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What Are English Channel Rules?

English Channel rules for channel swimmers and marathon swimmers are considered the gold standard for the sport.

Fundamentally, the rules are simple: walk in, swim across, and walk out.

But underneath the surface, interpretations and rules are much more different and nuanced.

So what are the English Channel rules?

The English Channel, the 33.5 km stretch between England and France, is governed by two distinct governing bodies: the Channel Swimming Association (see and the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (see

The two organizations have slightly different rules and their rules differ in many different ways from other governing bodies around the world, from the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation in California (see to the ACNEG (or Asociacion de cruce a nado del Estrecho de Gibraltar or Gibraltar Strait Swimming Association, see between Spain and Morocco.

Walk In

“Walk in under English Channel rules” seems, on its face, to be a simple rule. The swimmer can start on the dryland, perhaps a sandy beach, a shore of pebbles, or a rocky jetty – and either walk in, run in, jump in, or dive in.

But the English Channel rule is not universal. It is not so simple. In some channel crossings (e.g., in the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland or in the Cook Strait between the North Island and South Island in New Zealand), the “walk in” is a swim from an escort boat to the shoreline or a rocky point. Then, the swimmer simply touches the landmass and then starts swimming.

Why are there such differences in the “English Channel rules”? The main overriding rule is safety. Other considerations include the practicality of getting a swimmer up on the shoreline or on a rocky point.

Swim Across

“Swim across under English Channel rules” seems, on its face, to be a simple rule. But on various levels is quite nuanced.

In the English Channel, swimmers can swim very close to their escort boat and gain the advantage of drafting off the bow of the boat. Experienced and fast swimmers can gain additional speed under this interpretation of “swimming across”. However, in other channels from the Catalina Channel to the North Channel, the boat drafting rule is strictly forbidden. In fact, one of the observer’s responsibilities in many channels is to prevent the swimmer from getting too close to the boat, to escort kayakers, and to pace swimmers.

In the English Channel, escort kayakers are not allowed. But in other channels, kayakers paddling very close and parallel to the swimmer is allowed; sometimes on both sides of the swimmer. Those kayakers can guide the swimmer much more easily at night, in rough water conditions, in the fog, and near shorelines than large escort boat.

Swim across under English Channel rules also implies using the same style of swimwear. But this is not the case. Some channels only allow briefs for men, other channels allow jammers, and other channels allow tech suits.

There are always a number of exceptions:

  • A swim streamer (see above) legitimately used in one channel would be grounds for an unofficial or non-approved swim in another channel.
  • Exceptions are made for disabled swimmers or those swimmers with Type 1 diabetes or swimmers who strictly follow the Muslim religion.

Swim across under English Channel rules also implies swimming solo. But this is also not the case. Some channels only one or more pace swimmers; other channels limit the number of hours a pace swimmer can aid a solo swimmer; other channels forbid pace swimmers.

Swim across under English Channel rules also implies the inherent dangers of swimming across a channel are the same the world over. This is most certainly not the case. There are all kinds of marine life that exist throughout the world that are either not present in the English Channel or do not present any reasonable danger or risk to the swimmer.

The English Channel does not have a history of issues with aggressive sharks including hammerhead, bull, maco, tiger, and Great White Sharks that are present and have encountered swimmers in other channels around the world. While the English Channel does have jellyfish, and channel swimmers are often stung by these jellyfish in the waters between England and France, these jellyfish are not the deadly kind like box jellyfish or even the highly venomous Portuguese Man o War that are present, especially in the warmer channels of the world.

Walk Out

“Walk out under English Channel rules” seems, on its face, to also be a simple rule.

But not every channel requires swimmer to walk out of the channel to officially finish. A simple touch of a landmass suffices in some channels. In other channels, the swimmer needs to “clear the water”, meaning that their body and their feet must be on dryland to call it an official finish. Other channels, including when there are multi-legs of a two-way or triple-way crossing, the “walk out” can be interpreted slightly differently. Other channels require walking out well out of the water beyond the high tide mark, as in the Catalina Channel. Some channels, especially when one landmass is prohibited from touching, the “walk out” is simply diving down under the water near the shore and touching the landmass underwater.

So while concept of “swimming under English Channel rules” is simple, the different rules and interpretations of those rules practically varies – sometimes significantly – around the world.

It is also true that the English Channel rules – that were first established in 1927 with the Channel Swimming Association – have steadily evolved over the last nearly 100 years.

The key foundations of all these different interpretations of “English Channel rules” used in the channel swims and marathon swims around the world are based on swimmer safety and the local traditions – that have evolved over time, as technology does (from wool swimsuits to synthetic fibers, from eyesight and mariner’s knowledge to GPS and AIS tracking.

© 2023 Daily News of Open Water Swimming

to educate, enthuse, and entertain all those who venture beyond the shoreline

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