FEATURES,  View from the Water

A tale of two swims

This weekend I took part in two very different swims. The first, the Great Newham London Swim, had more than 2000 participants and took place in Royal Victoria Dock, a broad expanse of slightly brackish water with Canary Wharf at one end, City Airport at the other and the Excel Centre along one edge. To add to the backdrop, a Star Wars convention was taking place at Excel, so as well as people wandering around in wetsuits we had curious storm troopers and Jedi knights strolling by to see what was going on. There was music, commentary and a festival atmosphere.

The next day I was up early again (swimming frequently seems to involve early morning starts) for a trip to Eynsham, near Oxford, and a 6km downriver swim in the Thames. This part of the river is very different to the stretch near London that I know best, which is dark, broad, sluggish and mainly urban. At Eynsham, it’s much more rural, narrow, meandering, faster flowing and a pretty shade of green. It also seemed a couple of degrees cooler. About 100 people turned up for Swim Oxford’s Lock to Lock, which consists of a 4k section from Eynsham Lock to Kings Lock, where you need to exit for a short walk around the weir, followed by a further 2k swim to Godstow Lock. With jelly babies and drinks served at the Lock, and tea and cake provided at the end, swimmers are definitely well looked after.

As I said, two very different swims, but both really enjoyable in their own way.

One of the highlights for me of the Great Swim Series is their ability to attract and inspire people who have never swum in open water before. Local swimming coach Harley Hicks brought a group of swimmers, some of which had only taken up the sport in February, to tackle the half mile. It was fantastic to see the support and encouragement the swimmers gave each other and the delight they had in finishing. When you swim a lot, and spend time with people who have swum across oceans, it’s easy to forget that a half mile or a mile in open water is a significant challenge for someone new to swimming.

I also think a mile is a good distance to race in open water. Personally I’d like to see Great Swim reintroduce the sub-30 wave and encourage more competitive club swimmers to take part. However, it was good to have another chance to race Greg Whyte after beating him by a few seconds at the RLSS Open Water Festival earlier in the year. Sadly (for me) he was too quick this time and I wasn’t able to sprint past at the end as I did previously. As Greg lost his timing chip, the results are currently showing me as having the fastest time of the day, which is nice but not actually true.

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These guys just completed their first open water half mile

Meanwhile, swims like the Lock to Lock offer a very different experience. A current assisted 6km is a really nice distance to swim: far enough to be worth getting up early and travelling to, not so far as to completely exhaust you. The river, with its twists and turns, overhanging branches and shallow patches, makes this more fun and challenging than a straight swim around some buoys in a lake. I also like the idea of starting in one place and finishing somewhere else (the logistics of baggage transfer were handled smoothly). While maybe not something for complete beginners, this is a swim that could be enjoyed by swimmers with a wide range of abilities.

The key point however is not so much to compare and contrast these two very different swims but to remind ourselves how lucky we are to be able to take part in a sport that offers such a diversity of options. While I’ve been doing these two swims close to home, our editor Jonathan has been swimming north of the Arctic Circle – something I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about shortly. My hope is that ever more people will sign up to programmes such as Swim London and Swim Dem Crew, be inspired to try open water through events such as the Great London Swim and then go on to explore the hundreds of different options out there. This is a good time to be an open water swimmer.

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Too much choice of cake!

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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.