The Flowers Sea Swim celebrated its 20th anniversary on Saturday 9 June. It shares a birthday week with its “sister”, Dara Flowers Burke, a young lady who was given a gift from her father Frank that keeps on giving every year: the opportunity to organise what is now one of the world’s most prestigious open water swims.
Frank Flowers was a runner when he was younger, and a long distance one at that. Many people will remember seeing Frank going along the road as they drove past, and he would always wave as mile after mile passed beneath his feet. He was good and he was competitive, but alas the curse of injuries reared its ugly head as it often does in the consistently athletic. Unable to run the distances he once had, Frank had to turn his back on the marathons he had so enjoyed and found himself at a bit of a loose end when it came to competitive sports.
He learned to swim at the age of 39, which may seem like a late age for an islander, but even now the percentage of Caribbean natives unable to swim is alarming. Anne Stafford was the first person who suggested Frank look at swimming races now that he had to curb his long-distance running. At the time the only one-mile swimming event was the Lobster Pot Mile where the route started at Coral Stone Club and ended at Public Beach. Frank took to the water, and did well enough that he became hooked. After that he was participating in every swimming competition that came along.
In 1991, Cayman Airways held their half-mile swim with airline tickets and trophies for the top three times. Again Frank participated, and again he found himself near the front of the pack. He had now become a regular on the local swimming scene.
In 1992 the Lobster Pot Mile and the Cayman Airways half-mile were amalgamated and officially taken over by Frank Flowers. It was done in part to consolidate the number of swimmers that participated in both, and also to revamp the organisation and promotion of an open-water sea swim in the Cayman Islands. It was renamed the C.L. Flowers Sea Swim in tribute to Frank’s father and in June as it was an excellent month to hold it to encourage tourism in a typically low period.
There were well over 100 participants in the first year, including about 12 tourists who were visiting anyway and figured they would give it a go. From the very beginning people were asked to give comments and constructive criticism. A woman who in the early days expressed disappointment in the lack of food provided came along the year after to find comestibles galore. She has returned every year since.
Despite the fact that 1 June is the official start of hurricane season, the race has not been cancelled or postponed once in 20 years. Frank and Dara put that down to a lot of prayers, and it seems that they have always been answered. Frank Flowers Jr joins too when time allows as a filmmaker in Los Angeles.
Over the years the event has come to be known simply as the Flowers Sea Swim, although in June 2005, the year after Hurricane Ivan, it was called “Recovery Mile.” The registration fees went to three deserving families whose lives had been crippled by the storm.
Other families also received donations to help them rebuild and repair their homes. In the past the funds had always been given to the Cayman Islands Amateur Swimming Association, but after Ivan it was decided that a charity would be chosen each year to benefit from the swim. Since 2005 nonprofit organisations such as Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Meals on Wheels and the Sunrise Adult Learning Centre have all benefited.
In 20 years the open water swim has gone from about 150 participants to 850. People fly in from all over the world to join in the fun, because above all this has always been promoted as an enjoyable, family-oriented experience. Some swimmers are very competitive, and others just want to be part of a one-mile swim that has garnered international attention.
Thanks to Dave Kelsheimer, the dedicated coach who took local swimmers to new heights, Olympic medal winners began to join the sea swim around 1999. He felt that these elite athletes would inspire younger swimmers, and so arrangements were made to invite them to participate each year. In 2012 a total of 14 Olympic and exceptional swimmers came to the Cayman Islands, including Penny and Chris Palfrey.
It is now the world’s richest open water swim, with random prizes worth over $100,000. One in four participants receive a prize including travel tickets, cell phones and gift vouchers.
Of course there are always interesting characters who sign up from time to time. This year saw Cerizzi ‘Dolphinman’ Eros successfully swim with both his hands and his feet cuffed. It took him a while, but he made it, so the next step is to get his achievement into the Guinness Book of World Records.
The organisers have always prided themselves on their safety regulations and have a full committee that advises them on necessary procedures. Two hundred volunteers are at all points of the route which now runs between the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman and Royal Palms. The direction is set a week before based on the weather outlook which usually indicates the favourable current. The entire event is a major operation which has been constantly tweaked since its inception.
Could even Frank Flowers himself have guessed that the sea swim would become so popular? Those who know him best are not surprised at its success, as they know him to be a tenacious man who believes that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Twenty-five per cent of the competitors now fly in from countries as widespread as Albania, Australia, South Africa and Guatemala.
They are as young as eight and as old as 80. The swim has been featured in the Guardian’s travel section and Swimmer’s World. Not bad for an event held off the coast of a 75 square mile island. Thanks to supporters like Cayman Airways, Rod McDowall at Red Sail Sports, and pioneering volunteers Alan and Barbara Jones, Rob Duty and Jim Fraser, the Flowers Sea Swim has grown from a Cayman community event to an international event with a great sense of camaraderie coupled with lots of local hospitality.
Dara is always incredibly busy in the months leading up to her birthday, but she couldn’t imagine a better present from her father than being involved in the sea swim every year. She organises, she swims, she socialises, and she hands out hundreds of prizes and awards to happy competitors. It beats a scarf any day.
People fly in from all over the world to join in the fun, because above all this has always been promoted as an enjoyable, family-oriented experience.