Why the U-Shaped Snorkel Has Never Been Embraced by Swimmers

(Reposting one of my older posts. This one is from 2012)

A few months ago I wrote a post about the evolution of the center-mounted snorkel.  Today I will look at another type of swimming snorkel, the U-shaped snorkel. Over the last hundred years many U-shaped snorkels have been invented but, to the best of my knowledge, swimmers have not embraced any of them.  Below I will show a brief evolution of the U-shaped snorkel and then try to answer the question why swimmers have not adopted them as training gear.

The first device I looked at was not a snorkel per se but it had all the elements of such and theoretically could have been used as a snorkel.  “Respirating Device” invented by Martin Hilgers in 1914:

The purpose of this device was to be used “while massaging the face or treating the eyes.” It had a mouthpiece, a nose clip and the means to secure air-tubes behind the ears.  Even though it was not a U-shaped swimming snorkel, it could have easily become one by making the air tubes a little longer, which is exactly what Percy Greer did when he invented his “Swimmer’s Appliance” in 1928:

As you can see, the air tubes are significantly longer than in the previous device, which allows a swimmer to keep his/her head in the water and still breath.  There was also a “buoyant attachment,” something like a ball, at the top ensuring that the air tubes remain clear of the water. Unfortunately, the “buoyant attachment” in this device is too large and bulky to be used comfortably by most swimmers. It would generate a lot of drag; the faster the swimmer swam, the more drag it would generate!

The 1988 invention by Donald McGilvray, “Exercise snorkel apparatus” solved the problem of keeping the air-tube tops above the surface of the water differently:

This snorkel looks a lot like the device that was described first.  The air tubes curved around the face and were secured behind the ears.  The tubes could either be projected upwards separately or be connected together behind the swimmer’s head.

In 1995 Glenn Albrecht invented the device shown below:

The main difference between this snorkel and the previously described ones is the flexible air tubing.  Again, it had a buoyant slip piece at the top to connect (and adjust the tightness) of the two tubings together. As previously mentioned, you need the buoyant piece to keep the top of the air-tube above the surface of the water.  The buoyant piece, unfortunately, was still too big.

The last snorkel I wanted to show was a recent invention that received a design patent in 2005.  “Snorkel” by Mathais Weigner:

U-shaped snorkel

I couldn’t find any information about this snorkel.  It has an interesting looking valve below the mouthpiece.  This snorkel looks a lot like the “Powerbreather” snorkel, that is shown on the right, but I can’t be sure if it is actually the same snorkel.   (here is a video about “Powerbreather”, if you are interested)

A lot more U-shaped snorkels have been designed in the past but most of them look similar to the ones described above and none of them have been widely adopted by swimmers.  The snorkel that was adopted by most swimmers, however, was designed by Dean Garraffa in 1996 and is known as a center-mounted snorkel:

Center-mounted snorkel

This poses the obvious question: why did the U-shaped snorkel fail and the center-mounted snorkel succeed?

To answer this question we need to first understand the minimum requirements for a swimming training device.  Or to phrase it differently, we need to understand what makes a swimmer dislike a certain swimming device.

Generally, swimmers do not like to use swimming training devices that fall into at least one of the following three categories:

  1. A device that is uncomfortable, because discomfort will eventually hinder technique.
  2. A device that negatively affects swimmer’s body position in the water, because it will lead to bad habits and bad technique.
  3. A device that generates unexpected drag, because it might lead to discomfort, annoyance or bad body position in the water.

The last category, unexpected drag, is the least intuitive so I will briefly explain it.  Every piece of equipment used in the pool generates drag to a certain degree.  Some equipment is specifically designed to generate drag to make swimmers stronger and more powerful (e.g. parachutespower tower,DragSox, etc.).  Swimmers purchase these devices expecting drag and will continue to use them if the level of drag meets their expectations. On the other hand, much equipment is designed to increase a swimmer’s comfort level in the water (e.g. goggles, caps, etc) or enhance technique (e.g. snorkel).  Swimmers expect these kinds of devices to generate very little drag.

Unlike parachutes, snorkels are considered a device to enhance technique and increase comfort in the water. Swimmers expect very little drag from a snorkel.

If we compare the U-shaped snorkel with the center-mounted snorkel we can see that the fundamental different between the two is the number of air-tubes.  The U-shaped snorkel has two air-tubes and the center-mounted snorkel has only one.  Since each air-tube generates at least some drag, the more air tubes you have the more drag they will generate.

It is possible then to assume that one of the reasons why swimmers have not adopted the U-shaped snorkel is simply because the amount of drag it generates with its two air-tubes swimmers perceive as unacceptable.

Another possible reason why U-tube snorkel failed could be explained by the position that swimmers assume when they push off the wall.  When swimmers push off the wall they try to assume a streamlined position as it reduces drag and can propel them farther and faster in the water.  One of the attributes of being streamlined is tightly squeezing the head between the arms (see image below):


In the streamlined position the air-tubes of the U-shaped snorkel would be between the swimmer’s head and his or her arms.  Squeezing the air-tubes against the swimmer’s head would not only make swimmer’s position less streamlined (unacceptable drag) it would also make it uncomfortable and possibly painful.  The center-mounted snorkel doesn’t have that problem because the air-tube curves around the forehead and between the arms in the streamlined position.

The U-shaped snorkel meets all three categories of what swimmers dislike. The tubing will hit against the head in a streamlined position causing discomfort and/or altering the swimmer’s technique, and it causes much more drag when the expectation is little drag to none. There could be other reasons for the failure of the U-shaped snorkel, but these are plenty to push swimmers away.


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