Making a Splash!
“Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim attracts new and elite swimmers.
By Kathy Borsuk
Training in a swimming pool can get tedious, dreary and lead to burn-out over time, as many competitive swimmers can attest. Recently, many swimmers have discovered open water swim racing as a way to revive the excitement, especially if done in warm waters. Indeed, open water swimming is now one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Swimmers compete in rivers, lakes and oceans without the constraints of pool walls or pool lanes. One look at the beautiful turquoise seas for which the Turks & Caicos are famous makes it clear that their warm, sparkling waters are the ideal location to hold a world-class race.
In fact, Saturday, July 7, 2012 will mark the third annual international race in Grace Bay, Providenciales, aptly named “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim. Planned are 1 mile and 2.4 mile events, plus a 100 meter children’s swim. Start and finish will take place on the beach in front of Flamingo Café, with rules and safety precautions carefully put in place for top level competition, although ALL swimmers are welcome.
As a regular swimmer in TCI waters, I can confirm that the paths of meandering conch, large starfish, the occasional sea turtle or snapper and schools of synchronized bait fish are all common sights in near-shore waters. Chloe Zimmermann, a former competitive swimmer, TCI resident since 1983 and owner of Marco Travel agrees, adding that this was a major inspiration for the Eco-SeaSwim idea over three years ago. She explains, “Sports are an excellent way to spread goodwill and mingle cultures, and open water swimming is the perfect sport for the Islands. It is eco-friendly, especially appealing to the middle-age group, and is an international attraction. July, when the waters are especially calm and warm, is a good month to encourage tourism here, and our swim turned out to be the only open water race on the circuit that month in the Caribbean region.”
Chloe and race co-founder Ben Stubenberg met over the phone in November 2009 when Ben sought Chloe’s help to make travel arrangements for a US surgical team going to northern Haiti through Provo. The conversation drifted to swimming when Ben, an enthusiastic open water swimmer who grew up in Hawaii and California, casually asked if there were any races in Grace Bay. After Chloe told him there were none, they decided to start one, and the Turks & Caicos “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim was born.
They corresponded by email and phone to set up the logistics, open a bank account, promote the race and attract sponsors. “There was a lot of trust,” Chloe recalls, “but it worked.” Chloe and Ben have since started a sports adventure company, Caicu Naniki, that provides open water swim training to pool swimmers who want to get ready for their open water races and triathlons, in addition to other activities.
From the beginning Chloe and Ben cut no corners in organizing the race to be an international event. Chloe explains, “We wanted it to be 100% safe, so we put all the safety measures in place. To start with, we have boats and paddlers in the water with the swimmers in case anyone gets in trouble. There are safety officers, rescuers, certified lifeguards and members of the marine police on the beach. We carry liability insurance, and also have on hand an ambulance, folks from the Red Cross and even an osteopath to help out with post-race aches. People notice these things and compare us favorably to other international races.”
The diamond-shaped course is carefully measured, and they use an electronic timer for start and finish times. (The start itself is signaled by—what else—the blowing of a conch shell). Competitors can’t use fins, paddles or wetsuits. A swim cap is required, and goggles or face masks encouraged. Because it follows certain eco-friendly rules and precautions, the “Race for the Conch” is a Green-Globe certified event. (It even has as “official sunscreen” a chemical-free, reef-safe, and very effective 30 SPF sunscreen produced on Provo.)
The first year attracted over 75 swimmers; the count was up to 90 by the second year, including a number of international competitors. Chloe and Ben are proud that acclaimed champion swimmer from the Dominican Republic, Marcos Diaz, has competed (and won!) each year, bringing high visibility and credibility to the fledgling event as he raves about the near-perfect conditions. His presence, along with other top swimmers, including champion youth and masters swimmers from the US, Scotland, Trinidad and Italy, challenge participating residents to do their best. Chloe is especially awed by the determination shown by swimmers in the popular 100 meter children’s race. A professional swim clinic by Clay Britt is held before the event (planned for July 6, 2012) to help participants fine-tune their strokes and improve their times.
New in 2011 was the Resort Cup, a race in which swimmers from a resort compete with the cumulative time of the top three swimmers determining the winning team. Not only does this promote teamwork and good health during the training process, but also boosts employee morale. Teams from West Bay Club (last year’s winner), Beaches and Club Med plan to participate.
“Race for the Conch” brings other benefits to the country. In 2011, the Eco-SeaSwim raised over $4,000 for causes including the Provo Children’s Home, T & C Reef Fund and a special reef preservation project at the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources. Chloe praises the strong support from resident swimmers, the TCI Sports Commission, and the many local sponsors who donate not only funds, but in-kind contributions, ranging from airfare and hotel rooms, to water, snacks, and the medals and t-shirts given to each participant. She credits native artist Stanford Handfield for creating the distinctive conch shell trophies.
TCI is a founding member of the West Indies Bluewater Swim Series, which promotes the region as a swim destination, while encouraging swimming proficiency for all West Indians and raising awareness of the need to protect the coral reefs. Another key goal is to help the less fortunate through the power and example of swimming. Chloe and Ben agree, “Focusing on a sport builds pride and confidence, and channels energy in a positive way.” They teach swimming at the Provo Children’s Home and saw how getting the hang of swimming correctly really “clicked” with several of the kids. “You could see their self-esteem blossom,” Chloe noted.
Together with Dorn Fulford, Chloe and Ben also established the Turks & Caicos Islands Swim Federation, which is now the governing body for all swim and swim related competition in TCI. In addition to enhancing and building the reputation of the Turks & Caicos as a world class destination for swim training and competition, the new federation is working on having built a 50 meter Olympic-size pool to help local and visiting athletes develop their skills for international competition. Ben says, “We want to promote swimming as a sport among local people. Other Caribbean islands have world-class swimmers and there’s no reason we can’t do the same in TCI.”
Whether you prefer to compete with the best or challenge yourself to do your personal best, the “Race for the Conch” is always good fun. Since the course runs parallel to the beach, all spectators have front-row seats to cheer on the swimmers. The times for the 1 mile race range from 20 to 50 minutes, and for the 2.4 mile course from 50 minutes to 1 hour and 40 minutes. The post-race beach party in the evening in front of Flamingo Café traditionally makes up the longest part of the event!
For more information, registration and travel/hotel packages, visit ecoseaswim.com or stop by Marco Travel at Graceway House on Providenciales.
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Cover photographer Christine Morden works for Paradise Photography www.myparadisephoto.com , a full service boutique company based in the TCI. She especially enjoyed the Rejouvenance photo shoot to learn about the benefits of coconuts and to smell the amazing scents of their hand-crafted products.