I’ve been a member of the BLDSA for a year now, so I thought I’d give my views on how it’s gone for me. No-one has asked me for this, but that’s never stopped me from expressing an opinion before.
This post is coming from two very different angles. As I’ve mentioned before my Grandad was a founder member of the BLDSA and my parents were heavily involved for a number of years. So when I was younger (30+ years ago) I spent a lot of weekends travelling to swims and watching the events from the sidelines. However, this year I joined the association as a complete novice. I wasn’t a member of a local club and I had done no open water swimming to speak of before.
I’ll focus on the recent experiences and try not to look back with rose-tinted glasses, but that may be easier said than done.
The first thing to say is how welcoming everyone has been. It has helped that some people still remember my Grandad fondly and that there are still some connections to the association, however it’s been more than that. The people involved have warmly welcomed anyone else willing to genuinely get involved. The fact that I’ve got in and given it a really good go has been enough for most people to welcome me into the club and provide help and moral support wherever they can. For that I’m very grateful.
However, there are one or two areas that I think the association can be more helpful to first-timers. I suspect that for those immersed in the culture of long-distance swimming these points no longer need a second thought, but they do for first-timers and can reduce the number of people wanting to get involved.
The first is the kit involved. In theory it’s very simple – a pair of trunks (or costume) and a hat – easy. However, as soon as you enter a swim that needs a boat to be with you the requirements increase dramatically: a whistle; a compass; a dry bag; but perhaps most onerous – a flag alpha. This blue and white flag is the signal to other lake users that the boat has a swimmer nearby – and is very important from a safety point of view. But as a newcomer, what is a flag alpha and where the hell do you get one from? Maybe the BLDSA should offer a starter bag that all new members can buy – a dry bag containing all the above items. Suddenly the hassle is taken away and we won’t have to try to have home-made versions (as we did for one swim).
Of course the next area is the boat itself. Kayakers (and rowing boat crew) are vital safety components for the swims, but as a first-timer I didn’t know anyone that could kayak. I didn’t have the support network of a club (the BLDSA is my swimming club), so I couldn’t ask around there. Yet upon further inspection there are many people willing and able to do this vital task. I would like to suggest to the BLDSA that it runs a list of such people, it doesn’t have to be an endorsement of them, but it can at least offer some names and numbers to get a newbie started.
That said, there won’t be many more newcomers that come in and enter if the website isn’t improved (have a look here – but be warned!). Without wishing to insult anyone – it’s terrible! Nowadays it must be easy enough to get something that looks a bit more modern and inviting and doesn’t hurt people’s eyes as they enter. I’d even be willing to manage the project myself if people were willing.
All of this leads to a general point about the stature of open water swimming and the role of the BLDSA within that. I would suspect that open water swimming has never been so popular that it is right now. While most of it is in wetsuits (which is against the purist nature of the BLDSA), there are thousands of people getting into lakes and rivers every weekend during the summer. The BLDSA should be at the forefront of that and leading the movement, yet no-one I speak to has ever heard of it. No doubt, like much of what I do at work, this is down to a combination of missing a strong message and ethos for the association, as well as finding the opportunities to speak and enter the national debate. It’s something that Joshua PR would be willing to do on a pro-bono basis if the desire was there.
The final area is me harking back to the “good old days”, but I suppose that was bound to happen – it’s about the fact that there are no “personalities” involved any more (or at least not many). Now there are probably a number of reasons for this, not least the fact that when I was traipsing round the events as a kid most of the founder members were still involved – you’ve got to be a bit of a nutter to want to form an association like this in the first place, but that came across in the best way possible (at least for me) during the events themselves. Of course it may be a generational thing and I may just have missed the people this year, but in my opinion it needs a few more people that can hold the attention of a crowd (swimmers or not) and can welcome, put at ease, relax and inform a newcomer with just a few words. It’s not easy and it can’t be forced, but it would be great if they were there.
But apart from all that, and I mean this sincerely, I’ve really enjoyed this year and I’m looking forward to next year – although maybe without a Windermere swim at the end of it.