"It is unfair. It is frustrating. It is cheating." So goes the thought process of some open water swimmers and triathletes.
"It is classic tactics. It is strategic. It is all part of the sport." So goes the completely reverse thought process of other athletes.
Which is correct? Is open water drafting cheating or is it strategic? Is it unfair or is it part of the sport?
Is Drafting OK?
Neither side of the argument will ever convince the other side of their viewpoint of drafting. It is a debate without conclusion, but the question remains: in a draft-legal open water swimming competition or triathlon, is it good or bad etiquette to draft off another person for all, for a majority or any part of a race? Is it acceptable to draft and then swing around and try to beat your opponents at the end of the race or to the T1 transition?
At the highest end of the open water swimming, professional marathon races and triathlon communities, drafting, pacing and positioning are well-accepted and understood strategies of competitive athletes. But what about at local open water swims among amateurs and masters athletes with no illusions of earning a podium position?
Even at that level, drafting is largely seen as a fair part of the sport. But there also is an unspoken and unwritten etiquette that is part of the sport.
The Unwritten Rules
Fundamentally and specifically, impeding by occasional hitting or pulling on a lead swimmer is flat-out unfair. Continuous and intentional tapping on the feet of a lead swimmer is uncool. This is true whether or not there are officials in the water overseeing the race.
Most athletes believe that impeding another swimmer's progress is an act of unsportsmanlike behavior at any level whether at the professional or amateur level. But some excuse themselves if the act of impeding is unintentional. Whether intentional or not, impeding others feels wrong among amateurs who simply want to participate for fitness and a sense of accomplishment.
But among professional swimmers and competitive elite triathletes of all ages, drafting in the water is an acquired and respected skill. Among these swimmers, there is a healthy respect for those who draft and position well and then are able to sprint to victory.