Votwo’s GPS-tracked Bournemouth Long Swim

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Image: no more mass starts...

It’s great to see event organisers finding solutions and starting to put on events again. Last weekend (5 September) I travelled to Bournemouth to take part in Votwo’s “Long Swim”.

Votwo have hosted swimming events at the Boscombe Beach for years under the Salty Sea Dog Long Swims name. I’ve done them several times. I like to drive to the coast early in the morning, do the swim, and then spend the rest of the day enjoying the beach. The Salty Sea Dog swims were always run in traditional mass-start format around a rectangular course marked with buoys.

Clearly, Votwo had to come up with something different to avoid a mass start and allow social distancing. The format they devised is a GPS-tracked swim. Every swimmer was issued with a tow-float containing a GPS device, which triggered a timer to start when you crossed the start line (and stop when you crossed back again at the end). GPS tracking also allowed live tracking (for friends and family, if inclined) and post-swim playback. It’s fun to see how your swim track compares to others.

We were given a strict timeline and instructions for registration, changing, walking to the start, finding our tow floats and starting the swim, with every swimmer given an individual start time 30 seconds apart. However, on the day, it was much more relaxed. As the timer recorded everyone’s individual time, regardless of when they started, the organisers allowed swimmers to start when they were ready, as long as they were reasonably punctual and maintained social distance.

The swim itself was different. Instead of the loop, it was a straight out-and-back swim along the coast. There was a 5km and 10km option. I chose 5km. The tide was such that we swam with the current for the first 2.5km and against it on the way back.

After swimming in the Thames all summer, it was a delight to swim in the sea, to feel the motion of the waves and taste the salt. The only issue with the first half was that we were swimming directly towards the rising sun. After a while, I started to get anxious that I’d missed the turn buoy because I hadn’t seen it, but it turned out I was just impatient and it was easy to find.

The way back was more difficult. The combination of wind and current generated a tricky chop. There was also the dilemma of whether to swim some distance from the shore to avoid the breaking waves but swim against the current or swim closer to the shore where the current was less but the waves were bigger. I tried both, then opted for the latter, but I’ve no idea if it was the best choice. For the first few minutes I struggled with the conditions, then resigned myself to them and finally started to enjoy being bashed around by the waves. Still, finishing is always a relief.

Compared to pre-covid, the event felt a little subdued. There was no pre-race briefing and the banter that comes from that, no adrenaline surge from a mass start, and no post-swim prize giving. Nevertheless, it was lovely to be back in the water with some kind of structure and purpose, and it was the perfect excuse for a day at the beach.

Votwo have another GPS tracked swim scheduled for 26 September in Dorney Lake. See their website for details.

Image (c) Liz Tarr

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Issue 42 October 2020

  • Q&A with Jaimie Monahan - marathon swimmer and Queen of the Ice
  • Autumn swim adventures around the UK
  • The science behind cold water acclimatisation
  • Reviewed: The Best Open Water Goggles
  • The often deadly history of unsupported marathon swims

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