Monday, January 13, 2014

Making swims special again

It’s interesting to watch the numbers each week, each year: which swims grow in popularity; which swims diminish; where the growth is overall; and so on.

The Cole Classic, for example, has been falling dramatically in numbers over the past few years, but at the same time its 1km swim has continued to grow so that, for the last two years, it’s been bigger than the Cole’s 2km swim.

We recall when the Cole first ran a 1km swim: it was after the Cole family switched the swim to Manly. Can’t recall exactly what year that was, but six or seven years ago. The Bros Cole weren’t sure how well the shorter swim would go in the marketplace of ocean swimming, but it was an immediate hit with, from memory, 650 punters on its first outing.

It reminds us of the very first Bondi-Bronte swim, which drew 850 on a poor day. It was a natural course; an iconic journey. Originally, the Bronte organisers intended to run over a circuit inside the bay at Bronte. The decision to start around Mackenzies Point at Bondi made that event an icon swim.

The schlepp along the beach is part of the beauty of Avalon.
It seems to show that certain things will draw swimmers. One of them, these days, seems to be shorter distances, which are attractive to new ocean swimmers. Another is interesting courses: especially journeys over circuits.

Ocean swimming has been booming, as the sports writers would put it, for years, but the growth particularly has been with shorter distance events: 1km or even shorter. Newport offers an 800m swim these days, which drew 30 per cent of their field this season. Even The Big Swim (Palm Beach-Whale Beach) now offers The Little Big Swim at 1km.

It appears that new swimmers prefer shorter distances to kick off their careers.

Around NSW, traditional distances have been around 2km, so 1km is very much the shorter event. In Victoria, traditional distances have been 1km+, such as 1.2km (the distance of last Sat’dee’s Lorne Pier to Pub, which drew 4,465). There, new events tend to be longer distances complementing the existing shorts.

Up at Whale Beach, the Big Swim is around 2.5km, but its numbers, too, have been dropping over recent years. 

Bondi-Bronte is just 2km, which is not long for these parts, but its numbers have been falling, too, until this season when they introduced shorter options, leading to reversal of the downward trend overall.
Head Babewatcher, James Goswell, was impressive in his start. (There, you happy with that, James?)
We’ve mentioned the Cole, which might be a withering event at their entry fees but for the 1km course holding up the event overall. (We acknowledge the significant role that the Cole plays, backed by Fairfax Meeja, in bringing new swimmers into the sport. The pity is that Fairfax does stuff all to tell those swimmers about other events that are available to them, most of which are run by the kind of charities they say they support.)
It’s the shorter distances that appeal to the swimmers who make the sport grow: new ocean swimmers.
The other appeal, we reckon, is interesting courses. 
Bondi-Bronte, a relative newcomer, is similar conceptually to The Big Swim, from Palm Beach to Whale Beach, this year celebrating its 40th outing: it’s a journey swim around a landmark. 
This laydees wave start was the most sedate we've ever seen in an ocean swim.
In the olden days, when we set up (coming up to 15 years ago), there were just 17 swims on the NSW calendar, costing $20-$25 each to enter. No-one, as we recall, offered different distances (the first shorter distance added to an existing, longer event in our experience was Shark Island at Cronulla, which introduced a 1km swim to complement the 2.3km journey around the island). While new swimmers, particularly, found this attractive, it took a few seasons before regular punters recognised the shorter option for the opportunity it was to warm-up before the main event).
At rates of $20-$25 per entry, punters had little trouble accommodating the entire season. Swimmers still do on average fewer than two swims per season, so little has changed in that regard. But regular swimmers are a different story. This season, we have 95 events on our books in NSW (many with multiple swims) and 227 ‘round Stra’a. Those swims generally cost $35-$40 to enter. If you did 10 swims in 2000/01, it would cost you, say $250 spread over the season running from mid-December through early March, maybe with Byron in May tacked on to the end. Now, those ten swims will cost you $400, or more if you do the Cole, whose base entry fee this season is $65 for the 2km (although you can get cheaper entry through early entry. The fact that the Cole this season offered a sliding scale of fees ranging from $50 when entries opened last year to $65 in the last few weeks suggests they are sensitive to this price issue. At last.)
The weed tickled our fancy in the run-out at Avalon.
The points are that it’s much more expensive to pursue your career as an ocean swimmer these days; there are many more choices to make about which swims you do, and swimmers are making more choices: you can't assume that if it's on, they will come; and newer swimmers prefer shorter distances.
Swimmers appear to be becoming more discerning about the events they choose for reasons both of season cost and of availability of options. They won’t drive as far: anecdotal evidence surrounding last weekend’s clash between North Bondi (1,158 finishers), in the eastern suburbs, and Avalon (450 finishers), up on the northern beaches, suggests that distance to Avalon was a common factor in punters’ decisions to stick closer to home at Bondi. In the olden days, a trip to Avalon was special. These days, there are plenty of opportunities to swim at special places. As well, North Bondi offered their Combo entry, which made it possible, at its extreme, to get four swims for an average $22.50. Avalon can’t do that. But they could do that if the five Pittwater swims, now loosely tied together in their Pittwater Series, also offer a Combo entry: do all five; or pick your four or your three, at reduced rates. Organising clubs might have to accept a little less per entry, but they may end up with more punters, and greater economies of scale if they combined costs, such as caps and timing. This seems to us a gimme.
Huey watches over us at Avalon.
We’ve long regarded Avalon as one of our favourite swims. We love the January trek along the northern beaches and Avalon, perhaps more than any other northern beach – apart from Bilgola – oozes exotica. Avalon is not a particularly expensive swim -- $35 this season, a price that’s held for a few years – and while a circuit swim, not a journey, it offered something special. For us, it was the January trek, and the northern run-out.
We’ve raved about the start at Avalon ad nauseum over the years. It’s our favourite in ocean swimming. The swim starts in the northern corner of Avalon beach, where a runout whisks one briskly seawards. Some years, we’ve swum so close to the rocks – yes, yes, we know, you’ve heard all this before – that we’ve felt the tickle of the waving weed on our bellies. It’s a sensation like the mischievous caress of the lip on our backs as we scurried along the face of a rapidly breaking wave. In our younger days. 
Hiding behind the water sculpcha.
At Avalon, we even knew the lifesaver who was stationed each year on the rock just by the start to keep the mob from straying too far over the rocks, and to pull out those who did. He was a photographer, Tim Hixson. We saw Tim shortly after we arrived at Avalon this weekend. We said, “We’ll see you on the rock, Tim”. But, “No,” Tim said. “I won’t be on the rock today. We’re starting you back along the beach.”
Incredulous, we just couldn’t believe it! We asked why? It was to do with a lady who injured her knee at the start last year, Tim said. Later, others said it also was to do with the Avalon club losing, or almost losing a rubber ducky – an IRB – in the break near the rocks the year before last, when the seas were running and the start was hairy for inexperienced swimmers. Remember that day. Our enduring image was of a little boy, who’d missed the start, crying on the beach. 
So the Avalon organisers pulled the start this year back from the northern corner, about 100m south along the beach. Mind you, they left the first booee in the same spot off the headland, so the start was on an angle across a shallowing bank as the tide fell, through the break, which was so small it almost wasn’t there at all. That was strange in itself: it meant that starters at the northern end of the line had a distinct advantage over the field. You could argue that everyone had the option to start at the northern end of the line, but thank goodness they didn’t because the crush would have been chaotic. It would have made more sense to bring the first booee south, too, so the start was straight out. That would have shortened the course, but then the booee could have been taken a bit farther out to sea, so the distance overall could remain largely unaffected.
A very noice recovering arm. Little kiddies, take note.
The mob remained free to walk or run along the beach to start in the northern corner if they wished, and we saw some do so. But that would have put them behind the peloton, particularly with the only gentle runout operating on a very small day.

We did that, too: we stood on the bank taking pitchers of the wave starts, which weren’t all that interesting given the shallowness of the bank. Before the sub-codgers and codgers got going, we gave up, came out of the water, and trudged along the beach to the northern corner. We entered the water as close to the rocks as we dared, and we swam out through the runout, such as it was, over the weed, the headland – Indian Head, so named for the face carved by naytcha into its face in profile, whom we prefer to regard as Huey watching over us – looming over us. So we still got to start in the runout, but most didn’t.
It is that runout that makes this swim special to us. Without it, even allowing for what a lovely place Avalon is, the swim becomes just another circuit. 
At times of diminishing numbers with inversely growing discernment amongst swimmers towards which swims they’ll do, we reckon the Avalon people need to have a close look at how they run their swim. We can understand their aversion to the risk of swimmers injuring themselves on the rocks in lively seas, but those seas did not obtain this year; the risk was minimal. If you take out that wonderful start, you need to have a very good reason for doing so. 
They might also consider offering a shorter distance. The main event is only 1.5km, which ain’t long, but it is to someone who feels anything over 1km is an ask for one of their first swims. Avalon ran a 500m Fins swim this season, but that’s not for everyone, as suggested by the fact that it drew only 12 punters, most of them kids. They need to do something to give their swim that special something that makes them different.
You'll have to watch that shoulder, comrade.
Avalon regularly clashes with North Bondi. Sometimes, earlier there are five Sundees in January, those swims get their own dates. Now, with Newport claiming the first Sundee in January, North Bondi must weigh up who’d they rather run against, not to mention the value or weight of running too close to New Year. Chances are that these two swims usually will clash again.

There is another course, however, which either swim could take. Sydney is devoid of swims on the weekend between Xmas and New Year, or the public holidays surrounding them. There’s nothing in Sydney between Manly on the third Sundee in December, and Newport on the first Sundee in January. 

In Victoria, there is a tradition of making a virtue of this holiday period: the Xmas-New year week sees a run of good swims at Pt Leo on Boxing Day, then Anglesea and Pt Lonsdale later in the week. Granted, these swims run on Victoria’s holiday coasts. But plenty of punters travel down from Melbourne to take part in them, as do holidaymakers in situ.

Someone should have a look at that space in Sydney. There are plenty of swimmers around. At the moment, Yamba runs around that time, way up on the North Coast. Who will fill the void in Sydney?

One thing is certain, as they TV news people say, only time will tell… er, they would get the date to themselves, and that, on the ocean swimming circuit these days, is one of the most precious commodities of all.

Our GPS-in-a-plastic-bag said 1.62km.


  1. The other factor that adds numbers to the smaller swims are the people who do both short & long swims at an event. I think that these numbers have also been growing. With a lot of us travelling reasonable distances to swims it is a much better option to enjoy both swims while you are there.

    Event organisers do need to consider this, and will get better numbers of entrants if they:
    • Offer a worthwhile “both swim” discount entry rate
    • Do not start both swims at the same time
    • Time the swims with a reasonable recovery time between starts
    • Start the shorter distance swim first (many use this swim as a warm up for the longer swim)

    Couldn’t agree more with you about the lack of NSW swims over the Christmas break. I get very jealous watching details of all the Victorian swims in this period.

  2. I agree - we need more NSW swims around Christmas. Please :-)

    Also for folks South of the harbour in Sydney a trip up to the Northern Beaches is worth it. Lovely atmosphere at Avalon, possibly a little less frenetic that at North Bondi. The way I see it ocean swimming is a way to explore beaches you wouldn't normally go to, rather than stick to regular haunts.

  3. So much to say after reading this blog. Will try to keep it brief.

    I love Avalon. As JD says, the trip is worth it. As OSC says, the run-out at the north end is a thing of beauty. I woulda gone to Avalon this year, but life is busy, time is short, and for me Bondi is just so much closer. And Bondi is 2k. The 1.5 just ain't that satisfying. Sorry Avalon. But I will see you again another time.

    I did get to swim out right along the rocks at North Bondi and (almost) feel the fishes tickling that tummy. If that goes missing at Avalon it would be very disappointing.


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