A celebration of swimming: the wild and wonderful Bantham Swoosh
Swimmers took to the chilly waters of the River Avon estuary in Devon last weekend to take part in the Bantham Swoosh -a 6km wild swim to the sea organised by the Outdoor Swimming Society. Carys Matthews takes on the challenge...
Taking a deep breath and adjusting my goggles one last time, I plunged into the murky waters of the River Avon estuary in Devon. Pushing aside clumps of seaweed, I tentatively put my face in the water. Argh! An arm caught me sharply across the nose as a fellow swimmer attempted to navigate her way through the teeming bodies. “Sorry!” she cheerily shouted with an apologetic wave as she swam past.
With two swimming slots to choose from, my training partner (and Swoosh veteran) Rosee and I signed up for the ‘Dusk’ swim after deciding that the ‘Dawn’ option was just a bit too early for us.
Starting at Aveton Gifford and ending at Bantham beach, the third Bantham Swoosh saw 425 swimmers – aged between 16 to 70 years old - take part at each end of the day.
Swimming through twisty coils of seaweed and debris made the initial 1 km or so slow, but forcing myself not to panic (not always easy when you have a rope of seaweed wrapped around your neck), I took a couple of deep breaths and eased into the swim. Rich in wildlife, the River Avon estuary is home to fish, birds, seaweed and tree roots, although I suspect most were hidden in the reeds as a large wetsuit-clad shoal of swimmers flowed towards the sea.
As the estuary opened up and each swimmer settled into their own pace I found myself enjoying the experience. Each time I turned to take a breath, I drank in the beautiful rolling Devon countryside and open sky.
As the water began to clear, I spied the sandy bottom of the estuary, dotted with shells and the odd fish darting just out of reach. Somewhere around the 3km mark I started to feel a sense of elation, which I suspect is when the elusive swimmers’ ‘flow’ kicked in. This is moment all long-distance swimmers crave - when you lose yourself in the moment and swimming feels effortless.
The current helps propel swimmers, however windy weather had created a chop to the water. The estuary was going to make me work a bit harder today. Unlike swimming in a warm indoor swimming pool, swimming outdoors offers a different experience, depending on the weather, water temperature and time of year. Each swim is a mini adventure. While some hardy souls swim without use of a wetsuit, with the water temperature only 14 or 15 degrees on Saturday, I was glad of the extra layer as I tend to get very cold if I'm in the water for long periods. Hyperthermia isn't fun!
As the boats houses and anchored boats came into view, I gritted my teeth for the final push as my body was lifted up and down with the rhythm of the tide, making me feel slightly seasick. Following a bobbing line of orange caps onwards it wasn’t long before the pink house came into view, signalling the start of the ‘swoosh’ and I prepared for the beach finish, which is overlooked by Burgh Island - where Agatha Christie once stayed and wrote two of her novels.
The natural and exhilarating swoosh occurs when the ebbing tide rushes to the sea and passes through a narrow stretch of the river, accelerating swimmers up to four times their normal speed. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of keeping too far left and bypassed much of the swoosh experience, but nothing could take away the sense of achievement I felt as I hauled myself out of the water to be greeted by cheering spectators, including my own personal support crew of Dad and boyfriend. I may have missed the final swoosh, but the Bantham Swoosh is a fun, inspiring and beautiful event and I didn't want it to end! Can I go again?
Luckily, the River Dart 10km awaits...
The Bantham Swoosh swim is organised by the Outdoor Swimming Society
Main image: A view of the Outdoor Swimming Society's annual Bantham Swoosh looking down the river Avon towards the finish at Bantham Beach/Credit: OSS