Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Testing the Chillswim tow-float in the Lakes....

I spent last weekend up in the Lake District getting a final bit of distance under my belt before tapering for MIMS II. Things didn't quite run smoothly at first - the fanbelt on the van blew on the M6, and I had to be rescued (again!) and spend an afternoon in a portacabin in a garage in Stafford while they put poor Bob back together again. But eventually, 10 hours after I'd set off from home, I rumbled into the beautiful setting of the Dalebottom Farm campsite, ready to start my weekend of swimming.


On Friday, I swam in Windermere, tagging along with Jonny and Mark - two triathletes from York training for a 1-way Windermere in a couple of weeks - and their support kayakers, Nicky and Jamie, for a four hour swim up the lake, and that evening, I joined a small group from Carlisle for a 3km swim in Derwentwater. Both of these were a testimony to (a) the power of Facebook to connect people and (b) the openness of the swimming community. Thanks to all for letting me join in the fun, and especially to Jonny and Mark for making me chase them frantically for the entire swim - a good workout for this plodder.

On Saturday, I did a 6-way swim of Buttermere (12km), starting with pals Steph and Claire, and then carrying on solo for a few hours - this is one of the most stunning swim locations I've ever been to:


And then on Sunday, I did a couple of hours in Derwentwater, although the stormy and dramatic conditions meant that I spent more time bobbling about looking at the moody scenery than training. Pardon the blurry pic, but you get the idea:


Anyway....aside from the novelty of swimming in long straight lines rather than 700m circles, this weekend was my first chance to test out my new Chillswim tow-float.



The idea is simple - a brightly coloured, inflatable device that is tethered to the swimmer around the waist, increasing visibility and if necessary, providing bouyant support if the swimmer needs to rest or wait for assistance. I had chosen one of the dry-bag versions, which combines a sealable waterproof bag (the large size has a 35 litre capacity) with two inflatable pockets, enabling you to tow your belongings with you, either in case you need to get out mid-swim, or because you don't want to risk your bag of clothes being nicked while you're off swimming. The easiest way to see how it works is to have a look at Colin Hill's video demonstration:


When I first saw the tow-floats in action, it looked as if it would be bouncing constantly off the feet, which I expected to drive me nuts, but it sits just behind your backside and you hardly know it's there. For each swim, I had a Robie robe, crocs and a bottle of sports drink in the bag, and there was still room to spare. It does create a small amount of drag, especially if it is windy - I usually swim at about 3.1 - 3.2 km/h for my steady training, but with the filled tow-float, was doing a fairly consistent 3km/h. You can also feel it tugging when swimming into the wind, and with the wind behind you, it tends to sneak up and bounce off your behind or your upper back, which can be surprising if you've forgotten it was there! I also suspect that the drag caused by a very full bag might cause the waist strap to chafe a little, but women have the benefit of costume fabric covering their torso, so this was never a problem for me. But these very small inconveniences are definitely a price worth paying - firstly, for the ability to have some basic possessions with you in case you need to get out or feed, and secondly, because it massively increases your visibility to other water users, even (or especially) on a dark, stormy day: 


As you can see in this picture, I was also experimenting with methods of fixing a small mesh bag with a couple of gels in it to the outside - this enabled me to keep swimming for longer periods without having to pull in to the shore to get the bottle out of my bag (which involved deflating it, feeding, then resealing and re-inflating - something which you can't do while still in deep water. Trust me on this - it's an experiment you only try once). I found that tying the bag to the handle and then shoving the gels through the handle to hold the bag in placed worked best, but in rough conditions, the extra weight on top caused the float to constantly flip over, leading the mesh bag to drift free of the handle and bang against my legs. A work in progress, and only an issue for longer swims. 

This kind of device is never going to protect swimmers against people using the water irresponsibly (by driving too fast or in inappropriate areas), but it gives others a much greater chance to see you and avoid you (or come to your aid). As a result, it makes swimming alone a much more feasible prospect. I know that some people would say categorically that you should never swim alone, and I take the point - all the bouyancy devices in the world aren't going to help if you have a medical crisis in the water and you're alone. But at the same time, it is not always practical or possible to swim with others (especially for long swim training); and nor (dare I say it) is it always desirable. I love sociable swimming, but there is an extraordinary pleasure to solitary swimming too - especially in a stunning location. I picked my solo locations carefully; Buttermere has no boat traffic at all, and in Derwentwater, I stayed in zones of the lake out of the path of the launches. I also swam with a whistle attached to my costume for attracting attention, and wore an ID bracelet on my wrist which includes emergency contact numbers. I know that this latter isn't much good in a crisis, but there is some value in people knowing who you are in an emergency if you are unable to speak for yourself. And with these safety measures in place, I was able to enjoy some of the most euphorically peaceful swimming I've had for months. A risk, perhaps, but a qualified one in my view. 

Even though open water swimming is hardly a kit-heavy sport, every so often, a device comes along that changes the game, and I think that this is one of them. The swimmer gets a massive safety boost at very little cost in terms of comfort and pace, and the dry-bags offer improved security for possessions as well as making it possible to leave the water away from the start point if necessary. Colin Hill also told me that he's started receiving orders for tow-floats from lakes which are using them as a mandatory alternative to compulsory wetsuit use for organised swimming sessions. For those swimmers who have found themselves forced to use wetsuits even during the heatwave, this opens up a whole new set of possibilities which will enable swimmers to choose their attire according to their training needs without breaching organisers' insurance requirements or further exacerbating the tensions between wetsuit / nonwetsuit use in some locations. Win-win. 

So - a fabulous final week of long swimming before tapering down for MIMS II, and a highly successful trial for the tow-float, which now has a permanent place in my kit bag. 


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