Open water racing (as distinct from long distance events like the English Channel or False Bay crossings) has always a part of competitive swimming, before any suitable pools were built. Today the challenge of open water racing has led it to become standardized as an Olympic 10km event, under the auspices of FINA. South Africa has an open water national championships, (click the link for 2014 results) which includes events up to the Olympic distance of 10km as well as shorter 7,5 and 3 km events for age groups and disabled swimmers. There are numerous websites dedicated to this activity - including the Openwaterpedia, and a print publication called H2Open magazine.
Long before it became an Olympic event, a mile race was part of the competitive swimming calendar - today the pool 1650 yards and 1500m events are a continuation of this tradition. In the beginning, especially in England, from where South Africa inherited most of its sporting traditions, swimmers often competed for money, as far back as 1826 when a group of printers raced 4 miles in the Thames for a 20 guinea prize, and in 1869 the one-mile championship was begun.
In 1982 Mark Edge (a Springbok surf lifesaver) of the PEA Amateur swimming club in Port Elizabeth swam the Coniston Water Championship in England The Water temperature was 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It was raining with a heavy mist later. The distance is 5.5 miles and is the length of Coniston Water south to north. It is in the Lake District in Cumbria, North West England. The Championship is run annually, and in 1982 it was organised by the Warwickshire Long Distance Swimming Association. It has been organised by the British Long Distance Association since 1993. Mark held the record for this swim in a time of 1 hour 51 mins and 13 seconds, and he also held the 7,5km Robben Island record for a number of years.
Mark also won the Red House River Mile a number of times. This races was started by the Redhouse swimming club on the Zwartkops river near Port Elizabeth in 1924, is the oldest existing Open water event in South Africa today. The Gentry Cup was another open water event, introduced in 1925 and held in False Bay until WW2. Other open water events, like the Buffalo river mile in East London and the 5 mile Enduro Race in the lower reaches of the Zwartkops river. The internationally famous Midmar Mile was started in 1974 when petrol restrictions made it impossible for Transvaalers and Natal swimmers to travel down to East London.
Today the Midmar event is the world's biggest Open Water race, and generates a substantial income for the Seals swimming club of Pietermaritzburg. Many other Open Water events have sprung up around the country as local organizers seek to develop their sport and cash in.
From the archives of SAASU President Harry Getz
1926 Gordons SC 2 mile race - off the Pierhead in Table Bay harbour