The Joys of Open Water Swimming

Winspit - Bob Holman
Winspit – Bob Holman

Bob Holman is a founder member of our Club, contributor to Swimming Times, Channel swimmer and has swum in every lido in the country. He recently shared his love of open water swimming with the Independent:

Can you remember when you first swam outdoors? Can you describe how it felt? Did you enjoy it? Were you hooked from the start?:

I was born in the 1940s and grew up in post war Barnstaple. My first memory of swimming outdoors (I was only around 6 at the time) was at Instow. My older brother and I would cycle the 6 miles to the beach with a group of friends and spend the day swimming in the sea and sand pools. Imagine what today’s parents would think of that?

Also, I have fond memories of the Old Rock Park Pool in Barnstaple where for 4d (old money!), I would spend all day with my mates.

I just loved the freedom and the friendships that swimming outdoors gave to me. Children’s freedom is so restricted these days.

Did you continue to swim, or have you picked it up on and off throughout your life?

Yes, it became a lifelong passion that has stayed with me all my life. From learning to swim, I joined the Barnstaple Swimming Club under the guidance of Harold Vernon and played water polo for 30 years initially in for Barnstaple in the Devon League and then for Bridport and Bournemouth when we moved to Dorset.

During the 1970s I met Tom Watch who had trained all the Weymouth channel swimmers from the 1950s and he inspired me to swim the channel in 1992 in just under 19 hours. I received the Rosemary George trophy from the Channel Swimming Association for the most meritorious swim of the year. I was already a devotee to open water swimming but this cemented my relationship and my passion for the sport.

Do most people pick it up later in life?

These days, I guess most people gravitate to open water swimming later in life maybe in their 20s and 30s. I was brought up to swim outdoors and it was the most natural thing to do. Nowadays, children are often freaked out at the thought of swimming in the sea. As an example, I can remember swimming at Ilkley Open Air Pool. This was one of the pools that my friend Dave Pratten and I swam in our successful bid to swim a mile in all the 100 remaining lidos in the UK in 2007/08. At Ilkley I was to discover a 25 metre indoor pool on the same site absolutely packed with swimmers on a glorious sunny day. Who would want to swim indoors when you have a beautiful large outdoor pool with the backdrop of Ilkley Moor in the background? It defies logic!

What is the most incredible experience you have had while swimming outdoors?

It has to be my channel swim

What is the worst experience? What have you learned from it?

I have had some tricky swims but I suppose the worse was when I was taken off course by a drunken Greek pilot in one of my 26kms Gulf of Toreneos swim. We got there in the end but it was a tough swim.

How do you feel being so close to nature?

There is a place called Seacombe along the Purbeck coast here in Dorset. You can dive off the rocks and swim a few 100 metres to the east. Here, you will find caves which if you swim hard with the incoming waves you will find yourself in a place of awe inspiring beauty. The pink rock formations are simply magical and the light from outside gives it a magic all of its own.

Can anyone swim outdoors? e.g. at what age can children start swimming outdoors?

Yes, of course anyone can swim outdoors and you cannot start children too young. Just get them in and have fun. Look for the little sea creatures in the rock pools, embrace nature. Of course, competitive swimming (open water events and challenges) can come later.

I was a founder member and chairman of East Dorset Open Water Swimming Club for a number of years. We attracted open water swimmers from all walks of life but united in their love of swimming outdoors.

What would you say to those who are put off by the cold?

These days anyone can buy a wetsuit and this enables you to stay in longer. Also, It is a question of acclimatisation: early season in the spring you might only swim for 5/10 minutes but as the summer progresses and the sea temperature warms from 10C up to 18C .you can swim for much longer and of course the body adapts to the cold.

Why did swimming outdoors fall out of fashion? Why has it grown in popularity recently?

You can blame foreign holidays and the building of new indoor all year round pools in the 60s and 70s. We have produced a generation of indoor pool swimmers who feel out of their comfort zone swimming outdoors. However, in recent years more and more people have been attracted to swimming outdoors. The wetsuit has brought a new generation of open water swimmers. The swimming purist would prefer the conventional costume, hat and goggles and may not approve of the wetsuit but it has helped to popularise the sport.

What is the most important advice for swimmers to stay safe, as well as legal?

Always tell someone else where you are swimming and when you are likely to return.

Always swim with others and buddy up.

Make sure that the weather conditions are suitable. Always look at the state of the sea.

Be sure which way the tide is going and consider timings for the return journey

Never stray far from the shoreline (no more than 50 metres out)- all you need is a depth of water to swim in. Jet skis, fast motor boats and kite surfers are always a problem so look out for them.

Always be aware of what is going on around you.

Look out for others in your swimming group. Their safety is important too.

What are the most popular spots in each part of the country?

You will find wonderful places to swim all along the Jurassic coastline in Dorset but there are so many brilliant places to swim up and down the country. I guess my favourites are swimming through Durdle Door, Lulworth Cove to Stair Hole, Swanage Bay with friends on a Saturday morning, Ringstead Bay with my friend Emile on a sunny Sunday morning.

What are the top events of the year?

There are of course now many events but for me the “Round Brownsea” swim of 4.6 miles run by my friend Mark Shakles from the RLSS Poole would take some beating. Brilliantly organised with around 300 swimmers going off together, it attracts swimmers of all capabilities and from all backgrounds. Here, you will get the feeling of camaraderie which exists between open water swimmers. They all want to swim well but are supportive of their fellow swimmers. You do not get this in competitive pool swimming.

Another top event is run by my own East Dorset Open Water Swimming Club. The Seahorse Swim (3.8kms & 2kms) takes place in early July each year and attracts a strong field of swimmers from all over the country. This is another well organised and friendly swim.