Appearances can be deceptive. I have found this is often the case when turning up for open water swimming events. Sitting astride your bike at the start of a sportif you can spot the wiry mountain goats a mile off – but size and shape will not always betray who will emerge first from the swim leg of a triathlon.
And so it was, standing at the shore of Loch Ard, in the Stirling District of Scotland last weekend. It was 7.30am and I was about to spend anything up to five hours (judging by last years’ times) in the fresh water, (front) crawling my way towards 10km. At 6ft 2 I towered above the others, but those leading the way seemed to combine tiny with technique to great effect.
The opportunity to spend four hours in a horizontal position at 7.30am is something I would normally jump at (I’m talking about lie-ins) and, halfway through the first of five 2km laps I wondered if my new vest and an early pee would be enough to fend off 15.5-degree water.
It was. A little after 10.30, I clambered onto the small beach, tired but exhilarated. A gel, some banana and a gulp of Scotland’s finest loch water on each lap had seen me through.
I’d also trained, of course – not nearly as much as the blogs I read had suggested and my slow final lap proved – but enough to see me well under my goal time (it’s called a marathon swim, so something around the three-hour mark isn’t too shabby).
Some of the smaller statured participants managed closer to two-and-a-half hours (impressive, given that the Olympics in London’s Serpentine in 2012 was won in one hour 50 or so), whilst there were plenty of veterans out-swimming younger competitors. As I said, appearances can be deceiving.
This is as much the case for the swimmers as it is the water. Our swim followed a month of tragedies in the UK’s coastal waters, which included the death of Nick Thomas whilst swimming The Channel. His was an ultra-endurance feat of 21 miles without a wetsuit, but it showed that there are risks swimming in open water.
As we move into September – when our coastal and inland waters should be at their most enticing – it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about safety. I spoke to an expert to find out his top tips to keep you safe.
Robert Hamilton is founder of Vigour Events, which runs open water events (like the one at Loch Ard) and courses. He’s also on the regional board for the Royal Life Saving Society in Scotland, where he is the ‘go-to man’ on open water swimming.
Tip one: Check the tide times
It might sound obvious but, much like if you were surfing, there are good times and bad times to swim on an incoming tide, was the advice from the RNLI for my local beach. However, the best time is during what’s the called the “slack tide”, adds Robert. That’s when there is no movement either way in the tidal stream.
What you don’t want is to be swimming when the tide is going out. But remember, every part of the country’s coast is different, so do some research and ask the local RNLI, triathlon club or coastguard so you’re fully prepared.
Tip two: It’s good to talk
Amongst hectic work, family and social schedules it can be tricky to find space to swim with friends or the local club, but don’t be tempted to swim alone. “I’d never go swimming alone,” says Robert. “If you get cramp and you’re on your own, then you have no idea what’s going to happen.”
You also need to follow the example set by hikers, he adds. “Tell people when and where you are swimming and when you expect to be back.”
Tip three: Don’t forget to eat
On a long cycle you’ll be used to eating regularly, but how about during a 60-minute-plus swim? Eating halfway through the 3.8km of an ironman probably won’t be necessary but on longer training swims it’s important to feed – and have food and hot drinks at the ready when you come out.
Tip four: Have the right equipment
Goggle, hat and a wetsuit are must-haves (though the brave and experienced will go skins). I found a thermal vest to be a welcome addition and, so too, the visibility float Robert and his team provide for long distance events. It didn’t affect my swim or stroke in the slightest, but I wonder if those tiny swimmers around me had inserted turbos in theirs.