made it in 1975. She did it
in 11 hours 10 minutes.
In the sixties and seventies there were 14 swimming Marathons organized in the
Baltic Sea. The distance covered from: Gdynia to Hel, from Westerplatte to Puck,
and from Hel to Westerplatte e. g. Some rely swimming were organized trough
English Channel, and in the Baltic Sea. The rout covered distance from Kołobrzeg
to Bornholm and from Westerplatte to Hel and against to Westerplatte. The
distance was about 100 km.
Competitors wore typical swimming costume and applied fat e. g.
„Lanolin” or „Ziaja’s”. olive creme. At night they had small light attached to
their backs. Staying in the water for many hours caused significant loss of
body temperature (between 3-4 Celsius degree) as well as considerable weight
loss (between 3and 5 kg. The temperature per rectum was below about 0.2 – 0.3
only. Other examination and laboratory results were not changed.
Medical examination seem to be of importance for life saving teams during sea
disasters and were published in periodical medical journals.
Retired commander Polish Navy; Zbigniew Jabłoński
Physician – general practitioner specialist.
address: 81-591 ul. Imbirowa 12 Gdynia – Poland
telephone: home-( 048 )58-629 70 34
mobile phone: (+48) 605 600 610