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Running an outdoor swimming venue in the summer of covid

Bill Richmond reflects on his experience at Trifarm, an open water swimming venue, in the summer of 2020

Back in April 2020, Trifarm was the last thing on our minds. Any loosening of lockdown seemed a long way off. We had kind of assumed the season was a write-off until at least July judging by the news reports. We had furloughed our team of lifeguards, and I was busy with my day job. Then on 10 May the government announced a loosening of the restrictions, including sufficient relaxation of the rules that apparently allowed open water swimming to take place. Well, suffice to say, our phone melted. The locked-down masses wanted a swim, and they wanted it now!

Was it even practical to open safely? What was involved? Like many of the announcements over this crazy summer, this one caught not just us, but the governing bodies on the hop. Could we lifeguard the lake in any meaningful way, what might be a safe level of usage? Over the next ten days or so we had to quickly draft a Covid-19 operations manual. The changing rooms and cafe would have to be put out of bounds, all swims pre-booked and paid for in advance, ensuring we did not have to handle money, and we would have to collect contact details for everyone. The RLSS advised on potential covid-safe CPR techniques, and lots of pedestrian barriers came into their own as easy 2m distance markers. It looked like it could be done.

Previously Trifarm had been somewhere you just drove to, and then paid to swim on a pay-as-you go basis. We had to quickly learn how to set up our sessions on the Acuity booking platform to control numbers. As we pressed the keys to open booking on the first few sessions for 24 May, our son Max asked me how quickly I thought they would fill?

“I think the first session will likely fill today” I said hopefully.

“Oh no, it will be far quicker than that,” Max replied, prophetically.

The shock of just how quickly the sessions on the opening few days sold out was immense. The first 100 or so spots went in 30 minutes, the first day in the first hour, and the first week sold out on the first day. The pent-up appetite for any outdoor, away from home activity, was astonishing. There was obviously an opportunity here, but before we could capitalise upon it we had to be sure we could do so knowing that our hastily written procedures would work on the ground.

Aside from two of our team who had to remain furloughed as they were shielding, all our lifeguards were delighted to get back to the lake. We walked them through the new procedures, and the new Covid-19 CPR techniques and got ready to greet our first swimmers. Despite our request not to arrive early, our first thirty swimmers were queuing up the road before the gate opened. We checked their temperature, ticked off their name, directed them to the car park, and asked them to get changed by their cars. Swimmers then walked down to our entry point where they picked up their numbered, sterilised wristbands and took to the water with lifeguards looking on behind distanced barriers. After an hour we got the first wave out, and cleared the site, before repeating another three times that day. The joyful looks on our swimmers’ faces was something to behold.

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Our processes appeared to work, so slowly we began to expand, first more sessions per day, then more swimmers per sessions, then novices were welcomed into the fold. Around us, the River Chelmer was also blossoming with inflatable canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and river swimmers. Every weekend the country roads were jammed with cars disgorging hundreds of wetsuit clad bodies into the locks and rivers. At our peak we were seeing over 1000 swimmers per week!

June saw us put on the first private early morning sessions for the local swimming clubs in Chelmsford and Braintree. Here were great young swimmers, used to daily discipline of an early morning club session, who had been restrained at home for nearly three months. They may not have swum outdoors before, but they flew out of their parents’ cars and were soon racing around the lake. They loved it.

The long sunny summer did start to catch up with us a little in July. The lake was a little lower than normal as our landlord had to pump some water for irrigation during that blissfully warm April and May. We had also missed our normal early season opportunities to get some pond dye into the lake to suppress weed growth. We did what we could but the lower water level, and late arrival of pond dye meant that we had one or two areas where the weeds were a little more established than normal. Our regular swim course had to be adjusted from time to time as the weeds bumped us off course.

After a crazy ten weeks or so the initial manic phase faded, some of the swimming clubs could return to their pools, and more people started to return to work. August saw the normal holiday season drop in swimmer numbers, but we were still much busier than we would expect to have been historically. We were excited to be amongst the first sites in the UK to put on a socially distanced triathlon at the start of August, with the British Triathlon Federation looking on with a keen eye to see if all their new guidelines worked in practice. Blue green algae briefly threatened near the August bank holiday weekend, but never really got established beyond one or two small localised spots and so we could remain open.

September was blessed with the kiss of an Indian Summer and so some of the late season weekends have been gloriously warm, and the last few weekday evenings swims concluding with some spectacular sunsets (we won’t mention the absolute drenching we got on the last evening of September will we?).

As I write this, it is the first Saturday since 24 May that we have not been open. We are back tomorrow though, the first Sunday in October, for our first ever winter season. There are simply too many people who want to keep swimming for us to shut yet. We have Polar Bear Swimmers and Trifarm Ice Cubes lined up to swim with us through the winter, including our first Boxing Day dip. The online shop is stocked with vests, gloves, socks and hoods.

It has been amazing to share the joy of outdoor swimming with so many new faces this year, especially during such a challenging period for everyone. At least, for now, lockdown permitting, we can just keep swimming.

See you at the lake!

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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.