The first autumn 10k was unforgettable with wind and swell, our first run, first run-swim and a remarkable calibre of swimmers. Messy, adventurous, challenging, brilliant: love for the Hurly Burly, Barmouth Berserker or Brwlwm Bermo (names keep proliferating) was universal. Here’s the day.
The alchemy between the location and the top people that gathered in it – participants, helpers, locals, staff and supporters, all digging deep in one way or another – was magic. “Thank you for being brave enough to put something this adventurous on the swim calendar” wrote one (channel relay) swimmer. “I haven’t had a swim as messy and brutal as that for a long time: bloody marvelous” wrote another. “What an amazing swim. You’ll never swim a faster 10k and through a totally stunning landscape. Salty, wavy, windy and warm turns to fresh, smooth, leafy and cool just in time for nature’s little humbling nudge – a sprint against the river to finish. Loved it. An Outdoor Swimming Society classic” said a third. One of you even made and sent us a postcard: thank you! (Never happened before: truly touched).
“An Outdoor Swimming Society classic.” Jim Whittaker
“I haven’t had a swim as brutal and messy as that for a long time. Bloody marvellous.” Paul Smith
“Thank you for being brave enough to put something this adventurous on the swim calendar.” Raf Oya
Charlotte Petts is a radio presenter and gardener from Brighton who came across the OSS this summer, doing a piece on wild swimming. She’s learning to swim, and decided to drive on up to Barmouth to find out what these events are all about… here’s her audio of the day, capturing life behind the scenes and emotions just-before and just-after the event took place.
“Near the wooden toll bridge at Penmaenpool, where the Barmouth Berserker finishes, there’s a plaque to the victims of a boating disaster that occurred in 1966, when a pleasure boat, the Prince of Wales hit the bridge and sank. Fifteen people, including four children, lost their lives. It stands as a forthright retort to the poets and Pollyannas who endlessly spout on about how they are born again in the water.
“However much it soothes your souls or sparkles and delights you, the water doesn’t care.
“But that was then and this is now. And over there in a field, a team of volunteers are hauling up gazebos and tents, unfolding tables and lugging gas bottles as Caesar’s camp takes shape. Greetings are exchanged and then I pick my way along the shoreline, trying to identify any landmarks that might make tomorrow’s finish a little easier. Finishes are notoriously difficult to spot for open water swimmers and however seasoned you become, it always seems to take longer than it should to get ashore, once you can see the finish. I know of only one exception to this rule.
“There’s a dead tree lying on its side and that looks from here like as good a marker as any. In the event it isn’t, but it eases my mind to believe that it will be. Another gazebo is hoisted and carpets laid and there is still much to do, but I slip quietly away, on the pretext that I’m on the mic tomorrow and need to speak to the organiser about what she wants me to say.
“From Penmaenpool and across the rickety-rackety bridge, I pick up the A496 Dolgellau to Barmouth road. It is a glorious drive, with Cadair Idris looming above the empty estuary and distant glimpses of the famous Barmouth railway bridge at its mouth. Over the last month I have been rather spoiled for my swimming choices. Coniston was beyond my wildest hopes, the Dart offered up two fine and fast-flowing days, and the Wild Wye swim a couple of weeks before was so quick that even a crisp packet might have caught me… but it didn’t and neither did anyone else. (Did I mention that before?)
“We’ve been told that this, too, will be more like a swoosh, that the tide will bear us up the 10 kilometres (more like 9, I reckon) from Barmouth at such speeds that the space-time continuum will bend and we’ll be arriving before we leave. Or something like that.
“Now the tide is out… and well out. Afon Mawddach is a feeble trickle in the midst of that expanse of sand. But it’s deep, they say. Like the Dart at low water, it seems almost inconceivable that it will ever again be full enough for 200 ragged idiots to swim up. Surely we’ll end up walking… (some of us will, but not for that reason and not here, in the wide expanses flashing past on my left).
“By chance and a couple of text messages, when I reach tomorrow’s launch site and registration point, the Merioneth Yacht Club, top swim mate Lou is there, along with the redoubtable Raf. Registration is straightforward. When asked for ID, Liz smiles at me as I hold back from saying ‘do you know who I am?’. Obvs not. Who’d recognise a fuzzy, blue muppet? As it turns out, my duties on the loud hailer will be largely a repeat of what I say on the Dart, but with no knowledge of the swim…
“Then we’re off to our ‘basic’ accommodation. One of our party, Emily, has sorted a house that sleeps up to 14. Yes, it’s basic, but it’s clean and there is everything we need. Pre-swim fuelling is a complex business, involving either fish and chips or pie and chips. And a couple of pints at the Dog and Speedos, in good company and amidst slightly nervous, pre-match chit-chat. About half nine I make my excuses, but in fact pretty much the whole house is back and tucked up by a little after ten. It’s an early start tomorrow, especially for Jane, who has volunteered to be one of the without-whom-nothing’ crew. We salute you.
“After an indifferent night’s sleep – once, just once, Lord, could I have a good night’s kip before an event? – I’m in the kitchen chatting with big Colin and getting a talking to from top motivational coach, Pep Bialetti. Then I’m down at the Yacht Club, whose members have very kindly put on breakfast for anyone who wants it. I’m not sure they could be any more hospitable, but then they’re Welsh, innit? Just a bowl of porridge for me, if you’re interested. I’m figuring on 90 minutes work, so no need to overload. Half a banana 20 minutes before the off and Robert is very much your mother’s brother. (Although my case, it’s Ralph.)
Without-whom-nothing crew. We salute you.
“The set up at the start is pretty good. There’s space for everyone to spill out across the road and onto the beach, where Tim has lit a fire. As we warm
ourselves, we watch the tide make its way inexorably up towards us. Always thinking of the practicalities, I’ve check out all the loos. We’ll need more if this is going to grow. But the Club is a great base and the garage now being used for registration is more than fit for purpose. Mind you, it’s mild: windy but mild. And the rain we were promised is holding off.
“At 8 we start the briefing. Ben, who’s i/c the safety crew goes through his stuff, then it’s my turn to mention a few pointers that Kate has suggested to me. In the end, the swim is not the one that she or I had anticipated… But it seldom is. Also, there are runners coming down from the finish, some to hand over to a partner, others to pull on their wetties and swim back up. Have you ever tried to pull a wetsuit on after running? Yeah…
“The first wave of swimmers (the leisurely wave) are due off at 8.20. Immediately, my briefing looks daft, as the safety crew take them not straight out into the river, but at a diagonal. Oh well. There’s a bit of moored-yacht/marker buoy shenanigans, more breaststroke than I had anticipated, watching from the quayside… And in no time we need to get the next wave in. Last minute instructions about the reroute, someone muttering about being two minutes late getting off (swim harder, Madame) and then the medium wave are gone. Which leaves just twenty or thirty fast-wavers. And as usual, I’m last in, after getting shot of the loud hailer and having Kari apply more Vaseline than a thing with a lot of Vaseline on it. Just don’t get it on your goggles. No-one needs a 1970s soft-focus swim.
“Up at the front, Steve Riches, Norfolk’s finest, and a few others disappear in a hail of spray. I ease out round the back of the yacht, into the flow… and then Ben’s warning about the tide carrying us straight at the bridge rings in my ears. Find your line early or you’ll hit the upright. The famous Barmouth railway bridge is gone in two seconds and it’s heads up for the first landmark, the Clock House.
Kari applies more Vaseline than a thing with a lot of Vaseline on it. Just don’t get it on your goggles. No-one needs a 1970s soft-focus swim.
“That’s easy to spot and we make a beeline, but after that we are taken off to the right, not at all the route I had imagined. In fact, the swim is a curious combination of things I hadn’t expected (mostly the line) and things I had (the huge chop and the flow of the river after the narrows). I had thought we were going to stay to the left of the river, aiming for a promontory with a boat house, but of course, at this distance (4 or 5 km) the boathouse is invisible. And the waves are huge.
“Alright, not ‘out at sea’ huge, but big enough, and coming straight up behind us, so that it’s difficult, at first, to time your stroke and get hold of the water. I reckon I’m missing every fifth wave, so I have to shorten my stroke and raise my rate. That’s fine, because you use less power and, in any case, we are being thrown forward. In the conditions, it’s difficult to get your bearings and when I do stop to look it seems that we are advancing on a broad front. There are swimmers far away to my left and others far away to my right and trying to get a sense of the best line is hopeless.
“I can, however, see the headland where, it is alleged, the boathouse stands. From the water, it looks like an island, off to the left, at about eleven o’clock. We’re in a big river now. The wind and tide are whipping up some tall waves and, for all its ugliness, this suits my stroke. It is truly fabulous and I hear myself thinking ‘this is what it means to be alive’, before reminding myself that when you swim, you’re only seconds from death. The water doesn’t care. Celebrate when you get out.
“At last we make the boathouse. Here, Kate had predicted that it would get really fast and we would be whisked through. But the opposite seems to be happening. First, the safety crews are taking us right again and we seem to be heading up the river course. That’s the only explanation I can find for the water suddenly switching from salty to fresh (well, that and the fact that salt water is denser and sinks under fresh water) and the sudden and not altogether pleasant drop in temperature. At the start we were told twelve and a bit, 11 at the top of the swim. It feels like it.
The wind and tide are whipping up some tall waves and, for all its ugliness, it is truly fabulous. I hear myself thinking ‘this is what it means to be alive’.
“For the first time in the swim I look at my watch. Bang on 50 minutes, but I can’t remember where the boat house is in distance terms. And the cold is striking. ‘I hope this really is only going to take another 40 minutes, because I’m not sure I can manage much more in these low temperatures’, I hear myself think.
“So, to recap, it’s cold, we’re heading to the right, up the river and we’re not getting the push we’d expected. On the other hand, it allows me to lengthen my stroke and to see more clearly the way ahead marked out by paddle boards and my fellow swimmers. With the power on, I get past a lot of them and I only realise why later. The tide is going slack. We’ve gone in just a little too late.
“I get past most of the field at the point where Bontddu is on the left as I look at it and where the old railway track leaves the shoreline to the right. The problem now is, by leaving the field behind, there are fewer safety crew about and precious few other fluorescent yellow hats to follow.
“This is where I think I need to head straight for the far corner, to my left, where the road meets the shoreline, but I’m also conscious that that is where the river will be flowing against me. I start zigzagging, looking for a clue… A hat ahead… off I go… then she stands up. Even in a wetsuit I can tell it’s a woman. Or rather, especially…
“I stand up too. I hate that. But we find the deeps again and we’re off. I think I can see one of the jet skis ahead, but of course, the pilot’s responsibility is not to show me the way, but to look out for waifs and strays. He’s an unreliable marker. And while I’m stroking out nicely, I can’t help thinking this is tougher than it ought to be. This is not the River Wye of two weeks ago. This is going up the Dordgone in summer. We’ve lost the tide.
“At last I can see the bridge at Penmaenpool and the pub. The finishing field is, I know, tucked away around the corner to the right. I won’t see that until I get past the headland.
“To my surprise (not to say mild indignation) I can see three hats ahead of me, at the corner, perhaps two or three hundred yards ahead. I’m after them. And I very soon realise that I am catching them. Is there any better feeling in swimming? (Answers on a postcard please.) In fact, I’m making rather a better job of catching them than I’d expected. Not only do I get to them, but shoot past.
“Afterwards I realise they have been stuck in an eddy at the corner and aren’t strong enough to get through it. Now I can see home. But my goodness it takes an age to get there. I’m giving it the full Florent Manaudou, but judging by my progress in relation to the river bank, going nowhere. At last, at last I make it to the far corner and am helped out by one of the without-whom-nothings. I stand, sit, try to stand again. Look at my watch. One hour 38. So, the boat house was halfway. And, in fact, it more-or-less is.
“I haven’t had a swim as brutal and messy as that for a long time. Bloody marvellous.
Everyone knows that they have been in a swim. In October. In North Wales.
“Not everyone is able to make it home under their own steam. The RIBs and jet skis are running a ‘drag and drop’ service, though it turns out that even when they drop, the outwards flow is too much for some swimmers to get home. Nevertheless, everyone knows that they have been in a swim. In October. In North Wales.
“The ‘stay to the end’ club does what it says on the box and helps to strike camp (do your own punchlines). Looking back, it reminded me of the first time I did the Dart 10k and didn’t have the first idea where I was going. In due course we will gather thoughts and comments and think about what went right and wrong. Above all, everyone got home safe and sound.
“As I leave Penmaenpool for the last time, I nod towards the plaque. It doesn’t always go so well.”
With thanks to Paul Smith, the prof.
Images: supporters, fire bowls, marshmallows, a warming tent and mulled cider: the finish field, when swimmers did arrive, had it’s comforts.
“Wet, wild, adventurous, exhilarating, amazing, beautiful, friendly. Despite all of my doubts and worries it goes down as one of the best days of my life!” Susie Wheway.
Aaron Minson swam the Hurly Burly to raise money for our partner charity Level Water, a charity which gives swimming lessons to children with disabilities. Here’s his story. “Hurly Burly by name, Hurly Burly by nature, what a wild ride!”. To donate to Aarons page, find it on justgiving.
“After the initial shock of the 14 deg water, the first few kms were cool and crisp, quite refreshing, you could feel a good push of the spring tide, helping us up the river and under Baramouth bridge, not too choppy so it was easy to settle in to a good stride, after the bridge the estuary opened up and the field spread out slightly, this stretch was 2.5km wide and about 4-5km long, but you still had to look out, one poor guy wasn’t spotting forward and face planted a massive pink buoy.
“After a couple of kilometres it started to get interesting, with a very strong onshore breeze, and open body of water, there was a good wind swell building, by the 5-7km point we were being tossed about with rain chucking it down, but I was loving it, cool crisp water but I was warm in my wetsuit, it was windy, rainy and a growing wind swell limited visibility, it was a wide open estuary, a couple of times I had to stop to check where I was and to spot the swimmers ahead and behind, from time to time you could hear and see the IRB’s and jet skis whizzing past keeping an eye on everyone, which was reassuring, but at this point I was really was loving it, at least we were going in the same direction as the wind and swell.
“At this stage I started to see the odd person taking refuge on some of the surf lifesavers rescue boards, as I was taking a breath, one poor guy was on the back of one of the rescue boards, relieving himself of his breakfast, and I could see the rescue IRB and jet skis picking up people in need of a rest. These conditions carried on till about the 7km mark, where we reached a narrower section of river (500m wide) more sheltered, the waves died out and you could fell and taste the water change, but at that time, I had no idea of landmarks, how far you have swum, or how far it was to the finish, as long as you can see people in front of you, you just keep going. We were told at the briefing there was a feeding station anchored in the water near the clock tower, never saw that!
“Looking back, this was probably a clear indication of the change in flow and a loss of any push from the incoming tide, from this point forward, I thought, hey it’s a straight run home, easy peasy with only a few kms to go, boy I was wrong, it was a pure slog, the river water was about 11.5 deg and this sucked the energy from you.
“I could feel the flap on my wetsuit (that’s supposed to stop my neck rubbing) kept folding into itself, so I was having to stop frequently to pull out the neck flap and every time I was getting a flush of cold water entering my wetsuit. At this point I was so thankful I was in a wetsuit as you forget how the cold accentuates fatigue and your fingers and feet start to go a bit numb. I have surfed through winter when I was in high school and you get so numb you can’t close your fingers when you paddle, but at least on a board, your head is not continually in the water.
“After what seemed to be about half an hour of swimming in these conditions, you could really feel the cold, I was thinking of those handfuls of people who swam in skins, they must have been really feeling it and I could see people putting their hands up for assistance and the IRB’s were picking up those in trouble. This section seemed to go on forever, I stopped to take a gel shot that was stuffed up the leg of my wetsuit, not knowing where the end was, as I was trying to get it out and keep afloat, I could feel a twinge of cramp, so thought, shit don’t stop now.
“As I kept going, the people in front of me were thinning out, I was In the middle of the river, not knowing that I was only about 500m from the finish, with my head down plodding along, one of the surf rescue boards came past and told me that the tide had turned and if I wanted to make any progress, I should go to the shore and make my way up the edge of the river and indeed, when I stopped, looked at the bank I was going backwards, at which point I saw everyone was swimming to shore and a lot were walking along the riverbank.
“I swam to the edge where the flow was minimal and I thought what the hell, I’ll keep swimming, so I kept on going up river to a point where an IRB was picking people up to take them around the point, as I swam past he called out, I gave him the thumbs up and he said, “Nah mate, look at the water, get in you’ll never get past the point” so I climbed in and he took us around the point and dropped us off on the other side so we could finish off in the water. It wasn’t until I was on the boat that I looked at the time on my watch, it was 2hr40, I was like, ok that makes sense.
“When I got out the lady taking you number was saying well done, you have been swimming against the tide for a good 40 minutes, Even though I have never swim this route before, I have swum the Dart, 10k tide assisted twice and you get a sense of how far 10k is and time wise the Dart was on average 2hr30, so knowing this was over 2hr40, clearly we had been swimming against the tide.
You know what, I’m so pleased it kicked off, it was so much fun rolling around in the waves, going head first into the unknown, battling the conditions
“On Saturday night we stayed about an hour away on Lake Vyrnwy and in the morning, when we pulled the curtains back, it was stunning, cloudy but calm and clear glassy water. For a second, I wondered how the swim would have been on a day like today? But you know what, I’m so pleased it kicked off, it was so much fun rolling around in the waves, going head first into the unknown, battling the conditions, I had a real blast, it was so much fun, I’m sure next time they will start people earlier, Toni was saying that when she arrived at the finish line a few of the fast swimmers had come in (fastest was a blistering 1:28) but for the majority the tide was receding a lot of people had to get assisted to the end, perhaps if I had started in the first wave and had time to trained a bit more before the swim, I might have beaten the tide, oh well there is always next year.
“Massive thanks to the Outdoor Swimming Society, for creating such a great swim.”
With thanks to Aaron Minson for his fundraising, and report.