Having turtles in my spectating cheer squad is a definite high point of this year’s race season. As I raced a few weeks ago there was the usual human enthusiasm along the shoreline and in nearby kayaks, but the added brilliance of this particular 5km swim was the underwater support; turtles, star fish, beautifully bright vertebrates and a couple of unidentifiable folks too! There were several occasions on which I forgot to breathe as I stared downwards in awe. We had ventured to Barbados for the Open Water Festival (BOWF), something that has been on my bucket list for a while.
The BOWF is 5 days of swimming paradise. There are 3 guided swims, all about 2km and at different locations around the Island. These guided, gentle swims are followed by a weekend of racing; Saturday was 1.5km with a race or fun option and Sunday was an option of a 10km, 5km or 3.3km race. All swimming took place in the incredibly blue, aquarium-like waters of Barbados. This was the 7th year of the festival and it was no surprise to hear that the participation had grown from 12 people to well over 400 this year.
We arrived at Copacabana beach, Carlisle bay, for our first guided swim. The music was pumping, and the beach area was teaming with swimmers and supporters; the two groups distinguishable by either their luminous swim wear or the fact that they had a rum punch in hand! The swimmers also showcased an exceptional number of aquatic achievements on their heads, in an impressive rainbow of silicon swim hats…like the adult version of the badges you got as a child. Only instead of a 25m badge, these caps displayed channel crossings, cold water swims in Russia and even Olympic triumphs. It was very impressive and made for a great conversation starter when we were bobbing up and down in the water. Although the achievements held adult status, the buzz and energy held a childlike enthusiasm – it was utterly brilliant.
The first swim route was an ordinary ‘out and back’, but the route is where the ordinary ended. As soon as we stepped in to the tropically warm waters we were in for a treat; the waters were as clear as glass, teaming with sea life that David Attenborough would have been envious of. The smoothness with which we glided along was meditative, Laura and I were in sync and our faces perfectly visible to each other through the crystal waters. I was smiling like a small child, so incredibly overcome with joy that i was swimming in such a location! So, we swam, we stopped and chatted, we met some fascinating souls from around the globe and then we swam back to shore. I am unsure whether it was the promise of some rum punch when we hit the shoreline, or the pure joy of the waters, but we flew back at an impressive pace. I was once again awestruck by the natural beauty. Every breath I took to my left gave me a glimpse of the impressive sun that was setting in a phenomenal fashion on the horizon. I was in my happy place.
As we emerged from our first guided swim the energy had amplified; the supporters, now several rum punches down, were lining the beach and absorbing the sunset and us swimmers, well we were now as luminous as our costumes. The energy was magic. People had traveled from all over the globe for this festival; Canadian’s escaping the harsh winter, including several Olympians, fellow Brits keen to experience the glorious waters, a Brazilian lady who had come alone, the Irish contingent, identifiable by their beaming smiles…19 nations were represented and 70:30 split in favor of women…the first sporting event I had been to where this was the case. Good work ladies!
Swim two started at Port St Charles Yacht Club. Oh, how the other half live…$4m or so for a pad in that post code. The waters were lovely, less activity than Carlisle bay, but the boat life alone gave more than enough to look at!
I am unsure the club had prepped for such an onslaught; around 150 jubilant swimmers wanting to get changed in two rather small changing facilities made for total chaos. My personal benefit of being both a good swimmer and also a shower obsessive, meant that I was second in the shower queue – Laura and I stood there for what seemed like an eternity before I decided to knock on the door and politely point out that the queue of swimmers was growing…fast. Within moments, the door was open, and Debs quickly introduced herself and ushered me in to what was an exceptionally small space for one person, let alone two. And two strangers, at that. I squeezed into the cubicle and of course, she was butt naked, to which she had zero issue…within a couple of seconds I was in the same situation: I was showering, and she was changing, we were both regaling stories of the swim, without a care in the world. In that moment I was reminded of the incredible confidence that sport instills…in the water, on the pitch or in the locker room. Body confidence for young females is something that should be focused on from an early age.
We were soon freshened and changed and sitting dock side with a large G&T in hand, which was incredibly civilized! The club was operating a token system to reduce queuing at the bar and BBQ and, fortuitously, several the swimmers over indexed on their token buying….as the keen beans left early to get a good nights sleep we were settling in to a serious G&T session, which became even more serious as we were donated a whole raft of tokens. Monopoly money for free G&Ts, it was heaven! The next thing we knew two men were limbering up, dock side. They were flailing their limbs as though they were about to take part in an Olympic race…I know what you are thinking, “it is now night, surely?”…indeed it was. The night life of the ocean illuminated by the spot lights on the edge of the decking. “Are you off for a night swim?” I asked, with a hint of jealousy. “oh no, we are swimming home!”, one of the guys proudly informed me, whilst pointing at his parents’ impressive abode on the other shoreline…the other guy looking slightly nervous about the imminent dip! I had a new life goal right there: be able to swim home.
The third guided swim was a new adventure. The weather had been stormy and so the waters were choppy and the skies grey. ‘Don’t worry Laura, the way out will be tough, but we will fly back with the waves’, I confidently suggested…. sadly the wind changed direction at the same time as we did. Although Mother Nature was having a moody afternoon, the scenes below the water line remained stunning with Turtles cruising along the ocean bed without a moments bother for the 200 swimmers above them.
Having spent the previous evening at a luxurious yacht club, day 3 saw our post swim refuel at a street market. If you are looking for energy on a Friday night in Barbados, head to Ostin’s, the small town came alive with cracking music, multiple BBQs and hordes of people. We all settled into plastic tables and chairs, fortuitously for us we were under a marquee, which proved invaluable when the heavens opened for a torrential storm. The hordes squeezed themselves under the 2 inches of marquee, similar to the Victoria Line at rush hour! A down pour is no issue for a group of swimmers though, within moments the rain had stopped, and everyone whipped out their towels to dry their chairs. Problem solved.
The week was to conclude with two races; 1.5km on Saturday and 5km on Sunday. The holiday vibes plus my new found, pre-race zen, I was positively horizontal come race morning. Until the second that the gun went off, that was!! Over 400 swimmers and only 1500m to spread out the field, it was going to be CARNAGE. It did not disappoint.
I always get to the front of a swim race or the start of a triathlon, I back myself to get out and enjoy some clear water within the first 200m. No. Not this time. Not only did the field include several Olympians from the Canadian team (past and current), but the men had been set off with only a 1min interval ahead of us… we were swimming through them within a matter of meters. Before I knew it i had been punched in the face by one of the slower chaps. The start was hideous, total carnage. How on earth do boxers cope? My goggles were off, and my right eye socket was pounding. Had on been on land I would have been rolling around on the floor! Alas, no time for that. I did a couple of breast strokes to re-position my goggles, but even in that short space of time I was being swum over by some over-zealous ladies. This was ruthless, I needed to get cracking.
Once I finally got going and into my rhythm it was gorgeous. I had the time to look down and admire the sea life. The wrecks and small reefs were teeming with fish, it was like they’d all got up for their Saturday morning chores, going about their duties with a business-like fashion. I chuckled to myself and simultaneously swallowed a mouthful of sea water…keep your mouth closed, Pearse! I hit the shore in well within the top 10 for my age group. 24mins for 1600m, a good swim.
Race two, 5(ish)km. the new pre-race relaxation swathed over me again. I sat at breakfast as though I was about to lie on a sun lounger all day, the thought of swimming 5.5km was a world away! Luckily, due to recent experience, by the time I made the start line I had found a few gears and I was ready to rock. The start was like a yoga class in compassion to the day before, savasana to be precise. I maybe had 10 people to battle with and by 500m I was relatively clear. The swim was incredible, I felt strong and I had my own turtle support crew, about 7 to be exact and all of whom were reliably placed at the same points on each lap. They were just chilling, easy like Sunday morning as I powered my way around the three laps. On lap two I spied a menacing cloud on the horizon, which by lap three was torrential rain. I struggled to confirm whether it was actually raining until the drops were bouncing down around me and off of my face. It was unique swimming mid storm… luckily there was no lightening, just waves!
I came out of the swim trilled with my time; 5.5km and around 1hour 26 mins. The leaderboard was even more exciting…I came 1st. WHAT. I hadn’t won a sporting competition since my equestrian days. I was so excited. And then, a MASSIVE needle flew down and burst my very large balloon, and cruelly it happened as I was walking towards the podium, I had come in second. Not first. There had been an error in the results, such was the casual nature of the Barbadians! Amidst the torrential rain there has been a judge’s enquiry and I was downgraded to second place…to be fair, she was a good 10 mins faster than me and probably a Canadian Olympian. Still, a silver medal? Not bad for a holiday.
It was such a brilliant week. My annual beach time and recharge zone seems to take a familiar course; a few days of me being a mute and sleeping a lot and then the remaining few days getting involved in a few light sporting activities. And of course, with great friends and a perfect amount of side-splitting laughter.
Every trip I go on, I realize something about myself. Either a new revelation or just confirmation. In this case it was unwavering confirmation that the ocean and beautiful sunsets bring me incredible amounts of happiness. It is nothing flashy, mother nature just has the ability to reset my busy mind and recharge me in a very short space of time. I must work on the move to the seaside!
Happiness is as simple as sunsets and swimming.
Who fancies BOWF in 2019??
Thanks for listening