THERE was an all-female podium at the Open House Festival Pickie to Pier swim in Bangor on Saturday – for the second year running.

Two visiting elite open water swimmers from the USA, Catherine Breed and Felicia Lee, took first and third places respectively, with Bangor’s own Jessika Robson, who won the race on the previous two occasions, finishing in the runner-up spot.

Almost 200 swimmers took part in the 800m swim from Skippingstone Beach at Pickie to the RNLI slipway at Bangor Marina, with hundreds of spectators gathering at both the start and finish lines to cheer them on. The sun shone and the water was clear and calm.

The top three swimmers were all in the water again on Sunday, this time for a cross channel relay swim from Donaghadee to Scotland. Catherine and Felicia as part of the Californian based Olympic Club squad, and Jessika as part of Northern Ireland’s Ocean Synergy team. Both teams successfully completed the challenge, with the Olympic Squad setting a new relay record for the route of eight hours, 15 minutes, 21 seconds.

“Catherine and Felicia are both members of the USA National swimming team, so it was an honour to have them compete in our modest event,” said Sharon Matchett, who organises the swim for Open House Festival. “And it was great to welcome Jessika back for her third swim with us. She is a name to watch.”

Fifty-four-year-old John Hamilton travelled from Birkenhead in Merseyside to swim the race in honour of his mum Anne Nelson, a former Irish Champion who won the Pickie to Pier race several times back in the 1950s. John finished in a very respectable 10 minutes, just under two minutes behind Catherine’s winning time of eight minutes 16 seconds.

“Of course, this event isn’t just about the winners,” said Sharon, “It’s about the joy of taking part, the camaraderie, and the sense of achievement for the swimmers when they walk up that slipway. Our final swimmer home took 45 minutes, and the cheer she received at the end was as big as the one Catherine got when she won.”

There were pre-race yoga sessions at Skippingstone beach from local yoga teacher The Salty Yoga, and Wim Hof breathing exercises from certified Wim Hof instructor, Alexander Lionman Gabrysch.

After the race, Catherine and Felicia paid tribute to the organisers and volunteers. “We do a lot of open water swimming races all over the world, but especially in California,” said Catherine, “and this has been one of the most enthusiastic, best organised, fun events that we have ever done.”

“With the best volunteering squad ever,” added Felicia.

After a 30-year absence, the legendary swim Pickie to Pier Swim, that dated back to the 1920s, was resurrected as part of Open House Festival’s Seaside Revival celebrations in 2019, to spectacular success. It has now been firmly re-established as an annual summer event in Bangor, and is a collaborative effort between Open House, Bangor Marina, and Ballyholme Yacht Club.

“There were so many people who made this event another roaring success,” said Sharon. “So on behalf of Open House, I’d like to thank Kevin Baird and We Are Boat Folk at Bangor Marina, Ballyholme Yacht Club, our local RNLI, and Safer Waters for their help. Enormous thanks too to Cosimac Ltd, Rockpool Insights, Bangor Asda, Gransha Road Eurostar, Spar Rathmore Road, and Wallhangers for their sponsorship support, and of course to our volunteers and all the swimmers who participate.”