Maybe I should retitle this post to the Chillswim Windermere 11 Miles End to End Farce. It’s not often I’m motivated to write a post out of annoyance but I thought I would rejuvenate my blog after a long absence to report how I and several hundred swimmers have been disappointed, let down and ripped off by the organisation (or lack of) of this event. But I should clarify straight away that Chillswim is apparently now nothing to do with the former Chillswim company, having been sold to Epic Events Ltd who are shamelessly trading on the great reputation of Chillswim whilst not offering the same level of competence and expertise. Maybe they should soon rebrand to Epic Fails Ltd and I shall explain why.
Off to swim the length of Windermere
I felt great driving to the Lake District last week for the inaugural “Chillswim Windermere End to End swim”. I was well trained, having completed some long training swims and an English Channel relay the previous week, but also well rested. I was very much looking forward to this race. I usually tend to shy away from mass participation events in the UK as they are often expensive and not always as friendly or flexible as they could be. But I was travelling up with a great bunch of friends from my South Coast swim groups so I kept an open mind and was looking forward to the challenge.
Registered with a few hic-ups
The weather forecasts throughout the week weren’t all that great so we were preparing ourselves for a rainy grey day. Not ideal for swimming the length of Windermere, but hey ho, this is swimming and that’s all part of the challenge. To our relief, the forecasts started to improve and by Friday morning it was looking like it was clearing up nicely. Registration was open at Event HQ in Ambleside the afternoon before so I made sure to attend early as I needed to make a change to my entry.
The organisers were planning on starting the swimmers off in waves with the slower waves setting off first. The only problem was that despite submitting an accurate estimated mile time as requested they put me in a much slower start wave. I wasn’t too concerned but was then told that they would actually make me stop and wait for my wave to catch up if I got too far ahead at the various checkpoints along the way. Obviously this would be annoying as I hoped to swim in the fastest time possible as it was a chip-timed event with rankings and I would be looking for a personal best time for this distance. Also, being held up would cause problems for non-wetsuit swimmers and could lead to cramps and possibly hypothermia.
According to the event info pack, you could opt to change waves which I why I turned up at registration at 16:00 when they opened. Unfortunately my request seemed to cause utter confusion among the staff but eventually, I did manage to be moved into a faster wave.
The next minor problem wasn’t noticed until I tried to put on the pre-ordered event Hoody. It was the wrong size and when I queue up again later to try and change it I was informed I was given the wrong size because they’d run out of the right size, despite me being so early! Annoying but not the end of the world so I gave it to my 12-year son whom it fitted perfectly!
So all done with registration we chatted a while and chewed the fat, discussed the weather and more importantly talked about what we’d be up to the evening after the swim. Then it was back to the campsite for dinner and an early bedtime. I fell asleep quickly that night. I didn’t feel anxious or worried as I was well prepared and a final weather check brought peace of mind that it would be a good swim.
Event cancelled with 45 mins notice
I was woken by a friend calling at 06:20 with some news “The event has been cancelled!” I thought it was a joke so checked my email and sure enough, sent at 05:43, there it was! Just 45 minutes before the first wave of swimmers were due to board their bus to the start line Chillswim had decided to cancel the swim due to a forecast of high winds. Their contingency plan of postponing the event until Sunday apparently couldn’t be implemented due to a similar forecast so they came up with a plan to just swim a 2-hour loop at the southern end of the lake. Also in this email, they informed us that they didn’t have any cancellation insurance so wouldn’t be offering any refunds!
Forecasts epic fail
Everyone was flabbergasted as no high winds had been forecast at all. Personally, I checked the BBC and Met Office which use different models and Windy.com which can be set to use various models depending on the resolution of the forecast one requires.
The Windy.com forecast produces a graphic visualisation and can also show the forecast at different altitudes. and this forecast was actually the most pessimistic I could find so to try and give as much benefit of the doubt to the organisers as I can this is the one I shall refer to. The graphic shows the Windy.com surface wind prediction clearly showing little or no wind at all. There was also a gust forecast indicating possible gusts of up to 22knts later in the afternoon which can be seen as a worst-case scenario. Earlier in the day the gust forecast was much lower and did not affect the southern two-thirds of the lake as much.
Nobody, not even Chillswim, seem to know where they got their forecast from! In a discussion on their Facebook page shortly after the cancellation, they said the forecast was for 20mph winds. Unfortunately, this can’t be referred back to as they’ve now deleted the comment thread. Another discussion flared up yesterday on another of their Facebook event pages where they claimed that Force 7 winds were forecast, a figure seemingly pulled from a hat. I can’t refer back to that either because they also selectively deleted most of the comments in that thread. It would seem that they have no clue as to where they got their forecast from or what it actually said. I wonder whether they looked at a higher altitude forecast by mistake or maybe looked at the wrong area?
In their cancellation email Chillswim stated that “they are unable to guarantee the safety and welfare of all swimmers and crew for a swim of this length and nature”. Anecdotal reports from Chillswim staff say that the kayakers wouldn’t be able to see people’s swim caps if it got breezy and choppy. But this was a tow float-only event and these provide a high level of visibility. And they seemed able to propose to run some kind of shortened event so maybe they just used taller kayakers for that!
It seems that the forecast we had was pretty much as one would expect for northern England at the start of September so this event was probably doomed to failure before Epic Events Ltd relieved us of the hefty entry fee. If they made it clear at the time of entry that the swim would only take place in near-perfect conditions then I’m sure most people would not have not signed up.
Refund epic fail
Chillswim has been deluged by negative publicity and so far their strategy seems to have been to engage with comments with untruths for a few hours before simply deleting negative comments and posts from social media. To date, they have offered no refund but have offered 70% off next year’s event of a free entry to either their Coniston or Ullswater events. The discount off next year’s Windermere event equated to £136.50 and this should be the bare minimum offered as a cash refund to this year’s disappointed competitors.
Chillswim made a very poor judgement call on the day and are further insulting their customers by not offering a refund. I may accept their pleas that they were disappointed to have to cancel the event but they could make amends and build bridges by admitting and owning their mistake, learning from it and offering competitors some kind of refund.
Contingency planning epic fail
The published contingency plan was to postpone until the next day if weather conditions allowed. In the event that weather conditions did not allow they would set up a shortened course at the northern end of the lake to reflect a similar challenge. They did not do this. Instead, they set up a two-hour loop which was not ranked thus depriving swimmers of anything close to resembling the race and distance experience that they had signed up to. From their swim information I quote,
1. If the forecast is poor for both Saturday and Sunday a course will be set up in the bay close to the finish area in Borrans Park with the largest loop possible to allow swimmers a safe environment to complete laps up to the End to End distance, if desired.
2. If weather conditions are extreme for Saturday but feasible for Sunday then the event will be moved to the Sunday (if we can provide sufficient water safety cover), with the normal course or shorter loop course as mentioned above.
Everyone would agree that safety concerns should be paramount but this cancellation was not about safety. Worst-case forecasts for the day should have been manageable and had been improving for the previous 48 hours. Nobody is saying that safety should ever be compromised, but if an event cannot be run in these relatively benign conditions it’s probably doomed to failure before anyone signs up. In fact, one would have to question the viability of any long-distance mass participation event in the UK.
Perhaps Chillswim would rather cancel at the last minute and trouser the entry fees? If the weather forecasts had been genuinely bad and people had been given notice of a risk of cancellation they would be understanding I’m sure. But the forecasts were not that bad and Chillswim did not offer anything close to the contingency plan that they advertised, so on these grounds, I would urge them to offer sincere apologies and refunds.