There is a moment I crave during any long swim, whether it be in the muddy puddle of a ‘man-made lake’, a freezing quarry or the crystalline waters of the Med.
In that moment a revelation loosens stiff shoulders, I feel the liquid slice of my hands through water, the roll of my hips, the flick of my too-big feet and I think, in big, capital letters, ‘I AM SWIM’.
It is a somewhat ridiculous thought, but one well-documented by psychologists, who describe this phenomenon as ‘flow’. Flow is that in-the-zone feeling you get when you are living and breathing like a wild animal, oblivious to bank balances and shopping lists, mortgages and school runs. And that’s why I’m here, waddling over a timing mat in Devon at the start of the Bantham Swoosh. Ridiculous in head-to-toe neoprene, ready to embark on another swim adventure.
The Swoosh is only in its second year but tickets sold out months ago. Now there are 600 of us funnelling like rubbery sardines into the narrow start, gearing up for a 6km swim down the last gasp of the River Avon, into Bantham Bay. As the water rushes to the sea it passes through a narrow mouth, accelerating swimmers to four times their normal speed. The beach finish is overlooked by Burgh Island – itself on many a wild swimmer’s bucket list. Out to the island, round and back is nearly two miles but for now it can wait.
The Bantham Swoosh swim is organised by the Outdoor Swimming Society, founded 10 years ago to help people find their way back to wild water. Its mission is succeeding, with 25,000 members and events that sell out in hours. Demand was so great for the Dart 10km this year that it crashed the ticket company’s website.
So, back to the Swoosh. I am over the timing mat, but still queuing to get in the water, so I delay hitting the start button on my swim watch. The Avon here is as muddy as we’ve been warned and despite splashing water on my face, I still experience that flappy panic I get at any mass-start. It’s compounded by the lack of visibility and clumps of seaweed, which have worked their way up the river and now into my mouth, messing up my breathing pattern.
At this point I am about as far from finding my flow as it’s possible to get and am resolutely not having fun. But I also know this will pass. I shut my mouth to avoid any more of the green stuff, belatedly remember to start my timer and try to relax.
To my left are reeds, a natural home for pike. To my right are trees and shadows, signalling cold. It’s a perfect 17C in the water, but it’ll get colder near the sea so I need to stay warm for as long as possible. I keep left, thinking 600 swimmers have probably scared off any fish. Happily, I am right.
As the channel widens and the mud clears I calm down and start to enjoy myself. The sun is peeking through a duvet of cloud, sending shafts of light through the water.
Due to the number of swimmers, there isn’t much wildlife around, but a seagull soars above me for a moment, casting a wide shadow as it glides to the sea. I spot a secret tunnel at the water’s edge and wonder where it leads.
The wind makes the channel choppy in places and I roll with it, switching my breathing to one side to avoid inhaling water. I suck down a couple of gels to keep me going. We weave our way through anchored boats in a harbour, shadowed by safety crew on paddle boards. I can see sand below me and in places the river bed is so close I can touch it. The current is strong today and I am swimming much faster than normal. I start to feel the cold and repeat ‘hot, hot, hot’ in my head. I’ve only been swimming 90 minutes, but already the water is getting salty. We pass houses and pubs and families wave and cheer us on. I am feeling it now, the flow, the longed-for moment. I am the water, and the water is me. I AM SWIM.
I spy the pink house which signals the river mouth and the swoosh begins. I lie on my back, laughing with my fellow swimmers as we ride nature’s very own roller coaster. I paddle the last few strokes to the beach, leaving it til the very last moment to stand on my weary limbs. I have made it but I want another go.
My lovely friends cheer and wave and try to wrap towels around me but I’m too full of adrenaline and happiness to even feel the cold just yet.
Burgh Island winks at me across the bay and I think ‘you’re next’.
Rosee’s 5 top tips for outdoor swimming
- Don’t jump in. It’s tempting to plunge into wild water but you don’t know what’s underneath and cold water shock can be deadly. Edge in. Give yourself a few minutes to adjust to the temperature. Splash water on your face. Your head, hands and feet will feel the cold most so consider wearing two hats, neoprene socks (which aren’t great to swim in but will keep you warm) and gloves (ditto).
- Acclimatise. Wild water in the UK will feel very cold if you’ve only ever swum indoors. The good news is, your body is designed to adjust and you’ll get used to colder water temperatures after just a few swims. Build up the amount of time you spend in colder water slowly. Learn the signs of hypothermia. Read more about acclimatisation in this excellent piece by Lone Swimmer.
- Buy the best wetsuit you can afford, and wear it. It’s pretty impossible to sink in a wetsuit and it will help keep you warm. Make sure it’s a swimming wetsuit, rather than a surfing wetsuit, which has far less shoulder mobility. Wear a rash vest underneath for extra warmth.
- If you’re swimming any kind of distance without safety support, use a tow float. The bright colour will mean you can be seen by boats and jet-skis. Although they’re not designed as buoyancy aids, tow floats also give you something to hang onto if you need a rest. Some have waterproof pockets to put valuables in, or storage for water and snacks.The main company that sells them, Chillswim, is owned by Colin Hill, who lives in the Lake District and has swum the Channel and the Ice Mile. He knows his stuff.
- If you want to take part in open water events, competitive or otherwise, learn to sight. Sighting will keep you swimming in the right direction and also prevent you from swimming into and over people. You can turn your head to look after you breathe, or lift your eyes just above the water between breaths, which is more efficient, but takes a bit of practice. Find out more about sighting here.