In 2018. I was heavily involved in winter sports swimming, which resulted in an expedition to Antarctica. After returning to Poland, I thought about my next challenge. I wanted to see how to swim long distances in cool water with limited oxygen. I chose Lake Titicaca, which is located at less than 4,000 meters above sea level, which means that we only have 60 percent available there. oxygen, compared to the lowlands, and we cannot accelerate the respiratory rate during the effort. In early 2020. There I swam the route in swim trunks, cap and goggles, from the island of Taquile to the mainland, to Llanchon ( 10.5 km ) in 14-15°C water.
In preparation for the expedition, I began working with Julia Kozerska, an outstanding freediver who is currently the champion and world record holder in breath-hold diving. He can swim the classic style underwater without breathing as much as 213 meters. The discipline is designated in diving sports as DNF, or swimming without fins, but Julia has also trained and trains in a monofin, so I had a chance to look at what it looks like in practice. I bought two monofins: a larger, rigid one and a smaller, softer one. I started training to add variety to my swimming routine.
What can be done with a “dolphin tail”?
A monofin is a fin into which we put both legs at once, so we can’t walk in it. Compared to classic equipment, it features greater swimming efficiency, as there is no additional turbulence between the lower limbs moving independently. The monofin can be used in a variety of ways. In it, you can swim athletically underwater on held breath, recording successive records of distance covered. Among men, the world record holder is Matthew Malina, who can swim 321.43 meters. Among women, Mirela Kardašević is currently the best, with a score of 275.36 meters. The discipline is designated in diving as DYN (dynamic).
Single fin diving is also used to achieve the greatest possible depth (CWT). The best in this competition is Alexy Molchanov, who – using fixed ballast – swam to 136 meters. This means that he wore a belt with lead weights, which must not be unfastened before returning to the surface. The diver swims down along the belay rope. Freedivers are holding world championships in the discipline of 8 and 16x50m time swims. The idea is to keep the intervals between the “fifty” beaten as short as possible.
There are also monofin races around the world on the surface of the water. One then uses a head-tube for breathing, which is a modification of the usual snorkel for recreational diving. The idea is that the equipment during the race should not generate unnecessary resistance. Competitors usually race over distances from 50 to 1,500 meters. To get an idea of the speed of such swimming, let’s compare the result of the world record holder for 100 m with a fin – 33.71 s (Max Poschart) with the best swimmer who covered this distance with a crawl – 46.86 s (David Popovici). As you can see, swimming in a monofin is much faster.
An interesting discipline that uses the “tail” is orienteering underwater swimming. Here, competitors are equipped with a cylinder of breathing air and must swim to designated underwater checkpoints in the shortest possible time under open water conditions.
At the end of the review of sports, it is necessary to mention the fashion for “marmaiding,” which is more the domain of women. The idea is to replace the sporty monofin with a more fancy mermaid tail, which is an integral part of the swimsuit. “Mermaids” swim recreationally, what matters is fun, choreography and simply style!
Swimming in a monofin – how to go about it?
Fin swimming is wrongly regarded as more difficult than conventional swimming and reserved only for seasoned athletes. When you have a monofin on your feet for the first time, you may feel insecure due to the inability to use your legs separately. In the beginning, you can learn to swim like this by using two regular fins and making dolphin movements. When swimming with a monofin dolphin, it is important to be able to extend and hold your arms in front of you (arrow position), which is not so obvious because we often lack adequate mobility in the shoulder joints and neck. So it’s worth practicing this position a bit on land.
After taking a big inhale, swim underwater or on the surface, generating movement primarily with the back extensor, glutes and abdominal muscles. The focus is on activating the hips, which work first downward and then upward toward the surface of the water. Keep your head and shoulders stable (you can also place your hands along your torso), and avoid excessive bending of the knees, which is the main mistake of beginners. After a few moves, emerge to take in air or use a head tube.
For safety reasons, it is worth trying with the belay of another person. It is good to start training in a soft monofin. Sport models are very stiff, and the ankle joint is not naturally prepared for such work. As part of having fun and experiencing the water, you should also try swimming in the side, back, and no fin position (dolphin motion).
Benefits of training in a monofin
The four basic swimming styles use arms and legs for propulsion. Swimming in a monofin uses our largest and often neglected muscles. Once you learn the technique, which isn’t difficult, you’ll discover that it’s a fairly natural way of moving and you’re evolutionarily adapted to it – after all, our relatives, the cetaceans, move in the water just like that. It turns out that the energy cost of recreational swimming with this method is lower than with other styles.
With this characteristic way of moving, we restore mobility in the trunk and hips. The muscles do the work in a coordinated way, so we improve motor control of the trunk, and therefore training can be a prevention of back pain. If the pain syndrome is already present, the swimmer may not have enough mobility in the spine to swim this way painlessly, but it is worth a try. Maybe there will be an improvement over time. If someone enjoys swimming, but due to a shoulder injury cannot train normally, the monofin becomes an alternative for the recovery period. It can also be a variety of monotonous training. In cases of sensorimotor deficits, such as in neuromuscular diseases, standard swimming can be problematic due to insufficient limb strength. The solution then may be a flipper.
Crossing in monofin
I started my adventure with themonofin by swimming 25m and then 50m underwater, reaching 16x50m repeats, with a shortening of the interval time between each section. As for “distance” swimming, I did it more in classical style and after a year of fairly regular training I swam (under the guidance of Julia Kozerska) my first 100m (DNF without using ballast or foam). Then I started swimming in a monofin in open water. I thought of some longer stretch that I could swim, using – in addition to my goggles and swim trunks – a “tail”.
It fell on the route Gdynia – Hel, which I had already covered in a relay in water of about 4°C. It is a beautiful route because of the landscape, and is chosen by many swimmers and swimmers in the summer. It is also relatively simple, as there are no waves like on the open sea, and navigation is not demanding either. I thought that if I could swim this way, using only the “tail”, like a porpoise, it would be a great reference to the activities of the naval station on Hel. I was facing 18 km of non-stop swimming with the tail fin alone!
In training, I decided to get to at least a half-distance continuous swim to see how I would feel. Won’t my feet get chafed, can my ankle joints withstand prolonged full range of motion, won’t my spine start to hurt. I did my main training in Szlomiok Pond, in the Three Ponds Valley in Katowice, swimming back and forth across the entire length of the reservoir, or 125 meters. It was May, June and July, so I was watched by lifeguards working at this municipal bathing area since June. I swam first 2 km at a time, then 3 and 4, until I reached 8. After swimming 8 km a few times, I found that I didn’t feel particularly tired and there was no point in swimming longer distances. It also stopped being exciting.
I made my first attempt to sail the Gdynia – Hel route on August 26, 2020. I used a dinghy with a small motor for belaying. I was assisted by Dariusz Dziecielski, Tomasz Madej, Michal Starosolski and Dominik Teske. The weather conditions were not dreamlike. The tide may not have been big, but the variable wind and rain did not bode well. After sailing off the beach at Babi Doły, time and again our engine went out and water poured in over the side into the dinghy. We decided to give up. Maybe the conditions were not the worst for a swimmer, but for a small dinghy it was too risky. I also didn’t have time to wait for the right aura at the time. I just took a chance and failed, that’s how I approached it. I had to carry over my plans to the next year.
Preparing once again, I repeated the training from the previous season, extending the distances in the monofin to 8 km, and set off for Pomerania in late June/early July 2021. I was highly motivated, because due to the pandemic and the inability to fly to Yakutia, my expedition to the Lena River in Siberia did not materialize. I had the option of waiting a few days if the weather broke at the last minute. It is important to know that marine forecasts are only certain for 12 hours ahead, and even that is not 100 percent.
This time, in addition to Dariusz Dziecielski, the organization was handled by traveler Mikolaj Sondej, while my wife, cold-water swimmer Grzegorz Filipkowski and photographer/rescuer Michal Marzec were to sail on the motorized pontoon. It turned out that it would be more advantageous, due to the wind, to take off from Hel and sail towards Babi Doły. Because of this, Nikolai had to take a small dinghy from Puck to Hel and spend the night there on the beach, which is an adventure in itself. The rest of the team arrived at the launch site in the morning.
I packed bananas, applesauce, some cola, some candy bar in the dinghy, but I didn’t really bother with food. I set myself up for six hours of effort and knew I wouldn’t need much. I heavily lubricated my feet with cream so as not to rub them off, and put on a smaller, soft monofin with the idea that if an abrasion or ankle joint started to bother me, I would change gear and it would get better. I was also a bit afraid of the large and stiff monofin due to possible muscle cramps, although I only had such on my first workout. The water was 19°C, the condition of the bay was 2. I had a nervous start, and it wasn’t until km 6 that I relaxed.
I took a breath every 4 moves, sometimes extending the underwater swim to 8 cycles. I kept my hands in front all the time. In the middle part of the route, there were bigger gusts of wind and a slightly bigger slanting wave. Fortunately, they quickly subsided. An important moment occurred when my team clearly matched the ruins of the torpedo house, which is close to the beach at Babi Doły, and began to encourage me with shouts to continue my efforts. The last 6 km remain.
I didn’t want to drink, eat, and even wanted to limit my breathing, just to get to my destination as quickly as possible. It worked, and in the early afternoon, after 6 hours and 9 minutes of non-stop swimming by tail alone, I landed on the beach. The water at the shore was a record 22°C, and the beach was full of summer visitors. I was not as tired as one is tired after 20 km of kayaking, but still. I remember being hungry, but out of fatigue I couldn’t finish my lunch.
It was a beautiful and original adventure for me, and although it’s a bit of a romantic vision, a person can really feel a bit like a cetacean, living in the sea. The fact that we are exploring the possibilities of swimming in one fin or two fins, that we are getting better at diving and swimming proves that there are innumerable opportunities for human beings to bond with water and nature. Almost every person can find something for themselves. Even if our capabilities are limited by our body’s dysfunction. Or just then!
Photo authors: Leszek Naziemiec, Michal Marzec