As 195 men and three women took part in the open water swimming competition in Shatti, Heather Duncan watched the action unfold.
Surging through the water like sleek seals, heads bobbing above the waves, the swimmers were powering through the sea.
I’ve done more than my fair share of laps in the pool but open water swimming is a whole different kettle of fish.
The sport, however, is becoming increasingly popular among water enthusiasts looking for something a little different. When you swim for fitness, it is easy to become bored with the monotony of doing the same length again and again. One way to break the cycle of tedium is to use the beautiful and natural resource we are lucky enough to have – the sea. This is exactly what happened last weekend at the Eighth Oman Open Water Swimming Championship held at Shatti Beach.
The event was open to the public and 198 competitors registered in the hope of becoming this year’s champion. Of these, only three were women. The races were divided into three distance categories – 3km, 5km and, for the athletes amongst them, the gruelling 10km. These distances aren’t for the lazy amongst us – swimming just 1km is the equivalent 40 lengths of a 25m pool or 50 lengths of a 20m pool.
I’m not too sure I could even manage swimming 1km but my curiosity got the better of me and I went along for a crash course in open swimming.
Swimming competitions have a long history dating back as far as 36BC, when the Japanese organised the first open water races. Knights in the Middle Ages reputedly had to swim in full armour as one of their seven required agilities and open swimming became one of the sports in the modern Olympic Games in 1896.
As anyone who has tried it will know, open water swimming is more challenging than swimming in the pool as the elements are unpredictable and sometimes dangerous.
The wind creates choppy waves and currents can be difficult to swim against; cold water makes the body work twice as hard to keep warm, not to mention the adrenaline rush of thinking about the hungry predators lurking in the dark water waiting for their next entré.
One of the hardest skills for most open-water swimmers to master, whether swimming for fitness or competition, is navigation. Ocean swimmers have no clear lines or boundaries to follow, making it easy to go off course. Even the act of “sighting” – raising your head out of the water to work out where you are – requires work in the form of neck strengthening.
The Secretary General of the Omani swimming committee and former member of the Omani national swimming team, Qais Al Zakwani, explained to me that open-water swimming could be a bit of a shock to the system if you’re not fully prepared. “The Omani National team are well practiced and used to the change between pool swimming and open water swimming as they swim an overall distance of 15km per day, split over two sessions and locations, depending on the coach’s preference,”
Al Zakwani is passionate about this event and told me, “what better way to showcase the natural beauty of Oman’s coastlines whilst keeping our people exercised and healthy? The competitive side makes it all the more fun.”
As I am a novice, he kindly obliged and became my commentator for the race, keeping me updated as the events unfolded.
Fourteen-year-old Christie Johnstone was one of only three girls competing overall and the only girl in her 3km race. She was powerful and skilled in the water, and is faster than the majority of guys in her class. Her mother saw the advertisement in a local newspaper and entered her daughter into the competition.
“I just love to swim and I am here at the beach practicing every weekend anyway,” said Christie. “These events are fun for me and good practice for racing. I am hoping to compete in the Al Fahal Island swim in May so I need all the practice I can get.”
Al Fahal Island is the great chunk of rock that you can see from the shore on the Qurum Corniche. It is 4km out to sea and a group endurance swim to be held on May 23 is being organised by the PDO recreation club from the island back to Ras Al Hamra beach.
Another swimmer, Mohammed, explained that he has signed up for an Iron Man Triathlon and the event would be a good preparation for the swimming leg of 3.9km.
The chief guest of the event was H.E Sayyid Suleiman bin Hamoud Al Busaidi, the Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Ministers. Also viewing from the beach was Habib Macki, the vice president of the Oman Olympic Committee.
When swimming in the sea the first rule should be your safety as situations can escalate quickly and be fatal.
Rip currents form when water brought in by waves rushes back out to sea through a channel that runs along a deep spot on the ocean floor. This can sweep you off your feet and out into the sea. If you are caught in a rip, don’t fight it. Swim parallel to shore until you feel the current ease off and then swim to the beach.
Four out of five rescues on some beaches are the result of rip currents. Always tell someone where you are going and when you will return. Best to avoid swimming at dusk or dawn, as this is when attacks from predators are at their most frequent. Watch out for jellyfish or standing on sea urchins and stingrays. Ouch!
Claire Carroll, 36, a sound technician at Royal Opera House, Muscat, was one of only two women taking part in the open 5km race. She was stopped from completing after falling foul of the rules with only 400 metres to go.
It wasn’t the ending I’d hoped for when I was pulled out of the water at 4.6km with no prior warning and no real explanation at the time.
I’m doing the Al Fahal Island swim in May and had jumped at the chance for some competitive practice.
The first 3km went well but the sea became pretty choppy after that and it was getting hot. The last 2km were very hard going, swimming against the strong current with the waves hitting you.
At 4km, I stopped and tread water to give them (the officials) an opportunity to stop me but nobody did. Nobody stopped me either at 4.5km, even though there were two safety boats at those markers, so I turned and started to go back. I became aware of a strong taste of petrol in the water and realised there were safety officials and jet skis around me. I was stopped and was told that was that.
By this time, I noticed that the ‘km’ markers and finish line had been removed, even though the 0.5km markers were still out. The boat that had told me to stop then left, and a nice policeman on a jet ski offered to give me a lift to the shore. I just wanted to lie on the sand and cry. It was so disappointing after all that effort not to be allowed to finish.
I spoke to an official from the Oman Swimming Association who told me about the time limit rule – which states that all swimmers must finish within 30 minutes of the first swimmer. This was the first mention of it. I didn’t want to take the medal that was offered because I hadn’t finished.
I’m told that this event was better than the one at Qantab last year, as the women got times and medals. From a course point of view and safety, it was excellent but I don’t think it was geared up for women to compete. Perhaps next time if they know women are taking part, they can change the format and allow us to start earlier.