It is perhaps slightly ironic that the organisers of an event designed to celebrate the height of summer should discover through a survey that there is mounting demand for winter swimming. The Henley Classic is a 2.1km mid-summer dawn swim along the famous Henley Regatta Course. The date each year is close to the summer solstice and swimmers – if the weather behaves – are treated to a sunrise from the water.
In November this year, Henley Swim, the organisers of the Henley Classic, carried out a survey of open water swimmers to try to determine when and why they hang up their togs for the season or return to the heated waters of swimming pools.
Temperatures in British inland waters can tumble quickly at the end of the summer and are often in single digits by November. Water this cold can be uncomfortable – painful even – so the expectation was that temperature would be the main factor dictating when people stop swimming outside.
And this was the case for a good number of the swimmers surveyed – and applied equally to both wetsuit and non-wetsuit swimmers – although some were able to extend their swimming season through wearing neoprene gloves, hats and boots. Numb and useless fingers in particular were cited as a reason to avoid extreme cold. Others felt that the addition of gloves spoilt their experience of swimming as they lost a vital connection with the water.
As the water gets colder the length of time you can safely swim for decreases. For some then, the effort of making their way to the swimming spot and changing stopped being worth it when time in the water became too short. Others however see winter as a much more social time to swim outside: less time in the water means more chance to shiver and chat over a mug of tea and a piece of cake.
However, the most common reason for people to stop swimming was simply that their preferred venue shut down for the winter.
One exception to this is Queenford Lakes in Oxfordshire, where the operators have given in to pressure from swimmers and decided to stay open for a second winter. They are expecting an increase in numbers from 2014/2015.
“The clear message to emerge from this survey is that there is plenty of latent demand for something a little more challenging, but that the demand is not currently being met by the various venues,” says Tom Kean, one of the founders of Henley Swim.
Henley Swim’s Event Manager Annette Young adds: “We are hugely encouraged by the survey and welcome the surge in interest in colder event possibilities. Obviously we are perceived as a summer sport, but with better equipment and strong demand, there’s no reason why we can’t look forward to a longer season. It’s up to the swimmers to enter of course, and demand will dictate the outcome, but based on this we are going to look at a broader calendar for 2016.”
For other UK open water venues that are staying open through winter see:http://h2openmagazine.com/files/1214/4915/1834/0082.pdf