Boulter’s to Bray 2016

Thanks to Paddy for giving us an insight into open water swimming events from the spectator’s point of view.  It is as glamorous as we thought!!

Massive well done to Kate for her swim!

I’m not a sports spectator and never have been. I also can’t swim. I can float and vaguely control the direction of travel, but it’s not for me. The smell of chlorine evokes vivid memories of being thin and blue, shivering at the poolside in school swimming. I love lakes and the sea, but further schoolboy misadventures involving nudity and canoes (not at the same time, you understand) mean I don’t relish going for a dip in either. Rivers? Right up there with ‘rip tides’ in my list of reasons to decline an invitation from the swimming club.

So now we’ve established that I don’t enjoy watching sport, nor swimming, perhaps we can consider a pertinent question: what moment of lunacy has led to me getting up at 4am to go and watch people churning through a 3km stretch of the river Thames? It’s Saturday – I should be in bed, sleeping off a light hangover before getting up for a leisurely, high-cholesterol breakfast.

Thing is, Kate owes half of south London a lift (with IOUs ranging from Tooting Lido to the Lake District). The other thing is that Kate doesn’t have a car. Or, in fact, a licence – though that is a work in progress. Muggins here does, and has been enlisted. So, at 4am I’m at the wheel and we’re Maidenhead bound for the Boulter’s to Bray Swim.

Aside from the horribly early start, the day begins well. The sun is shining, we don’t hit traffic, we don’t get lost, we find a parking space immediately, registration is completed in the time it would take to buy a newspaper and there is a promise that later we will be offered bacon sandwiches. And coffee. Both will be needed.


Organised sport is not my natural habitat, but Kate quickly finds changing rooms and seems to have a good idea where the start of the 2.8km race is. I am promised the start will be “the exciting bit”.

Arriving at the starting area, things do get more interesting. Kate slips into a crowd being addressed by someone with a megaphone, leaving me to chat to the three other spectators (there are 180-odd entrants). But looking back on the throng, I notice that everyone has turned identical. As the starting gun looms, everyone has pulled on matching event-branded swimming caps. The uniform also includes a black wetsuit.

I can’t find Kate. Some more spectators turn up with a couple of labradors. Even the dogs look confused. It does look a little like the aliens have arrived. It doesn’t help that half of them are ‘windmilling’ like The Who guitarist Pete Townshend.


After a lengthy game of Where’s Wally? I manage to pick out a pair of distinctive pink goggles. It’s Kate, and I’m able to get missile lock long enough to see her enter the water. But now there’s a new problem: the organisers are ‘floating’ the swimmers around the corner for the start. I set off to get a better view.


I just catch the start, but there’s something surprising. Swimming is faster than I expected and this lot are heading downstream. I adopt a brisk pace in the hope of catching up. Problem is, I keep stopping to see if I can pick out a highlight of pink goggle among the rhythmically churning arms. Fat chance. I also have to cross via a bridge, which adds to the lag, following which I’m led down a riverside path where the dense foliage does not afford a clear view. I can hear arms slapping into the water, but I’ve no idea which end of the swimming order I’m walking next to.

Eventually, I come across a dozen or so panting wetsuited men on the towpath, just in time to see Kate (also panting) emerge behind them. It’s the first time I’ve had a definite ID on her since before the start, but I haven’t seen any of the other woman swimmers on the way down here, and there don’t appear to be any looking for their shoes in the pick-up area. Has she won? She doesn’t think so.

Back at HQ, important things are afoot, mainly involving pork and caffeine. Several men are trying to mend a computer. A small queue has formed. One of the men plugs in a new cable, gives it a wiggle and presses some buttons. He looks across the table hopefully and the expectant swimmer taps in his race number. A ticket is printed out. The queue begins to move.

Kate’s ticket reveals that she’s come 21st overall, and is the second fastest woman in the grid. During prize giving, we find out that she was off the leader’s pace by just seconds.


Swimming hasn’t revealed itself as the best kept secret in spectator sports, but Kate thinks having the support has helped her to put in a good time and there’s clearly a bonhomie among the swimmers. Would I get involved? Not on your life. But I might watch again, although I’d hope for a later start. And it’s definitely Kate’s turn to drive.