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The history of the Magnetic Island to Townsville Swim

With the Magnetic Island to Townsville Swim coming up on the 30th of July 2022, we dug into OceanFit’s archives to find out the history behind one of Australia’s longest-running ocean swims.

On the TOWSA episode in season one of the ONSHORE Podcast, Andre Slade talked with TOWSA president John Barett and committee member Kylee de Roy about the great history of the swim which dates back to 1954. 

“The 8km channel swim was first organised as an event in 1954 when the Queen (Elizabeth) was coming to Townsville as part of the tour of Australia and it has continued on since then,” said Mr Barett. 

“68 years we have been going, although there has been a couple of years where we haven’t been able to do the event for various reasons.”

Swimmers taking on the challenge now will find it a lot more open and free than it was in the early years.

“Most recently in 2008 the event went cage-less and it has gone from being an event for about 13 people to have about 90 people do the swim. We haven’t reached the numbers that you would get down in Melbourne, Sydney or even over in Rottnest, but for us, it is a big number and an opportunity for our local swimmers to get out in the water. Which they really love.” 

Prefer to listen to this article? Listen to the podcast episode below.

A community event

The Townsville Open Water Swimming Association (TOWSA) started the swim and since then the committee has evolved and grown the swim. 

“Over the years there have been various people involved in the committee,” said Mr Barett. 

“I think the first one was more a group of local business people who were interested in putting on an event while the Queen was touring Australia and she came to Townsville to open James Cook University.

“So, it has grown from what business people were involved into a local festival/event that surf clubs are now involved in.

“A lot of people that came to the event in the first 50 years were surf swimmers and over the years it migrated to distance swimmers. Laurie Lawernce has been heavily involved over the years with bringing a lot of swimmers to Townsville.” 

Throughout the event’s history, there have been some fantastic swimmers cross the channel.

“If you look back through the history of the swim back in the 1950s there are some standout names of people who have come to Townsville to do the event,” said Mr Barett.

“It really has grown from local beginnings to being a nationwide event. We have also had swimmers come from overseas to do the event each year.

“And locally it is something people aspire to do, we have 13 and 14-year-olds wanting to get out and do it and their parents want them to do the swim and sometimes the parents even do the swim too.

“Currently, we let swimmers 14-years-and-over do the solo swim. It really has attracted that wide range of people that just love swimming in the ocean.” 

John Barett and Kylee de Roy of TOWSA 

The early days of shark cages

The waters around Townsville are said to be shark territory but no one actually knows if it’s that bad or not. 

“At the beginning of the swim there were cages involved,” said Mr Barett. 

“Kylee’s brother is a fisheries biologist and they tell me that this area is a breeding ground for tiger sharks. I’ve never tested it myself but if you go out fishing and get your fish taken by a shark there is probably some truth to it.”

Ms de Roy picks up the story…

“Look, there are always tales from every city and Townsville is an industrial city and there was meatworks up the river and there have always been the tales that in the 50s everything went into the river so it attracted a lot of marine life, but the fact that the cages were part of the swim, it sort of pay homage to those cultural and olden day stories,” said Ms de Roy. 

Some people came out after a really tough swim with their knuckles bleeding

“Whether the tales are true or not who knows. But the cages also allowed the local boaties to get involved because you need something to tow the cages, so it became one of those things too, they would get involved and get particular skippers towing the cage cause that in itself is an art apparently because you have to match the speed of the swimmers, the currents involved and just all those aspects.” 

Not only is skipping a boat with a shark cage an art but swimming in one is too. 

“The cages that swimmers would swim in are about 12 feet long and the ideal position for the swimmer is the front of the cage, so you are almost dragging off the cage,” said Mr Barett. 

“You would then have a dingy with a coach and an observer and the observer would then tell the skipper whether they need to speed up or slow down. But in a fraction of a second, a wave could come along and push you from the back of the cage to the front and all of a sudden you are struggling against this surge of water coming through the cage.

“Over the years we have seen some people come out after a really rough swim with their knuckles bleeding because they were hitting the cage all the time. These cages in the early days were made of chicken wire and in the latter days aluminium framework so they aren’t the nicest thing to be scratching your fingers up against.

“So it was a real art to be able to swim in the cage. To add to that some of the boats and their skipper were really experienced and then some were novices.”

One of the very early versions of the shark cage for swimmers.

In the early days, the event was limited to the number of swimmers with the number of cages available. 

“We originally had 13 cages so that was our limit on how many swimmers we could have, but trying to get 13 cages to start it is like the Grand Prix,” said Mr Barett. 

“You have 13 cages that are sitting about 50m behind the boat and they are all lined up side by side and some are going fast some are going slow.

“There were a couple of years, where the boats would cross over and the ropes on the cages would get tangled. There are lots of issues with the cages in terms of boats and which was the best.

“In the end, we had a lucky draw to see which swimmer went with each boat. So that added to the drama of it. They all wanted the best tow boat.” 

In 2008 the cages were officially removed from the event, allowing swimmers to swim freely. 

“The cages were officially removed in 2008 after lots of discussions about whether to drop the cages or not over the years,” said Mr Barett. 

“I was on the committee back in the 90s and back then we were very adverse about doing it without the cages because we were most concerned about shark attacks.” 

“But over the years we have had a lot of Townsville swimmers who have gone over to Perth to do the Rottnest swim, where they go without cages. They would then come back to Townsville and say we don’t need a cage over there and we’re in Great White territory why do we need one here.” 

“It was from that, and in particular Chris Palfrey and Penny Palfrey, who were part of the main push to do the swim without cages because we used to have qualifying swims and the best 13 swimmers would get in a lot of other people wanted to do the event just to do it, so there became a real push.” 

“The committee came up with the framework, where we thought we could do the swim safely enough, ensuring we had enough escort paddlers and IRB’s and support craft on the water and luckily it worked.” 

The event has continued to evolve

Over the years the event has continued to change and evolve with it looking a lot different now to when it first started. 

“The event has gotten much bigger and a lot more organising goes into it each year,” said Ms de Roy. 

“John talked about there being up to 90 swimmers but I actually think it’s more like 140 if you take the teams into consideration because we have now allowed teams to participate.

“We bought teams in, in the last few years because it’s something you couldn’t do with the cages, so now we offer duos and teams of four.

“On average we have about 60 solo swimmers, 20 teams of four and then 12 teams of two. And those teams all have to have a powered craft as well as a paddler. So there is the extra support of having craft looking out for swimmers on the course because our swimmers are of the utmost importance to use and their safety is key.” 

The event is much more than just an open water event but rather a celebration for the whole town. 

“The swim does create a bit of a carnival atmosphere, there is a lot of planning and logistics that go into it,” said Ms de Roy. 

“Getting swimmers to the island and the lead up to the swim and anticipation of the quality of swimmer you get from down south or overseas. It is always nice to see someone new come to the event and not just the local swimmers.

“We have been very lucky that we have grown and our sponsors have grown with us too. We have done a lot of work in the last 12 years to make sure the swim keeps growing and growing.

“We know we will probably never get the numbers that something like the Rottnest swim gets but for a city of 180,000 you only have a certain number of swimmers that would participate in an event. But with the number that we have grown it to it is looking promising for more growth in years to come.” 

Bragging rights

With the swim comes bragging rights among the locals, with Kylee having a few herself, having participated nine times for five solo wins.

“I think for our locals there are bragging rights that are attached to having swum from the island to the mainland because you can actually see the island from the mainland, it’s only 8km away,” said Ms de Roy. 

“It’s easy for people to say I’ve done Rottnest, but until you’ve actually gone over there and say I’m swimming that way and you can’t see the island, the everyday person doesn’t understand the enormity of it.

“Whereas up here a swimmer can be talking to a non-swimmer and say I’ve swam from that island back to here, and they go oh wow! So the bragging rights thing is a real deal.

“I’ve won the event five times solo and my first win was very unexpected. I wasn’t expecting anything as I had only just started swimming again. I have swam for a long time since I was a kid and I’ve had a few breaks but when I went back to swimming it was shortly before my first win. So, you could say the first one was really unexpected and then I continued for the next two years and won three in a row.

“Then my eldest daughter who was a swimmer showed some interest when she was 12, so I let her swim the Island in a team with me. Then there were a few more young swimmers 14, 15, 16 years old and I would jump in a team or duo and do it with them.

“I enjoy organising the event and giving back to the swimming community. While I enjoyed my solos, I don’t know if I would ever do it again, maybe a team. But as a kid comes through, it’s great to jump in their team all show them what the whole experience is all about.

“I think it is really important to give back and mentor those kids so that they can enjoy the ocean as much as I do and other swimmers up here do.” 

A festival of swimming

The Magnetic Island to Townsville Swim is the pinnacle event of the region and has been for decades, but where it was once the only open water swim in Townsville, it’s now joined by smaller swims in the lead-up. 

“In 2008 we went from the Magnetic Island Swim Association to TOWSA which reflected the fact that at that stage we were doing one qualifier swim,” said Mr Barett. 

“People had to (prove they could) swim at least five kilometres so we had confidence they could do the swim and make the distance. We then thought why don’t we have a lead-up swim.”

“Pretty much I came to John about doing a series because I am a destination swimmer and I love to find a place to visit and do a swim and have a look around the region,” said Ms de Roy. 

“So I was doing research and thought maybe we could put it together. I went to John with the idea of starting with a 2km swim and then increasing it up to the island qualifier swim and then doing a shorter swim to finish it off after the island swim and create a series.

“Then people have the opportunity to work towards a series goal or be a series winner. We spoke about it and slowly developed the series and the two-kilometre swim just so happened to fall a month before the Cairns Ironman so we promoted it to the triathlon clubs and gave them the opportunity to test their wetsuits and practice being in a race environment.

“We like to cater to all different swimmers such as triathlon, pool swimmers, open water swimmers, causal swimmers and even the weekend warrior. So we wanted to be inclusive and make sure everyone got the opportunity to swim in the series which is when we then offered a short course option where people can choose short or long depending on their ability.

“We wanted everybody to get involved in the event, the kids, the parents and make it a family affair. So, we made it a very reasonable price, just enough so we could cover our costs but really we just wanted to make sure everyone could do it and enjoy the spectacular winter weather Townsville has to offer.” 

The TOWSA Swim Series isn’t just a group of standard swims around buoys, Ms de Roy and Mr Barett have made each swim unique in its own way.  

“The first swim Kylee suggested was a pool-to-pool swim (now the Club to Club) where you swim from one rock pool to the other. Everybody loved it and it was a great starting point,” said Mr Barett. 

“But the event that has really taken off is the Ship to Shore, where people jump on the Magnetic Island ferry and swim back to shore. It goes out a couple of kilometres offshore and people jump off the boat. The swimmers are just sitting in the deep water thinking ‘what am I doing here’ and we tell them to swim to the shore, it’s either a one-kilometre or three-kilometre swim.

“Kylee also came up with the mystery swim, which is at the end of the year and we didn’t tell people where it was going to be or what it was. The first year we did it, we got the ferry company, Sealink involved. The ferry took people over to Big Bay and people swam off the boat into Picnic Bay which is a lovely little bay to swim in.

“We called it the ‘Jump for the Jetty Swim’ because there is a beautiful long jetty at Picnic Bay that allows those who don’t want to swim to have a great viewing point of those swimming into shore along the Jetty.”

To find out more about the Magnetic Island to Townsville Swim head, visit the event listing.

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