In what we think was the first post-lockdown mass participation open water swimming event in England, the annual Across Mersey Swim took place on Saturday 18 July. Around 170 swimmers completed the approximately 1-mile swim.
Event organiser Liam Hanlon, says putting all the necessary permissions and procedures in place was, “tricky”.
This was the 27th year for the modern Across Mersey Swim, and the 17th with which Mr Hanlon has been involved.
“Getting this year’s event off the ground required lengthy conversations with the councils on both sides of the river, the police and the coast guard, plus detailed study of government guidelines on gatherings,” he says.
The swim is something of a local community endeavour, and this helped in complying with the social distancing requirements. Swimmers were put together in pods with other people they had already been regularly swimming and training with, and pod leaders vouched for swimmers’ abilities and speed. Swimmers were required to stick with their pods during the briefing and entry into the water as well as the swim, and each pod had its own toilet and hand sanitiser station.
In normal years, swimmers are ferried across the Mersey in the support boats to the start and swim back. However, it wouldn’t have been possible to maintain social distancing on the boats. Instead, swimmers travelled over land by bus (while wearing face coverings) to the start, while the support boats waited in the water for them.
There was just one brief moment when social distancing requirements came under pressure, which was on the entry slipway to the water. Mr Hanlon explains this was for safety reasons as it was essential, because of the tide, to get the swimmers into the water together as quickly as possible. Any delay would have extended the swim line creating more risk for the swimmers and safety boats to manage. Swimmers were grouped in their isolated swim pods (as can be seen from the colour of the hats in the photograph) and maintained as much distance as possible between the pods to minimise risk.
Mr Hanlon says the feedback he’s received has been very encouraging. “There was a different attitude among swimmers this year. People are increasingly recognising the importance of open water swimming to their mental and emotional health. We don’t advertise this swim but share details with local swimming groups via WhatsApp – and this year we had double the number of swimmers we usually do. It was a godsend we were able to put on the event as it’s not a race, it’s a community.”
One participant we spoke to (who asked not to be named) said: “I felt happy to take part. Everyone took responsibility for their own health and safety. Masks were provided. The only other time I have seen similar measures were when I went to the Apple shop!”
In addition to the lengthy discussions mentioned above, the following covid-specific precautions were put in place:
- All swimmers signed a covid declaration to confirm they were symptom free and had not been in contact with anyone showing symptoms in the previous week
- All swimmers were provided with face coverings before start and after exiting the water
- Volunteers, including those on support boats, were provided with PPE
- One support boat designated for emergency extraction from the water if necessary
- Lengthy discussions were held with the insurance broker with cover only confirmed 18 hours before the event
Despite the additional workload, Mr Hanlon would urge other organisers to press ahead with their events, provided they can make them covid-secure. “Lockdown has created a big increase in interest in open water swimming. If you’re healthy, and has long as you take appropriate precautions, you can’t keep hiding away,” he says.
The first recorded crossing of the River Mersey was in 1863, according to wirrallife.com, as part of the Grand Liverpool Olympic Festival in that year. Captain Webb swam it in 1876, the same year he became the first person to swim across the English Channel. The crossing then became an annual event until the start of World War Two.
Image credits: Geoff Oldfield, www.mersey-images.com