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Henley Swim finds participants willing to brave the cold

Henley Swim

The organisers of the mid-summer dawn swim, The Henley Classic in Henley-on-Thames, UK, have surveyed their swimmers, and there is ‘a clear pattern emerging.’

A release from the Henley Swim team states… Be in no doubt, swimming outdoors in an unheated body of water, in anything under 20 degrees can cause most people to shiver uncontrollably after only a short time….

Start to decrease that number and you’ll quickly start to sort the wheat from the chaff. Get to around 10 degrees and most will start to experience cold water shock, or ‘ice-cream head’ as others call it. But unlike the frozen treat, an unexpected or misunderstood splitting headache can be most disturbing. Then as you get to water’s natural solid state, things get serious, and only the most conditioned participants tend to see it as anything other than horrific.

The survey conducted in November this year as temperatures started to fall away, asked existing open water swimmers when and why they decided to stop for the season. Trying to dig a little deeper than simply finding out that it was too cold, respondents were given the chance to explain their reasoning in more detail.

Predictably, some people confirmed what is pretty obvious to most of the rest of us that it is simply the cold that gets to them, and that they no longer enjoy the experience. Skins and suits swimmers appear to be similarly affected, but neoprene gloves, booties and hats are clearly being used to extend the season, for some only by a matter of a week or two.

Others take the numbing of unprotected hands in particular as their way of calling it a day, shunning the artificial feel of gloves as a step too far.

Then you have the not-unreasonable argument that there comes a point when the swim itself has become so short, the journey ceases to be worth the effort. Some overcome this particular barrier by embracing the thrill that comes with pure immersion, and all that comes with it; like the social interaction with other (hopefully only mildly!) hypothermic friends, that also seems to include lots of cake, hot tubs and bacon rolls.

Then there is the fairly obvious problem that some lakes and other private venues simply pack up for the season due to the falling numbers. In fact this was the most common reason, with many citing their frustration, and lack of alternatives.

One venue that has most definitely bucked the trend is Queenford Lakes in Oxfordshire. Here the owners have, under keen pressure from their many numbers, decided to stay open for the second half of the year.

All the ‘added extras’ that go with a frozen dunking have been warmly embraced, making it sufficiently ‘fun’ and therefore popular enough to make it commercially viable to stay open.

It will be interesting to see how this looks come the depths of February, but they are expecting greater numbers again compared to last year. Social media seems key to this, letting people know there is something organised and safe.

The clear message to emerge from the Henley Swim 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. Sea swimming possibly has a slight advantage in this area as more people seem to find the relative stability of temperature easier to handle.

Henley Swim’s Event Manager Annette Young said of the survey, “We are hugely encouraged by the survey and welcome a 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.”




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