We leave Kingston at 11:30am on Saturday the 24th of June to drive down to Devon for the Bantham Swoosh, a 6km swim down the River Avon estuary, culminating in a final ‘swoosh’ up to Bantham Beach as river becomes sea. Rebekah and I have done several swimming events together, including the Dart 10k in 2015, but this is our first swim together this year.
There is already a queue for the parking at Bantham Beach when we arrive at 4:30pm. We have a walk down to the beach to see the finish. It’s a grey day, but at least it’s not raining. Despite the weather, the prospect from Bantham Beach is spectacular: the rugged hills of Bigbury on the opposite bank, Burgh Island and its iconic art deco hotel where Agatha Christie wrote two of her novels, and of course the estuary itself—a deep blue stretch of choppy water, surging and foaming on the shore.
We walk over the headland for the view downriver, the final stretch of the swim where the estuary widens, the boats are moored and the river edge is lined with boathouses. The walking route is marked out with flags, bunting and cheerful retro signage.
Back in the parking lot we change into our costumes, take an obligatory unflattering selfie in our wetsuits and swimming hats, and make our way to the swimmers’ pen. We have our briefing and then pile on to the buses—a surreal sight: a procession of retro-style ‘Tally Ho’ buses, full of adults sitting in pairs in wetsuits. It is an image in keeping with the friendly and charmingly-whimsical ethos of the Outdoor Swimming Society, which prizes the joy of swimming above any physical fitness challenge. Rebekah and I agree to stay together and take it easy and enjoy it. It’s a swim, not a race, after all.
We drive to the start at Aveton Gifford and unload.
“Does anyone want a banana?” A marshal waves a single, solitary banana in the air. Why is it all alone, what’s wrong with it? We wonder.
“The start is over there,” another marshal waves us in the direction of the water.
It’s about 7pm when we crack each other’s glow sticks, not a euphemism, and wade down a boat ramp into the river. The water is cold but not heart-stoppingly cold. Just finger-chillingly, toe-numbingly cold. We politely breaststroke across the river with some ooh and aahs to signal that it’s a bit nippy. I gently lower my face in the water and then hurriedly retract it as I swim into a large snarl of seaweed. I do the seaweed-clearing breaststroke for a few strokes, but then since it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better, I put my head down and start doing a seaweed-clearing front crawl instead. The scratchy fronds drape over my head and frame my goggles like a witch’s wig. I do a little duck dive to try and dislodge the river flora. The water is extremely salty.
It’s busy but not excessively so, there are just over 400 swimmers registered for the dusk swim, much fewer than the 1600 swimmers who swam the Dart 10k the day we did in 2015. It’s relatively easy for us to swim together. I keep an eye on Rebekah, she has less natural insulation than I do and she battles with the cold. Today she looks extremely pale, although I am looking at her through my blue-tinted goggles so that might have something to do with it.
I’m feeling good. I was worried that I haven’t been able to get to the pool for the last three weeks, but it seems the hours I put in before that crawling up and down at Hampton Pool, while not doing much for my cold-water acclimatisation, has accustomed my shoulders to the long haul (and given me a lovely bottom tan.) I fall into an easy rhythm and I am also breathing bilaterally without having to think about it too much.
In the briefing we were told we would be able to see the bottom of the estuary while we were swimming. This seems unlikely at the beginning, it is murky and full of seaweed. But at some point I look down and I can see the sandy riverbed below me.
“I can see the bottom.” I tell Rebekah.
“Where?” She asks.
“Down there,” I point. I try to work out how far down it is, as though this would help her to find it. The cold water has clearly gone to both of our brains at this point.
From about halfway I can feel the wetsuit chafing the back of my neck. I have slathered it in Body Glide, which has served me well in several other long-haul open water swims. (It has also caused a teenaged shop assistant to snort at me when I asked for it in Sports Direct—helpful tip: order it online.) But it’s not doing the trick today. I wonder if the salt water is dissolving the Body Glide faster than fresh water. Because it’s salty I realise how much water I habitually swallow when I swim. The inside of my mouth has puckered up like a bashful snail retreating into its shell.
I zone out a bit and I start thinking about a character in my novel—a robot who likes to swim. To start with she would have to be well-sealed. I think about the mechanics of a robot swimming. It would depend on what materials she was made of. Plastic or rubber would float but a solid metal robot would sink like a stone doing the front crawl. She would have to develop a specialised swimming stroke. I imagine my robot curled in a ball on her back, like the hull of a boat, flapping her feet extremely fast like some sort of motorised engine. Or perhaps sculling on her back like an upended turtle. I enjoy the thought of my upside-down turtle-sculling robot.
By this stage, the water is a lot clearer and we can see the bottom easily—no confusion about where it is. It’s also quite shallow, as evidenced by lots of swimmers standing up in the water.
“Why is everyone standing up?” We ask each other. Rebekah and I stand up too, just to see what the attraction is.
“Ooh it’s all slimy,” Rebekah says, lying down again.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” says a man standing near us, grinning manically.
“Are you walking?” Rebekah asks me.
I realise that I have started walking downriver. She has a point, this is supposed to be a swim. I lie down again and carry on swimming.
At this point I spot a crab scuttling over the sand I was quite recently walking on. I see a crab burrowing in a billow of sand, and then another one. My toes shiver and curl up on themselves.
“Crabs!” I tell Rebekah, “lots of crabs,” just to warn her in case she feels like having a walk too.
She dips her head down, “Large crabs!” she confirms.
There will be no more walking for us.
Then we start to see boats and the river opens. We must be nearly at the end. I start looking for the pink boathouse that signals the start of the swoosh, but I can’t remember which side of the river it’s supposed to be on. We swim through the middle of the boats and I narrowly avoid several buoys.
When we get past the boats the current picks up and suddenly we’re getting pulled along. I put my face in the water and do a few strokes. It’s like when you walk on the travellator at the airport.
“I feel like Michael Phelps!” I tell Rebekah.
“But does Michael Phelps feel like he’s swimming fast, or does it just feel normal to him?” asks Rebekah, helpfully. She has clearly acclimatised to the cold water by now.
We finally spot the pink boathouse and prepare ourselves to be swooshed. I try to lie on my back with my feet in front of me like an otter, as the woman at registration told us to, but the waves are quite big and it’s tricky to float over waves feet-first. I resort to bobbing upright like a cork instead, turning to look at Rebekah and the other swimmers enjoying this moment as we’re swept along. There are big smiles all around and couple of whoops. Too soon we see the beach and the cheerful volunteers waving us in. Reluctantly, I swim for the shore. It’s still light, not even nine o’clock yet. We’ve been in the water just over ninety minutes.
The marshals and spectators welcome us up the beach, over the line and usher us towards the steps up the hill. At the top of the steps we’re handed something really useful—a beautiful dark blue ‘Swoosh’ towel. (I like a medal but there’s a limit to how many days after a sporting event a 36-year-old woman can wear her medal before people start to give her the side-eye.) A towel is a fantastic medal-substitute and it keeps us warm as we walk over the dunes and back to the Bantham Beach parking lot. The sandy pathway is lit by twinkling strings of bulbs, a magical gauntlet, and ends with the Swoosh sign and hot chocolate.
We retrieve our bags and go straight for the pasties and pints. There are no tables or chairs left so we collapse on the grass, our wetsuits peeled to our waists and set about answering that age-old question—can a pasty ever taste better than it does after a 6km swim in cold, salty water? The answer is no, of course.
At home I observe that my neck has chafed in a pleasingly symmetrical manner, which proves I was swimming straight and consistently doing bilateral breathing. Result.