Product Review: FINIS Hydro Tracker GPS

Graphic – InternetMore and more gadgets are coming onto the open water swimming market. Most of these are a bit gimmicky and are things that you’ll probably never use. Last Christmas, I got a present of a FINIS Hydro Tracker GPS. I’ve heard good and bad things about them (and those produced by other brands, e.g. Garmin) so have been itching to try it out since then. With the bad weather that we’ve been having this year, I didn’t get to test it out until this week. Here’s how I got on…

Wearing and operating the device: As you can see from the photograph above, the device itself is quite small (4 cm × 5 cm × 1.5 cm) and is held in place (on the back of the head) by the goggle straps. It can be a bit fiddly getting it secured to the goggle straps but a handy video explaining how to do this is provided (see below). Once in place, the device is very comfortably worn, hardly noticeable in fact, and is very simple to operate. There are only two buttons, i.e. a [POWER] button and a [PAUSE/RECORD] button. The former is held down for 3 s to turn the device on or off and the latter is held down for 2 s to start or pause data recording. You can pause and restart data recording to keep it in the same workout or power off and back on to start a new workout.

Note: There are lights on the device to indicate whether power is on or off, whether or not a GPS signal is being received and whether data recording is running or paused. You should wait for a GPS signal to be received before starting your workout (this can take a few minutes – as with all GPS devices, I suppose).

Data analysis: I originally assumed that the device produced a data trail on a Google Earth map, a total swim time and maybe an average speed – I was wrong, it produces much more than that! It does, of course, give the trail of GPS data points overlaid on a Google Earth image. These are very accurate and can produce surprising results, e.g. my tracks for swims at Sandycove Island and Knockananig Reservoir (below) show my tendency to swim to the right and need to make constant left-hand corrections to stay on course. The Sandycove track also shows that I was much further off the back of the island than I had imagined during the swim.

Images – Google Earth & FINIS

GPS data trail for a single lap of Sandycove Island (left) and a 4-lap swim in Knockananig Reservoir (right) overlaid on Google Earth images.

In addition to a map of the swim, the device also gives you the total swim time, average speed (km/h), average pace (s/100 m), splits for each km and 100 m , speed (km/h) and accumulated time at any [spatial rather than temporal] point during the swim. Elevation is also provided but this is obviously of little consequence for swimmers!

Note: All data can be converted to imperial units for our yet-to-be-converted cousins!

Graphic – FINIS

Some of the data output from my 4-lap swim in Knockananig Reservoir last night. Hovering the cursor over the bar for each split reveals the time (in mm:ss format) and the ten 100 m splits shown are for the selected km split (the 1 km split in this case).

Each workout is saved to your own personal account on the FINIS website from where you can export your workout to a number of various file formats or other training logging websites, share it on social media, e.g. Facebook or Twitter, or delete it. There are also a number of additional features on the FINIS training log such as total distance and average speed, etc., across multiple workouts.

Note on battery life: I haven’t tested exactly how long the battery lasts (though I know that it takes about 2 hours to charge). I have, however, noted that when you are not using the device you need to check carefully to make sure that it is powered off. I attempted to use the device in the River Blackwater on Monday morning but it would not turn on. I’ve since figured out that I hadn’t made sure that it was switched off properly after last using it and by such had accidentally run down the battery. I haven’t made the same mistake since! I’ll update when I figure out just how long the battery lasts.

How useful is it? Well, it depends on how much swimming you’re doing and where you’re doing it. I think that because I swim regularly at Sandycove and race there also, the data returned by the device will be very useful for me in practicing to swim a faster lap. I think that it’s also useful for measuring the exact distance and time for a new swim that is perhaps difficult to gauge from maps and charts. Of course, it’s not just for swimming that it’s useful: it comes with an armband so can be used for a multitude of activities including running, cycling, walking, skiing and many others (you can select the specific activity when analysing the workout). It retails at US$129.99 so it really depends on you as to how much value you can get out of it…

Conclusion: I always like to record my sessions. I record them, not just for the sake of it, but so that I can analyse them and see how I can improve and get more value out of the next session. This is easily done with pool sessions but much harder for open water. I think that this device makes proper workout analysis for open water possible and will help me to train better in the open water, so it gets the “thumbs up” from me!

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Knockananig Reservoir

I’ve written a lot about my swimming “home”, the River Blackwater, but not much about my other regular training spot, Knockananig Reservoir. This small artificial lake is located near the top of a hill a few kilometres outside the town of Fermoy and was originally used as the main water supply for the town. Dave Mulcahy and I have been swimming here since 2008 and have been making great use of this facility when the River is unswimable.

Photograph – Owen O'Keefe

Knockananig Reservoir, Fermoy as seen from the northern bank.

First, a quick note on that unusual name (for the benefit of readers outside of Ireland). It is pronounced pretty much as it is spelled and is an anglicisation of the Irish. The actual meaning is disputed but there are three main schools of thought. The official Irish name is Cnoc an Eanaigh which means Marsh Hill, this seems plausible as the area is quite badly drained. Locally, including on roadsigns, this is mistaken for Cnoc an Éan(n)aigh which a few claim means Hill of the Birds, but no such construction exists in Irish so it’s probably incorrect. However, the pronunciation of the latter may be a clue as to the true meaning. A native of the area, Ciss Geaney, told my grandfather and others that it was “Fair Hill, ’twas ever known as Fair Hill”. The Irish for Fair Hill (a “fair” as in a market where livestock, etc. is traded) would be Cnoc an Aonaigh and recent work by an Irish place-name etymologist has established that this is most likely the correct name for the area. Ciss, by the way, was 110 years old when she died in St. Patrick’s Hospital, Fermoy in 1996 – she was Ireland’s oldest person at the time.

Photograph – Owen O'Keefe

Dave Mulcahy swimming in Knockananig Reservoir in Summer 2012.

In English, locals refer to the Reservoir itself by a myriad of names including the Water Works and the Res, but to name a few. The lake was converted into a coarse fishery after a new concrete reservoir was built closer to the town, but it has become a popular location for other forms of recreation, especially on those rare summer days! Swimming (as a sport) only started here on New Year’s Day 2008, when Dave Mulcahy and I decided to try swimming around the lake as the Blackwater was in flood. We managed the 500 m circumnavigation of the lake and have been using it is a secondary swimming location since. Blackwater Triathlon Club have also caught the bug. The lake can freeze over in the depths of winter but can soar to over 20ºC after a week of sunshine!

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Swallows build their nests under the pump bridge in the Reservoir and are a comforting sign that summer is upon us.

While those of us who use the Reservoir get much enjoyment out of it (even if that involves doing a 17 km training swim), it can be a sad place at times: in August of last year, one of my good school-friends took his own life here, as did his mother the year previous. When swimming here, I always try to remember the enjoyment that he got out of this place in earlier years rather than the pain that it brought him over the last two. The water leaving the lake is called Cregg Stream and this flows down the hill and, before long, finds it’s way into the Blackwater on the banks of Cregg South.

Defining “Open Water Swimming”

Photograph – Ian Thurston

Swimmers at the start of the RCP Tiburon Mile in California, one of the world’s most popular open water events.

Over the last few years, there has been a huge increase in the number of people taking part in open water swimming – there are now more events than ever before and a much broader spectrum of people taking part. With so many different types of events on offer, from triathlon swim to channel crossings, it can be difficult to pin down just what is “open water swimming” and what is not. There is much debate as to what constitutes open water swimming and, amongst some people, whether or not it is even a sport! These are all very interesting questions, though sometimes divisive ones. In any case, I’ll do my best to get across my understanding of open water swimming, hopefully without offending too many people…

Graphic – Owen O'Keefe

A simplified cladogram of the aquatic sports as I understand them…

Above is a quick sketch of my understanding of the relationships between the aquatic sports. La Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA) has responsibility for the administration of international competition in the five* aquatic sports listed above. FINA delegates to continental governing bodies like La Ligue Européenne de Natation (LEN), which is responsible for the administration of international competition in Europe, and to national governing bodies such as Swim Ireland, which has responsibility for the aquatic sports throughout the island of Ireland.

*Masters is not included here as there are separate masters rules events for each of the five sports above, i.e. there are both swimming and open water swimming events at big masters events such as the FINA World Masters Championships.

It may come as a surprise to some people that different open water swimming events organised by the bodies listed above have different sets of rules. A rule that might be in force at one event might not be in force at the next. It may sound odd, but it must be remembered FINA defines open water swimming as “any competition that takes place in rivers, lakes, oceans or water channels”. These environments are controlled like a pool environment, so the rules need to be flexible to accommodate changing conditions. The organisation of open water swimming events at club level is still at a premature stage and many events are organised from a point-of-view of increasing overall participation in the sport than providing a high level of competition, i.e. there are, to an extent, no rules!

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Swimmers at the start of the “Edge Sports” Sandycove Island Challenge near Kinsale, Ireland. An example of one of the very well organised open water events that operate outside the aquatic sphere.

There are also many very popular events which are organised outside of the aquatic sphere. These include solo/relay/tandem swims (which are becoming more regularly recognised by clubs/organisations affiliated to governing bodies) and iconic races like the “Vibes & Scribes” Lee Swim and the “Edge Sports” Sandycove Island Challenge, as well as charity swims and events run for profit. As with open water swimming in the aquatic sphere, the rules for these events are far from set in stone.

Triathlon has become hugely popular in many countries in recent years, particularly in Ireland. The majority of people who have swum in open water environments in Ireland in the last few years have probably done so as part of a triathlon. This has, in turn, led to greater numbers taking part in events such as those mentioned above.

Another, relatively new sport that has been gaining momentum in the last few years is that of surf lifesaving. It encompasses all of the skills of lifeguarding and takes them to a competitive level. Naturally, open water swimming is one of the many disciplines comprising this sport, which has become very popular in countries like South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and on the west and north west coasts of Ireland. Surf lifesaving competition throughout the island of Ireland is administered by Irish Water Safety.

Photograph – IWS

Podium finishes for my good friend and lane buddy, Rory Sexton, and his teammate, Bernard Cahill, at the Junior European Lifesaving Championships in Sweden last year.

Of course, there are other terms such as “long distance swimming” and “sea swimming” which have been used as synonyms for “open water swimming”, but I think that, as the sport grows, we will see the standard terminology prevail. So, I have failed completely to come anywhere near defining “open water swimming”, but I didn’t really think that I would anyway! I think I feel a rant coming on about “wild swimming” versus “open water swimming”, but that will have to wait for another day…