Two swimmers climbing backwards down ladders into a river. One is wearing a wetsuit.
Event reviews

The Outdoor Swimmer Henley Swim Festival

A family-friendly day by the river with swims for everyone

I need to declare upfront that I have a conflict of interest when writing about the Outdoor Swimmer Henley Swim Festival; we are the headline sponsor and have worked with the Henley Swim team for around seven years to create the festival. It’s a working relationship I’m proud of, and Outdoor Swimmer has played a significant role in making the event as good as it is. While our focus is primarily on the festival rather than the swimming side, some of the ideas for events – such as the ‘suits versus skins’ challenge – came from us.

But I will try to be objective. Every year I do at least one event at the Henley Swim Festival. Some years I do several. I’ve raced against the super-fast juniors (and lost) in the clubs’ wave, I’ve done suits versus skins, and one year I swam the mile eight times. When my daughter was younger, she did one of the children’s swims. I know this swim well. And I like it. It’s in a beautiful location, it’s well organised and friendly. It’s a good place to catch up with swimmers I only see a few times a year as well as all the Outdoor Swimmer readers who go along.

A few years ago, Henley Swim made a seemingly minor change to the course. Originally, the full mile was contained with the boomed section of the river where the Henley Regatta takes place over the preceding two weeks. The finish was in the event village. In the current format, only the first half mile is within the booms. You now swim past the event village and follow the curves of the river another half mile downstream. I prefer the new format. It’s more exciting and natural once you move beyond the booms, but I have to admit that the second part seems longer than the first.

During the pandemic, Henley Swim introduced a rolling start to avoid crowding people together in a mass start. It proved popular and has been retained. This means you can start your swim at any time within your designated window and avoid the stress of swimming amongst a crowd of other swimmers. But recognising that some swimmers enjoy the competitive thrill of head-to-head racing, the mass start has been reintroduced in one wave for those who want it.

But set aside the swimming for a minute. Where this event comes to life is the atmosphere. With swims taking place from around 9 in the morning until mid-afternoon, there’s always something happening in the water. Many people hang around for the day, either to do several swims themselves or because they are there with their friends or family, and they’re all doing different swims at different times. With plenty of food and drink concessions on site, there’s no shortage of choices for refreshments while waiting, plus there’s the exhibitors’ village where you might do anything from replacing your goggles or renewing your subscription to Outdoor Swimmer to booking a swimming holiday. It’s a family-friendly festival of swimming, with many participants returning every year for a fabulous day by the river and a highlight of the swimming year.

I warned you I was biased. If you want an unbiased opinion, check out the reviews for this event on Racecheck, where it has a 4.8/5 rating.

Find out more about the Outdoor Swimmer Henley Swim Festival 2023

See other Henley Swim events and register to be the first to hear event news.

Stay up to date with The Dip, our free weekly outdoor swimming newsletter.

I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.