Competition News

History of the Five Bridges River swim

It’s survived a world war, atomic bombs and economic recessions but it will float to the surface again in Hamilton on April 11. The annual Five Bridges River Swim will be held again in the Waikato River on Sunday, April 11, beginning at 1pm, 71 years after the event first took place in Hamilton. History shows that R. Aiken swam to victory in the first event in 1939 and was presented with the Goldie-Anderson Challenge Cup.



The river vistas have changed remarkably since Mr Aiken splashed over the finish line first in 1939. Perhaps the only sight he would recognise if he were around to take part this year would be the Fairfield Bridge, with its distinctive three concrete arches.

New additions since 1939 include the slender columns of the Claudelands and Whitiora bridges, soaring 20 storeys above the swimmers’ bobbing heads in majestic displays of the art of civil engineering. There’s also the proscenium arch of the steel Victoria Bridge which heralds the start of the spectacular central business district. In 1939, Mr Aiken would have seen only a tall bank to his left as he swam beside the CBD. The then low-rise downtown buildings of Victoria Street were hidden behind the lip of the bank. Now, he would see 10-storey buildings poking out of lush riverside vegetation above the bank, with the top of the grey Centre Place tower appearing in the distance from that angle like a Manhattan skyscraper.


Insights into the early history of the event were given at last year’s prize-giving ceremony. Bud Calder, who was 80 when he handed out trophies and prizes to swimmers last year, said he took part as a teenager about the time of World War 2 and remembers sharing the water with dead cows dumped in the Waikato River from upstream dairy farms. No one wore wetsuits or caps in those days, Mr Calder said. When he took part, the race also started at Hamilton Gardens but ended at the traffic bridge near the police station—not far from where the Victoria Bridge is today. After the race, the older swimmers made the short trip up the hill to the brewery for refreshments. He remembers the turnout that day as being 18 to 20 swimmers. He praised the “great turnout” for last year’s race, which was a record 102 swimmers.


Last year’s male victor was Jared Bowden, aged 23, of Auckland, in a time of 51min 36sec. He narrowly beat Trevor Cook, 40, Auckland, a five-time winner of the event. Last year’s female winner was Mel Smith, aged 23, of Auckland, in 54min 38sec, beating the hometown favourite, Myra Williamson, 34, of the Hamilton Masters Swimming Club. The two swimmers who were in the river longest during last year’s event both completed the distance in a time of one hour and 36 minutes.


Last year’s times were slower than usual. New Zealand’s longest river flowed slower than expected as a result of a dry Waikato summer. Some of the swimmers reported struggling because of the lack of help from the current or getting caught in the two whirlpools on last year’s course. But faster times can be expected this year, with more summer rain in the tributaries of the upper catchment area. For competitive swimmers, the event is a challenge of strength and intelligence, powering 6km towards the finishing line while making the most of tricky mid-stream currents and the odd whirlpool. The current’s assistance makes the event equivalent to a 4km swim in calm water for the top competitors. But it can be as short as 2km for those who like to stop frequently for a breather and check out the beautiful scenery of New Zealand’s largest provincial city while the current carries them towards the finish line.


River swim co-ordinator Eleanor Pinfold, who is also chairman of the Hamilton Masters Swimming Club, said: “This is a fun, non-profit event.” Again the swim will start at the Hamilton Gardens, below the Hungerford Crescent car park, and finish 6km downstream at the Ann Street Beach in the suburb of Beerescourt. For safety reasons, those under the age of 19 on December 31, 2010, are not eligible to enter. But fit and active adults who sign the risk-consent clause on their entry form will find on the day that the organisers have arranged enough craft and medical support for them to complete the swim without serious incident.


Unlike ocean swimming, the Waikato river swim organisers can guarantee no jellyfish, no sharks and no salt water to chafe the skin under a protective wetsuit.


Swimmers will experience some of the most spectacular scenery and civil engineering feats on New Zealand’s mighty Waikato River, including the Hamilton Gardens, the downtown skyline, leafy inner suburbs containing many old and new mansions, and of course five massive road bridges.


Mrs Pinfold said she had been overwhelmed with the response to last year’s event. “I had been looking optimistically at 80 competitors. That’s what we catered for,” she said. “We had to get some more caps before the race started. It was so satisfying to see so many people.” This year she is hoping that even more people will take part. Last year’s event passed a significant milestone, with exactly half of its record 102 competitors coming from outside Hamilton. Of those, 11 swimmers were from elsewhere in the Waikato, 31 came from Auckland, two from Pukekohe, two from Tauranga, four from New Plymouth and one from Australia.


Hamilton Masters Swimming Club publicity officer Warren Brown said: “It’s significant that, in the middle of a recession last year, so many people from out of Hamilton were prepared to pay $20 each to see the city’s best scenery from the Waikato River.”

Last year’s entries were up 75 per cent on the previous year. “Now that the economy is taking off again, the river swim has the potential to attract many more tourist dollars to Hamilton,” Mr Brown said.


Registration begins at 11.40am beside the river at Hamilton Gardens. The briefing for swimmers is at 12.40pm, with the event starting there at 1pm. Transport will be provided on the day from Ann Street to the start line until 12.30pm and cars will return to the finish line after 1pm with the swimmers’ belongings.


Entry forms for this year’s swim will be available from swimming pools, gyms and sports shops. It can also be printed from the New Zealand Masters Swimming website.

Further details on this event are available from Eleanor Pinfold email


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