Round Brownsea Island Swim 2014

They say every open water swimmer has a story to tell. Here is Swimmer 457’s (aka Bob Holman, Chairman of EDOWSC). The article below was featured in the October 2014 issue of Swimming Times:

The drive into Poole under a grey muggy sky had been uneventful enough. The odd flurry of drizzle had settled on the windscreen but I could see in the distance some encouraging signs of lighter patches in the distant sky.

The Round Brownsea Island race certainly attracts a broad mix of people from all walks of life, doctors, builders, teachers, shop workers, administrators they all come with their common love of open water swimming and the freedom and joy of swimming in the sea.

My friend Mark Shakles has been running the event since he started it over 20 years ago and it has grown fantastically in popularity. I can well remember in the early days turning up with around 25 other mostly non-wetsuited swimmers. This year, Mark went live on the RLSS Poole website in February and within two hours had filled his 280 entry limit and had a hundred on the waiting list. Amazing!

Bob Holman and Emile Foote
Bob Holman and Emile Foote

My great swim friend Emile and I arrived at the big car park at Sandbanks just after 7 am. for registration. By then the cheerfully efficient volunteers were registering and the handing out of the swimmers packs. The system appeared to be running like clockwork. However, I know from long experience that a lot of planning and effort goes into this smooth operation. The team had an hour and a half to register all 283 swimmers before the first ferry set sail for the island at 8 am.

In total, Mark had over a hundred volunteers on the day registering, marshalling and providing the safety cover out on the water. He and his committee organises assistance from all the life saving clubs in the area. It is a massive operation and he actually takes two weeks leave from work to manage it.

After a very mild winter, the sea temperature had held up pretty well through a warm spring and early summer and was now a positively balmy 17C.

We picked up our packs including a swim hat, number to be attached to the hat, lanyard, swim wristband and a large bin liner to deposit our clothes and valuables and we set off on our 15 minute walk to the ferry. There was a record number of swimmers from my own East Dorset Open Water Swimming Club and also a number of our members helping on the day. Open water swimmers are a friendly bunch and very supportive of each other and jovial banter was in full flow. Yes, they all wish to do well and some were there competing to win the various categories, but as a whole they were there to fulfil their own personal challenges. Could they beat last year’s time or like me, could they hold on to what they got!

The short walk to the ferry negotiated, we mingled by the quay where the yellow Brownsea Island ferry boat was tied up ready to take us across to the island. Emile and I decided to sit on the top deck for the ten minute journey where we could see craft large and small, sailing in and out of Poole Harbour- magic! It was in 1907 that Lord Robert Baden-Powell came and set up his first campsite on the southern side of the island which was the forerunner to the worldwide scout and guide movement. The National Trust, who now manage the island still run camping on the very site. There is also a colony of red squirrels and deer inhabiting the place, a unique feature of a wonderful habitat.

Having disembarked we waited a while before being asked to walk through to the Castle Gardens (now owned by the John Lewis Partnership). Time for a chat, talk about the day ahead and prepare for the race. I know I keep on saying so, but there is a tremendous camaraderie amongst long distance swimmers that you do not always get in swimming. A tub of Vaseline shared here, some useful tip about navigating the island imparted there. Yes everyone wanted to achieve their own personal goal but they were also keen to help others.

The safety briefing given by Mike Darkin was brief but comprehensive and he seemed very keen that everyone swam in the same anticlockwise direction around the island! For a mainly left sided breather this could not be better!

The briefing over, there was time to make final preparations for the race. There was a scurry of activity as swimmers squeezed themselves into their wetsuits or swimming costumes, hats on, goggles, a little Vaseline to prevent chaffing, we were ready.

We were then invited to walk along the pathway and deposit our clothes and personal belongings in our swim number marked bin bag over the wall into the baggage area.

On the beach, the order was then given to enter the water, all 283 of us, 269 in the 4.6 mile full distance and 14 in the half distance. But where was Emile? I scanned the milling throng of swimmers for his green hat and he eventually swam over towards me and we wished each other a last minute good luck for the race.

Brownsea Swim
Brownsea Swim

On the sound of the klaxon we were off, arms flailing, legs kicking furiously. I am told it is an amazing sight but it is even more of an experience in the water. With over 280 swimmers trying to find a little space to swim in at the start, the answer is often to ease back a little and maybe swim on the outer edge of the mass.

After a couple of hundred metres we rounded the quay and made our way along by the stone wall for a while. We then turned left to be faced with the long expanse of the island before us. Many swimmers tend to follow the curvature of the island consequently swimming into all the inlets and in my opinion swimming much further than they need whilst not catching the best of the tide. I tend to take a line straight up the long stretch of the island and just inside the safety cover.

The sun was now beginning to peep through a shadowy sky casting shafts of light on the turbulent water. The choppy sea was to ease in the later stages of the race but added to the challenge.

After a while I began to settle into a steady rhythm and enjoy my swim. Around halfway up the island, I thought I had spotted Emile swimming beside me and gave the swimmer a friendly tap on the head. He didn’t respond and I suddenly realised that it wasn’t him. Silly old fool!

Pottery Pier is the halfway point of the swim where the half distance swimmers finish though some decided to carry on to complete the full distance. It is the point where you start your turn to swim down the southern side of the island. Here it becomes very shallow and I found myself easing out into slightly deeper water.

Then it happened as it always does. The old bones and muscles began to ache as I hung on in there. The usual thoughts began to race through my head “I am never going to do this again. Not ever!” Trouble is that with a year to forget the pain I put myself through, I always forget and I am determined to have another go!

Keep going, just keep turning those weary arms over and you will get there I tell myself, time and time again. By this time, younger fitter swimmers were beginning to overtake me but for the most part, I was holding my own.
The large yellow finish flags and buoys emerged out of the background and the castle loomed ever closer. I was almost there now, just a little way to go…

I had completed the course in one hour 55 minutes 20 seconds. My Brownsea medal was place over my head after I had swam through the finish funnel. The finish marshals were fantastic making everyone feel so special as they emerged from the water. My swim had gone well and I claimed 125th spot though I thought I could have done better with a little more preparation. Still for me it was a triumph to be there still doing the thing I love.

All the swimmers had come through their personal challenge with Guy Giles leading the field in a staggering time of 1 hour 14 minutes 38 seconds. Hannah Tuck from the National Trust brought up the rear with a time of 3 hours 23 minutes28 seconds for perhaps the biggest cheer of the day.

As I lay on the beach changing back into shorts and t-shirt a friendly fellow swimmer engaged me in conversation. After about five minutes it became clear that he wanted to ask me something and eventually plucked up the courage. “Excuse me asking, but how old are you?” I felt like saying 24 but that I’ve worn badly but eventually meekly admitted to being 70 at the end of the year and as with last year, the oldest swimmer in the race.

There was time for my soup/roll and to collect my Brownsea t-shirt before heading for the prize giving where it was announced that over £5,000 had been raised for charity, another by-product of a great day.

As I stepped off the ferry on my return trip from the island, another fellow swimmer stepped in front of me. “It’s Bob isn’t it? I’m Scott Rodger and we met when we swam Burgh Island together three years ago”. I had told Scott what a wonderful swim Brownsea was and he must swim it one day and here he was!

Following this, his wife had given him a year’s subscription to the Swimming Times for his birthday and he seemed very pleased to read that he was mentioned in my Burgh Island report. It was good to hear that in a very small way, I was helping the circulation figures of this magazine.

When I look back, this had been another fabulous day spent in good company in a truly magnificent location. Mark Shakles and his team should be so proud to have organised such a fantastic event. I shall certainly be back again next year.

What did I say!