Scottish wild swimmers respond to SOWSA proposal

01st February, 2018

There is currently a proposal to create a new Scottish Open Water Swimming Association in Scotland, which is in a consultation phase until 13th February. A group of wild and open water swimmers respond

Background: Robert Hamilton, Phia Steyn and Stewart Griffiths are proposing to form a new charity called the Scottish Open Water Swimming Association (SOWSA) in Scotland – a proposal duplicated in full elsewhere on the OSS website here. What does it mean? How will it impact swimmers? Do we need it? Who will it benefit – and who might it harm? 28 groups of Scottish open water swimmers have got together to consider the proposal, and this is their response.

Respondents This response comes from a group of 28 number of Scottish OW swimmers, mostly people who are active swimmers and/or administrators of Facebook pages for open water swimmers throughout Scotland. We do not purport to represent any organized group. Most of us arrange informal and sometimes more formal events and have also taken part in OW or TRI races or other swim events. We come from 14 different groups across Scotland, which have over 5000 swimmers on our collective FB groups (with some duplication).

Accountability: The proposal for the charity SOWSA and set of regulations state they have been developed for open water swimming and swimmers.  It also states that these have been proposed and are in a period of consultation until Feb 2018. However no attempt seems to have been made to reach the people affected by these proposals.  An individual found the proposal document – almost by accident, from a link on the Vigour Events Facebook page and has circulated it to other Scottish open water swimmers. The proposal was not formally posted on any of the numerous Scottish open water swimming groups who mostly link up on informal Facebook pages and groups.  In an attempt to see who had heard about these proposals 12 Facebook groups were contacted, representing approx. 4000 swimmers, out of a list which has now been complied of 20 groups. It took about 20 minutes to make the list and another hour to contact them.   One group answered that they had heard something about the proposals at an AGM but none of the other groups had heard about them and had not had them formally posted on their FB pages requesting feedback.  Therefore we question in what way this proposal is a consultation?   There seems no attempt to bring open water swimmers together to discuss this or to post it systematically in places where open water swimmers will see it. The group behind the proposal only made an effort to publicise their intention AFTER the document had already been circulated informally amongst OW swimming Facebook pages and questions had started to accumulate.

Governance and Representation: This charity, which purports to represent open water swimmers, has already listed names that will be on the board, and has made no requests for other swimmers to get involved in drawing up the proposals. There is no clear direction as to how people can get involved if they want to, including membership, elections to the board, how people can get voted out if the swimming population are unhappy with how the organisation is run.  There has been no response to queries about a constitution, links to other relevant governing organisations and how these relationships will work.  There’s a lot of information missing from proposal that would enable people to make a decision.

Transparency There appears to be no clear mechanism for how the consultation will take place, who will be involved in looking at responses and making decisions about them. One response has already been written on a SOWSA Facebook page that appeared to be in direct response to a chat between individuals on a FB page which no one had any intention of posting as an official response to the proposal.  It seemed that the individuals proposing SOWSA were unofficially monitoring informal Facebook discussions, which is a wholly inappropriate approach.

Conflict of interests One of the main concerns the signatories to this document have is that this proposal is presented as being a charity which will represent OW swimmers in Scotland.  However it is being proposed by three people who are known to be closely involved in one of the most heavily advertised commercial companies running open water events and providing services to OW swimmers in Scotland who name themselves as trustees in the original document published for consultation.   This document has been changed during the consultation period. We cannot see how having ‘SOWSA’ as the ratification organisation for open water events and marathon swims will not be a massive commercial advantage for these individuals and a disadvantage for all commercial competitors.  Add to that the fact that some of the individuals on the SOWSA board /trustees have been know to openly criticize other organizations that run events in Scotland and we are fearful that SOWSA will be no more than a means to ensure that there is no opportunity for a flourishing diverse growth of the open water swimming sector in Scotland.

Concerns about the proposals  We do not feel that there is any need in Scotland for a charity or any organization to oversee open water swimming. If there was to be such an organization it should emerge from clearly expressed needs of open water swimmers based on identified gaps and problems, with the swimmers themselves coming together to generate the necessary organization. To date, as far as we know, this has not occurred partly due to the legislation granting the right to access to water in Scotland.

  1. Where there have been local tensions such as with the fishing community, people have been able to resolve these with negotiation, considerate swimming behaviour and building up of good relations.
  2. It is unclear how this proposal fulfills the requirements of the charities test with the Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO).
  3. Events: while there have been some difficulties with events such as those described in the SOWSA proposals e.g. the river swim and the winter swimming event, these can be dealt with by existing bodies. We do not have any confidence that the events run by the proposed board of SOWSA have not had similar difficulties – in fact, it is a matter of pubic record from the internet that in the past they too have had significant problems. In the case of the river swim, the organisers did not repeat the event and have continued to run other extremely successful and safe events in Scotland.  In addition, we object to such open criticism of two clearly identifiable events (and organisers) on a public forum such as the SOWSA proposal and Facebook page.
  4. We believe that the existing organisations that regulate events are sufficient in Scotland e.g Scottish Swimming and BLDSA. The only current deficit that we can see is in the field of wetsuit-wearing marathon swimmers; this was one of the key areas identified in the SOWSA document.  Again, we are concerned about the transparency of this question and the potential for a conflict of interest.  Piloting swimmers undertaking distance and marathon swims in Scotland – many of whom are and will continue to be wetsuit-wearing swimmers – is a key business interest for two of the three proposed SOWSA trustees/board.  The initiative for  ‘wetsuit marathon ratification’ should come from within the relevant sections of the existing swimming community ie SCOTTISH SWIMMING Scotland and BLDSA  who are proposing  to include a wetsuit ratification category.
  5. It is hard not to conclude that these proposals are being suggested in order for a small group of people to gain control of all open water events and marathon swim attempts in Scotland, that this will involve an increase in barriers to swimming. One of the main attractions of OW or ‘wild swimming’ is the lack of structure, organization and ability to swim in unregulated conditions without having to pay for the privilege. For those who wish to undertake marathon swims or long swim challenges, the BLDSA already provides excellent support and advice.  There are many varied OW swimming events happening all across Scotland, some run solely for charitable purposes, some by commercial entities meaning there are already plenty of good options available, most of which run on an annual basis.
  6. Figures about drowning in Scotland have been quoted in recent press reports, in support of a greater need for open water safety measures. These figures were given as being “…78 fatalities at open water sites across Scotland”   However when looking at the figures in more detail, it is clear that the huge majority of these are not open water swimmers, but rather accidents involving commercial fishermen, non swimmers, suicides, alcohol related or ill health such as heart attacks.  In the Water Incident Database (WAID) Scottish figures 2013-15 have a total of 289 accidental drownings of which 13 are swimmers over the 3 years, and in 2015 in Scotland there is no fatality classed as swimming (see WAID reports
  7. As the signatories to this document we all swim regularly and come from 14 facebook groups across Scotland with over 5000 combined participants (obviously some overlap of individuals means that the number is not actually as high as this). We believe that this means we are knowledgeable about the needs, safety and otherwise, they might have. There is no current demand from OW swimmers regarding additional safety and all seem very content with current arrangements. We all subscribe to the safety and personal Swim Responsibility Statement produced and shared by the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) and when entering swim events we trust event organizers to provide adequate safety in line with their insurance cover and also their governing body (such as Scottish Swimming, Triathlon Scotland or BLDSA) which seems quite satisfactory for everyone.
  8. Advice re piloting boats which accompany swimmers, currently swimmers can access this information through other open water swimmers or through the BDSLA as a first point of contact. Kayak swim support guidance is already provided by the BLDSA and a motorist pilot boat guidance document is in progress.
  9. We are aware that the business owned by one of the SOWSA board has a strong client base who are loyal supporters, and also that many people have enjoyed (and will continue to enjoy) events this business runs. However, there is a big difference between customers who are happy with what they have paid for, and there being strong grass-roots support for an initiative that will potentially impact all OW swimming activities in Scotland. The conclusion that these proposals are designed for some commercial gain has been raised by many people (ie. we all have to pay SOWSA for a health and safety check, or no event can be run without SOWSA membership, piloting services will only be available through SOWSA approved lists etc).   This is partly fuelled by the relentless advertising across multiple social media platforms and in the swimming press from one of the SOWSA board members for his OW swimming business. This has led to a lack of confidence in any proposal coming from this source.


Signatories from facebook swimming groups across Scotland.

  • Kim Lane, FB admin, Wild West swimmers, 867 members
  • Rebecca Campbell Wilson, FB admin, Banfshire coast swimmers 159 members
  • Maureen Londra FB admin, Fife wild swimmers 452 members
  • Alice Goodridge FB admin, cairngorm wild swimmers, 369 members
  • Oonagh O’Brien FB admin, The wild ones, Edinburgh, 1050 members
  • Norman Todd FB admin, lochbroom wild swimmers, 41 members
  • Colin Macleod, FB admin, hebridean sea swimmers, 248 members
  • Katherine Alys FB admin, Wild Swimming borders, 191 members
  • John Nelson FB admin, Bute outdoor swimming society, 244 members
  • Gil Williams FB admin, NWSSS (Skye) 305 followers
  • Cathy Kitson Jones FB admin, Lochalsh open water swimmers, 48 members
  • Helen Beveridge, FB admin, Wild Highlanders, 357 members
  • Rebecca Duvil, FB admin, Gairloch Dippers, 24 members
  • Jeff Forrester, FB adminn, Highland Open Water Swim, 784 followers
  • Jay Evans, Selkies – Shetland open water swimmers 301 members