FEATURES,  View from the Water

View from the water – Not all good things are wild and free

Simon Griffiths dissects the cost of events, and suggests an ethical way to get free entry

Last year we created a motivational image with a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “All good things are wild and free.”

Outdoor swimming attracts people who relish freedom. There’s a strong anti-commercial streak. You don’t pay to walk on footpaths; why should you pay to swim in rivers and lakes?

We agree. You shouldn’t. Nor should your swimming be regulated or your swimming times controlled. If you choose to swim where there are no lifeguards, that’s up to you. Do your own risk assessments and take responsibility for your own actions.

But not all open water swimming is free, or even cheap. One of the most frequent grumbles we hear is that events are too expensive. At this time of year, when you might be lining up a string of events for the summer, fees can quickly add up.

We are fortunate in the UK to have not-for-profit organisations such as the BLDSA along with clubs and charities that are able to put on brilliant low-cost events due to the support they receive from volunteers. But these do not represent the full extent of the swimming event market, which also includes commercial enterprises of various sizes.

I do not believe these organisers are exploiting swimmers and making the excess profits that some swimmers think they do. Many are run on shoe-string budgets by swimming enthusiasts who take considerable financial risks to create fun swimming experiences for the rest of us. I know of good and popular events that have been closed down because the operators couldn’t make the financials stack up.

Every way event organisers turn, someone is chipping away at their profits. Start with the online entry system, which might take between 4 and 7% of the entry fee. If your turnover exceeds £85,000 you have to charge VAT, which adds 20% to the ticket price. There are often payments required to access the water. Then there are the portaloos, marquees for registration and changing, medical cover, a website, water quality testing, timing systems, PA systems, safety cover, staff costs and insurance, not to mention bank fees and accountants’ charges.

If you want the experience of swimming with others, having your performance recorded and having an ambulance and safety crew on site in case you get into difficulties, you should therefore expect to pay for it.

This ‘commercialisation’ isn’t spoiling swimming. On the contrary, events are fantastic for the sport. The majority of organisers do a brilliant job of inspiring people to take up outdoor swimming and creating opportunities for more experienced swimmers to challenge themselves in safe environments.

Much of outdoor swimming is and should remain wild and free. Events are different. Without events, outdoor swimming would not be as popular and fun as it is today, so they are worth supporting. Most swimming events provide good value for money, despite price tags that seem hefty until you understand the full cost base.

If you don’t like to pay but still want to swim in events, don’t grumble. There is another option. Speak to the organiser and ask if they need volunteers. Many will provide discounted or free entry in one event for help at another, and that also helps keeps costs down for everyone.

There are plenty to choose from (see our online listings) at a range of price points. Where will you swim next?

Simon Griffiths is the founder and publisher of Outdoor Swimmer. Email Simon at: simon@outdoorswimmer.com

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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.