The Barbados Open Water Festival -
A dedicated swim race is a great way to get your swimming up to speed. But an open water festival with FIVE swims is even better!
The Barbados Open Water Festival takes place in early November each year, and involves 5 days of swimming in the crystal clear azure waters of the Caribbean Sea, just 13 degrees off the Equator. Both air and water temperatures are usually around 29 degrees Celcius.
In 2019, the dates were from the 6th to the 10th November, and we booked our places! We upped our swim training compared to our running for the 6 weeks before the event, as we counted down the time.
Barbados Open Water Festival - The Guided Swims
There are 3 days of guided swims to start off with.
Carlisle Bay is the ideal spot for the first guided swim and the following races. The Festival is based in front of the Copacabana Beach Bar on Bay Street. Many swimmers turned up in swim gear, and did not seem to realize that there are changing rooms with showers AND separate toilets up a staircase behind the bar area. To be fair, in typical Barbadian fashion, there are very few signs!
The guided practice swims are not timed, and all swimmers can go along at their own pace. However, there are quite a few swimmers who take these guided swims seriously, and aim for a good time.
The guided swims are NOT lead by swimmers, but by kayaks and stand-up-paddle boarders. They are easily visible. Each guided practice swim is followed by a Happy Hour at the nearest beach bar.
After the first guided swim, the Happy Hour was at the Copacabana beach bar itself. At the second swim (Port St. Charles) the Happy Hour was followed by a BBQ buffet. On the Friday, after the swim at Miami Beach, all swimmers are invited to the famous Oistins Fish Fry.
Happy hour drinks are usually 50% of the standard price, but at Port St. Charles it was still expensive!
Barbados Open Water Festival - The Races
Then there are 2 days of races, both in Carlisle Bay.
On Saturday November 9 2019 there was the 1.5km race, which just about everybody does. This acts as a warm up for the main event on Sunday! Race start is at 9.00am, but you have to be there before 8.20am latest for the race briefing.On Sunday
November 10 there were 3 race distances to choose from. The shortest is the 3.3km, and this is the race we entered. The medium distance is 5km, and there is also a 10km race. The 10km race starts at 7.00am, and the 3.3km and 5km races start at 9.00am, but you have to be there before 8.20am latest for the race briefing.
Last year (2019), there were swimmers from 35 countries, ranging from recreational pool swimmers all the way to world champions, olympians, and the incredible Cameron Bellamy, who shortly before completed the longest open-water sea swim EVER, by swimming unassisted from Barbados to St. Lucia. That's almost 100 miles. It took him 54 hours.
On the 2 race days there was a huge influx of Canadian swimmers; in fact, almost 30! They were young, fit, and extremely competitive. They took out the top 10 places in both the men's and women's 1.5km race, and figured heavily in the 5km and 10km races too.
The 1.5km race started in front of the Copacabana Beach Bar, and involved one loop going clockwise around the bay. The water was very clear, with no current. The 3.3km, 5km ad 10km races take in almost exactly the same route, but with more laps!
The map below shows the route for the 1.5km race. It starts at the right-hand end, and swimmers make their way along the beach past 3 buoys, up to a 4th buoy where they turn, leaving the buoy on their right hand side. Then the course returns, slightly further out in the bay, back to the start/finish line.
The 3.3km race uses the same course, but needs to find an additional 300 meters. The race organizers do this by adding one more buoy 75m further on before the turnaround. This is near the jetty of the Radisson Resort hotel. One lap of this adjusted course now measures 1.65km, and so 2 laps gives 3.3km.
An additional lap (making 3 laps) covers a total of 4.95km, with an additional 5 meters at the finish to give the 5km race distance.
The 10km race involved 6 laps of this slightly longer course.
Barbados Open Water Festival - 2019
On the Saturday 1.5km race, the weather was overcast but warm, at 29 degrees Centigrade. Water temperature was also 28 degrees. Nice! The sky was cloudy and looked a little threatening, and we expected some rain.
The start was quite busy, and we hung back a little to let the faster swimmers get clear. Even so, there was arm-clashing going on, in typical SwimRun start fashion!
Shortly after the start there was a heavy downpour which flattened the sea, but it was so warm we hardly noticed. The only change was a reduction in visibility, but the buoys are so big and red that we could always see the next one.
The finish involved a run up the beach through the timing arch, and we got our finisher's medals straightaway, before getting refreshments (Powerade, water, and a banana.).
On the Sunday we did the 3.3km race. The day dawned bright and clear, and remained sunny the whole morning despite forecasts of rain. We were both a little apprehensive, as 3.3km is further than either of us had swam in open water, although we had done the distance in the indoor training pool.
The start was relatively calm compared to most SwimRun or Triathlon races, and we could find our own space in the water in a short time.
That changed within minutes, however, as the leading 5.5km swimmers (who had started 2 minutes after us) came charging through the field, lead by the Canadians. They were very fast, and I had to keep glancing behind me to make sure I kept out of their way.
By the first turnaround at 750 meters, things had settled down, and we could start to pace ourselves against swimmers of similar speed. At the back of my mind I was trying to pace myself, as I estimated I was gong to be in the water for around an hour; but at the same time I wanted to maintain a decent race pace.
I managed to complete the 3.3km course in 64 minutes, and bagged 3rd place in my age group (56 - 64 years).
Carlisle Bay is quite shallow, and we could see the sandy bottom the entire race. We both saw a number of turtles - one of them giving me a fright as it swam so close! There were also quite a few fish to add to the distraction, although mostly over the few areas of coral.
The event was organized in typical Bajan style. At first things looked a little confusing with a lack of signs, but everything worked out OK in the end. The events are held in public areas, without any segregation or zoning. This can make things a little confusing (at least, it did for us!).
For example, we made our own way to the guided swim at Port St. Charles, an up-market walled resort at the northern end of the West Coast. We took the local yellow "reggae" bus, and got off at the entrance to the resort. However the guy on the gate told us we had got off at the wrong gate, and directed us about 1km further up the road, to another gate.
Then we had another 1/2km walk through the edge of the resort and over a bridge to a bar/restaurant set out off the beach. When we got there, there were (of course) resort guests, and no signs or banners or any indication that we were in the correct location.
There was one set of changing rooms, which quickly got crowded as more swimmers arrived. Finally the organizers showed up, and the briefing was given. It was a water start, which meant we had to jump in off the jetty and swim to the start area.
The swim along Heywoods beach off Port St. Charles was fairly unremarkable, with little to see on the sandy bottom, and a smell of gasoline in the water from the moorings behind the restaurant.
After the swim, we found that drinks were very expensive, even at Happy Hour prices, and we left after just one beer. Of the 3 guided swims, Port St. Charles was our least favorite. It's a long way to get to, the swim itself is nothing special, and it's expensive to eat or drink there.
By contrast, the 2 race days were much more rewarding!
There were briefings before each race. Safety is the priority. There
are lifeguards on SUP boards, in kayaks, and in small dinghies. A doctor
is on site on the beach in case of medical emergency. Also, motor
launches from Barbados Coastguard and police are in attendance.
All finishers get a medal, (which looks great!), and at the finish there are energy drinks, water and fruit (bananas) available to competitors.
There are also competition medals for the first 3 finishers in each of NINE age groups, from 8 years old to over 65 years!
There is also a huge list of random prizes, which are raffled among all competitors. Mogsy won a pair of Australian Fourgee racing swim goggles.
We wanted to be sure that we could complete the swims and enjoy ourselves without undue stress. Therefore, our training plan had 2 main objectives;
We needed to build the endurance to do the 3,3km race distance. AND we had to be able to do it after swimming 2km on each of the previous 4 days, so we needed the endurance to swim on consecutive days.
Of course, we wanted to keep our running fitness up too, for any SwimRun events that may pop up at short notice. So our training plan took in both, building the distance each week and also adding swimming days to achieve a minimum of 3 days of back-to-back swimming.
We had just moved to Mojácar, on the coast in south-eastern Spain. Fortunately we have a running coach and small running club in town, and so Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays were our running days. In addition, we could get lane time in our local pool on Wednesdays and Saturdays after our run training, so these two days were double training days. That left Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and Sundays.
We planned to make Friday our total rest day.
We added Tuesdays to the swim schedule, aiming at a session around 1500 meters to build speed work.
Thursdays we did a gym session first thing, followed by a longer swim, in the sea if conditions allowed. We started at 2000 meters, and added 250 meters each week to build up to 3500 meters. We also built the distance like this for the Wednesday and Saturday pool sessions.
Sundays was an easy sea swim of up to 2000 meters, to practice sea swimming. The water here in South Spain was be warm enough until the end of September, after that we needed our triathlon wet suits for the final 3 weeks of training.
This program meant that we were covering around 12km of swimming each week in the final 3 weeks before the event.
Our running will have taken a back seat during this time, but we should still be doing over 20km a week spread over 3 to 4 days each week.
After the races finish on the Sunday morning, the prize giving normally takes place at 11.30am on the beach in front of the Copacabana Beach Bar. The organizers had to shift this to 11.00am this year (2019) as the Canadians had to leave before 11.30am, and they were the majority of medal winners!
As mentioned above, I managed to score a 3rd place in my age group (55-64) with a time of 64 minutes for the 3.3km race.
After that, people hung around for drinks and a chat, with some drifting off gradually as time went by. A cruise ship had just arrived that morning, and a load of cruise passengers in funny hats turned up at the Copacabana, making the area suddenly very busy.
Contrary to the official Barbados Open Water Festival event promotion, there was no party, food, DJ or music, other than what you could buy for yourself at the beach bar. And the bar itself was severely under pressure from the sheer volume of cruise ship passengers arriving!
We stayed on for about an hour, having a few drinks and chatting to some of the other swimmers, before leaving. The Copacabana beach bar had become very busy, and we were ready to get back to our accommodation near Holetown to wind down and relax.
HERE is a link to the official Barbados Open Water Festival page.