By Laurie Ellis
Sure, it’s really nice to go the British Virgin Islands to relax, but in my opinion it’s even better to go to the BVI and swim! Lucky for me there’s an outfit called SwimTrek.
There are many choices for people looking for active vacations: biking, hiking, kayaking, etc., but I had never heard of a vacation that catered to swimmers.
Based in the UK, SwimTrek is the brainchild of Simon Murie. Murie started his company in 2003 after a successful English Channel crossing in 2002, and now offers trips in over ten countries.
More recently, another company, SwimVacation, has started to offer swim trips to the BVI as well. George “Hopper” McDonough started SwimVacation in 2007 and hopes to add more trips to the Caribbean and North America in the future.
You’re doing what?!
When I casually mentioned my intention to go on a swimming holiday, my friends and family responded with a mix of disbelief and concern. “You’re a pool swimmer,” they’d say, or “You hate swimming where there are ‘things’ in the water,” (both true) or better yet: the blank stare.
My mother was sure I’d be eaten by a shark, or at the very least nibbled on by a barracuda. Well, I lived to write about my experience, so obviously I wasn’t a shark snack. Swimming along, I saw some beautiful fish among the coral, and even a few barracuda and rays, but they paid me no mind.
The water was crystal clear – that blue/green/turquoise that you only see on screen-savers and commercials, and best of all, the water and air were WARM. I don’t like cold water, so 80 degrees was just fine. Pools are typically a little cooler to give you an idea of the temperature around the British Virgin Islands in April.
Days of boats and swimming
Our base for the week was the exquisitely situated Leverick Bay Resort and Marina on Virgin Gorda, where each room had a balcony overlooking the bay.
After a short introductory swim on the first night, we were divided into three groups according to speed, and each group was given a different color swimcap to wear for the week.
The caps allowed the guides in the boats to keep track of everyone. It just so happened that we ended up in three groups of five. For the next five days, we would swim with our designated group.
It’s not as rigid as it sounds; on other trips people have been known to switch groups as their speeds changed, but that didn’t happen with us.
Most days we did two swims, one in the morning after a healthy breakfast in the guides’ suite, and one after lunch, which we had on the boat while anchored at a prime snorkeling spot.
When we got to the swim’s starting point we were given something to sight/swim toward like “See the road above and behind that little island?” or “the second larger hill to the left of the antenna.”
We’d smile and nod, or argue about it, and then set off trusting that Lizzie or Simon or Mike, the boat pilot, would reel us in if we veered too far off track. We did and they did. It all worked out fine.
While swimming, I could always see one of the small support boats or the big boat, as well as my other yellow-capped group members. I felt completely safe even as I rocked and rolled my way through some rougher water.
I knew that if I needed help, all I had to do was wave my arms in the air and I would get picked up within seconds. The guides were also very careful to keep us properly hydrated. They would stop us on occasion to toss us water bottles. Due to the sun and salt exposure, it was really important to drink along the way.
Swims ranged from 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) to 4.5km (2.8 miles), and the longest total distance for any one day was 7km (4.35 miles).
Starting times were staggered, with intervals allowing everyone to reach the end point at about the same time. The first group would start swimming, and based on how far off track they were pushed by the current, the next group would get a new target to swim toward.
Simon says… SWIM!
The SwimTrek motto is “Ferries are for wimps. Let’s swim,” but their trips are not competitive events.
The other swimmers on the BVI trip came from a variety of backgrounds: some had never done any competitive swimming, while others had a long history of racing experience.
Some had given up swimming for years and only recently come back to it, the common factor being a desire to swim in open water.
The ages ranged from 18 to 72, and everyone was able to swim according to their ability. The SwimTrek staff is really helpful, and worth talking to when deciding which trip to take.
The website also has a suggested training schedule geared toward each trip. A reasonable level of fitness and the ability to do long swims is crucial to full enjoyment of a trip like this.
Maybe it’s the chocolate
SwimTrek must be doing something right. Four of my fellow BVI swimtrekers were repeat customers and couldn’t say enough positive things about the trips they had been on: Greece, Croatia, Malta. On day 3 after a long smooth 4.5km coastal swim, we were relaxing in a gorgeous harbor thinking that all is right with the world.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, there was Simon swimming one-armed toward us with a bag of chocolates held aloft. Wow. As I found out, chocolate is a great antidote to a salty mouth.
Trains, planes, ferries…
The destinations are somewhat off the beaten path, and may involve taking smaller planes or catching a ferry, but for good reason. Wonderful swimming with less concern about heavy boat traffic more than makes up for the extra effort involved in getting to the starting point.
Odds and ends
The last thing I wanted to do was wear a long-sleeve shirt, but the Caribbean sun, even in mid-April, can be brutal. I bought a rashguard from Victory Tropiskin that worked great at protecting me from the sun without adding much drag. SwimTrek brought along rashguards, to borrow and/or buy, and thankfully carried a good supply of sunscreen onboard.
Lizzie was a wiz in the kitchen, whipping up breakfasts, and preparing lunches to eat on the boat. Dinners were on our own so we were able to sample a couple of the islands’ restaurants.
Since we often ate out as a group, it was helpful to have cash. One downside was that Leverick Bay didn’t have an ATM machine, so some of us had to get into town mid-week.
Note: renting a car for a day cost about the same as taking a taxi into town and back.
SwimTrek and SwimVacation offer similar trips to BVI, but there are some important differences. Look over the websites and see which one fits your style better.
Good to know:
And another thing:
This is a group trip. The guides have to keep people in groups for the safety of all. If you’re much faster than everyone else, you might get held up. Likewise, if you’re much slower, you might be encouraged to go a little faster.
If you have any concerns, talk to the staff before signing up to make sure you’ll be able to get the swim holiday you want …or just make sure to bring some friends that swim the same speed!
Do it again?
You bet! I’m already thinking of where I want to go on my next SwimTrek vacation.
Laurie Ellis is a massage therapist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has the good fortune to swim at the Harvard pools in winter and Walden Pond in summer. Photo by Ian Griffith
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Husband and wife team Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis of Arlington, Massachusetts are among our most adventurous travel writers. Whether it’s open-water swimming in the British Virgin Islands, house-boating on the Suwannee River, zip lining in Costa Rica or soaring over the Grand Canyon in a Maverick helicopter, they go the extra mile to bring us great stories from all over the world. They live in Arlington, Mass.