I like swims where you start in one place and finish in another. They give you a sense of accomplishment, although they can be a logistical headache for event organisers. I also like events where you swim around somewhere of significance, such as an island. Although these events remove the hassle of transferring swimmers and their kit from start to finish, they present additional challenges to organisers – such as how to ensure swimmers’ safety while on the far side of the island – but are much more satisfying than circling arbitrary buoys.
Swim the Island, in Bergeggi, Italy, is a lovely example of a circumnavigation swim, and I was lucky enough to take part in the fifth running of this event in October 2015.
In five years the event has grown from 250 swimmers to more than ten times that number, and the course has varied each year as the organiser has experimented with different layouts. In 2015 it started from Sportono beach. The main 6km race twice circled the marine protected Bergeggi Island before returning swimmers to the start point. The event ran over two days and also featured a family swim, 1.8k and 3.5k swims, an all-you-can-eat buffet and a live concert from South African band Sterling EQ.
Both the 3.5k and 6k swims are very popular so be prepared for some mass-start mayhem. While swimmers were split into waves, the group size was large (and hopefully the organisers will look at increasing the number of waves and reducing their size for future editions). We started on the beach and charged into the ocean and for a few seconds all you could see was foam, feet, hands and neoprene-clad bodies. If you’re not confident of your ability to cope with such conditions, move to the side or the back as this could spoil what is otherwise a beautiful swim.
Once the foam clears you realise the water is dazzlingly clear. I was so intent on looking at the sea bed I actually forget to breathe for a few strokes.
The first turn – a sharp left – came too soon. Just as we were beginning to find our own piece of water we were squeezed together so tightly that even if you stopped swimming you’d be carried around the corner. Fortunately, things improved quickly after that as the field spread. It’s worth breathing to the left at this point to take in the towering cliffs. Below, hundreds of little fish go about their business between the rocks, seemingly untroubled by the turmoil above created by the mass of swimmers.
Suddenly I was struck by a sharp electric pain in my shoulder, quickly followed by another on my neck, by back and my hip.
Among the pretty fish swimming below were some small, almost transparent, blobby things. One of them had obviously decided to take a trip to the surface. Later I discovered it was a mauve stinger (Pelagia noctiluca), and I wasn’t the only person to get stung. In fact, we later started calling that particular stretch of water by the cliffs up to the first right hand turn “Jellyfish Alley”.
But don’t let the jellyfish put you off. This year was the first time they’d been there. I did wish (briefly) that I’d been wearing a wetsuit as that would have given some protection but even some wetsuit wearers picked up stings on exposed parts of skin. The sting was painful but not debilitating and eased quickly, and it was fun to compare welts with other swimmers afterwards.
After passing through two rocky outcrops we turned right to head towards Bergeggi Island. Away from the shelter of the bay and the cliffs, the sea became choppy and the swimming more challenging. It seemed to take a long time to reach the island. Here the best views were on the right as we circumnavigated the island in a clockwise direction.
Rounding the island, the water became calm again and shallow enough to see the bottom and watch the fish. Luckily there were no jellyfish in this part but we had to cross the bay and return to Jellyfish Alley for a second loop. Second time, the anticipation was worse but I escaped with just one more sting to my left ankle.
The swim finished with an out and back loop parallel to the beach in shallow and calm water and exit over a timing mat to welcome collection of recovery snacks followed by a hot pasta dish.
Swim the Island ticks all the right boxes for a swimming weekend getaway: easy to get to, great scenery, plenty of good eating options, a festival atmosphere and a swim long enough to be worth the journey but not so exhausting you can’t enjoy the location. Look out for round six in 2016.
Carina Bruwer swims 21k
South African musician and marathon swimmer Carina Bruwer was a special guest at the 2015 Swim the Island. She performed live with her band Sterling EQ until late on Saturday evening on an open air stage near the waterfront in old-town Sportono. Early next morning she set off to swim multiple laps of the Swim the Island course aiming to reach 18km while raising funds for Little Fighters Cancer Trust, the South African charity that is the sole beneficiary of her “Swim For Hope” project.
However, when she had finished 18km, she announced she would swim an extra lap to raise additional funds, despite having suffered multiple jellyfish stings. She ultimately completed 21km in a time of 6h25’58.
Every swimmer at Swim the Island is required to carry a Restube safety device. Invented by a German engineering student, initially for kite surfers, Restube is an inflatable bright yellow float you can strap around your waist while you swim. The tube is rolled up inside a pouch and connected to a CO2 canister. If you need something to rest on while swimming, or something to wave to attract attention, simply pull a tag on the pouch and the float immediately inflates.
Compared to a tow-float, which is permanently inflated, the Restube works well in crowded mass participation scenarios where tow-float straps may tangle with other swimmers. If wearing a wetsuit, the Restube is barely noticeable. However, when not wearing a wetsuit it has a tendency to slip to one side if not secured tightly enough. Initially it feels as if it is causing a fair bit of drag but you soon get used to this. It’s worth putting some Vaseline or similar on the strap to prevent chafing.
Wetsuit or non-wetsuit
Wetsuits are optional at Swim the Island but around 90 per cent of swimmers wore them. With water temperatures typically around 21-22 degrees most people will be perfectly comfortable without and carrying a Restube gives reassurance than you can have something to lean on and float if necessary.
The organisers don’t distinguish between wetsuit and non-wetsuit swimmers in the results so if you’re performance orientated and want you name listed as high up the rankings as possible then by all means wear one but the swim is more enjoyable without.
A wetsuit will offer some protection against jellyfish but no guarantee that you won’t get stung.
The majority of swimmers will take longer than 90 minutes to complete 6k, and this is usually considered to be the limit of glycogen muscle storage under intense exercise conditions. There are no feed stations at Swim the Island, so should you carry something with you?
From a nutrition performance perspective most swimmers would benefit from an energy boost during a 6k swim. An energy gel is probably the most convenient thing to take with you (stuffed inside your costume or up the sleeve of your wetsuit) but you have to consider the time taken to open and eat it and whether you will gain that back.
You also need to ensure you stuff the wrapper (and the tear-off part) back inside your costume after use – especially as this is a litter-free, marine-protected environment.
Most swimmers therefore chose not to, but it’s worth considering.
Getting there and accommodation
Fly and drive is the easiest. From the UK, there are plenty of flights to Nice, in France, from where it’s a two-hour drive – unless you get distracted by some of the sights along the way such as Eze, Monte Carlo or San Remo. Allow about €20 for the road tolls and make sure you have a few euro coins for the toll machines. It’s also possible to fly to Genoa, which is closer to the event but has fewer flights. There are also public transport options via train and bus and the organiser puts on a shuttle service from Nice and Genoa airports.
There are a range of accommodation options in both Bergeggi and Sportono but these do fill up fast so book early. Sportono has more bars and restaurants and the old town is a delight to stroll around. It’s around a 30-minute walk from here to the start, which is a consideration as parking is limited near event HQ.