This year’s Bantham Swoosh had it all: blue skies, turquoise water with outstanding clarity, a fat yellow sun, 747 swimmers and 76 mini-swooshers ready to be swept along the East Devon estuary. Who better to report on the day than OSS Swim Champ and Swoosh first-timer Lindsey Cole?
“Hold on: they take priority,” one of the many water safety crew members said as I was wading into Devon’s River Avon on Saturday morning. I craned my neck around the masses of people before me, to see who it was that took precedence. Then a Mexican wave of sympathetic sighs came my way as a couple of elegant swans, trailed by four fluffy grey cygnets, casually sailed across the width of the river. If anyone felt nervous about the imminent 6km they were to swim, they were swiftly dissipated.
My cycling and swimming journey around Britain had brought me to The Outdoor Swimming Society’s annual Bantham Swoosh. The Swoosh is timed with the tide so that when the water funnels through a narrow section of the river it gushes with a big fat swoosh, making it quite exciting to swim in.
I was a virgin swoosher and had never been to Bantham. The evening before, I rolled down that narrow Devon country road and squeezed on my breaks at the sudden sight of the most awe-inspiring blue water. I straddled my bike, with my mouth gaped open as I looked out onto the minty mouthwash-coloured water of the River Avon estuary that was twinkling under the high sun, as if it was entwined with fairy lights. The river looked so inviting, my mouth started salivating. Lashes of lush green dripped from the surrounding hills and little white boats neatly lined the river like a couple of pearl bracelets. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky either. Surely, this couldn’t be Britain? A dog relentlessly barking by the riverbank, demanding its owner chuck its ball in the water for the umpteenth time, seemed just as enthused about swimming too.
“My mouth gaped open as I looked out onto the minty mouthwash-coloured water of the River Avon estuary. The river looked so inviting, my mouth started salivating. Lashes of lush green dripped from the surrounding hills and little white boats neatly lined the river like a couple of pearl bracelets.”
“Crikey, well this is pretty nice, isn’t it?” I called out to a neoprene-clad couple ambling up the hill, wearing the biggest grins and squeezing the river from their hair. “Is it lovely?” I excitedly asked. “Ah, it’s…” the girl said with a long pause, her smile widening, “phenomenally lovely.” Tom and Jess were from just down the road in East Devon, but people had come from all over to Swoosh. A family from Essex had got up at the crack of dawn to make the six-hour drive, with their eight-week-old long velvet-eared Hungarian Vizsla, who was on his first outing to the beach. A lady and her daughter came to swim from the Netherlands and two Swooshers hailed all the way from South Africa. “We heard it’s a great event so tried to tie it in with visiting family,” they said.
For me, the Friday was a wonderful time to catch up with people that I’ve swum with all over the country this year. We grabbed some food, sat on the dunes and watched the most marvelous red marble sunset perform behind Burgh Island, before setting up camp ready for the early start.
A total of 747 people piled out of the shuttle buses at Aveton Gifford on Saturday morning. I made myself a new friend in the 10-minute short drive. Ella had supported a British swimmer who swam the Oceans Sevens a couple of years ago. There were also ice milers, English Channel swimmers and people who had never done a swimming event at all. We nattered whilst lathering each other up in sun cream and Vaseline.
Whilst the hot July sun shone right on down on us in full steaming glory, I had to wait until the very last minute to zip up my wetsuit. I looked on at the skins swimmers with envy. Alas, as we waited waist deep at the swan family crossing, I was quite pleased I had a bit of swimming armour on.
Once the swans sailed away, I dived in, pulled under water, and enjoyed the fresh droplets trickling down my neck, cooling me down. At 15.2 degrees, the water was the perfect temperature for a long swim. Every time I took a breath I could hear one of the safety crew cheering us on as they lined either side of the river on their SUP boards or jet skis. There was no elbow bashing or head dunking here. It was quite a tranquil beautiful start.
“I forgot to breathe at one point as my head was stuck down below, mesmerized by the way the ripples of the shallow sandy riverbed looked like the scales of a mermaid tail. A crab popped out of the sand, twitching his claws, and probably wondering where the hell all these swimming humans had come from.”
We swam past boats and paddle boarders, and fishermen and dog walkers. I forgot to breathe at one point as my head was stuck down below, mesmerized by the way the ripples of the shallow sandy riverbed looked like the scales of a mermaid tail. Schools of tiny fish darted past me and then swished round, changing direction, every time I speared my hand in to stroke. A crab popped out of the sand, twitching his claws, and probably wondering where the hell all these swimming humans had come from. I took a moment to take it all in, and as I bobbed in this aquamarine delight, surrounded by rolling golden hills I spotted the occasional house, tucked away on the river bank. I wondered whether I should clamber out of the Avon and knock on their door, just in case they ever need a house sitter.
“Is that ‘the’ pink house?” Someone’s head suddenly popped up beside me and asked. I didn’t hear the briefing, but I assumed the pink house indicated something. We narrowed round the next bend as the river suddenly picked up pace, swooshing us round the corner. As I took my next breath on the left, large flags appeared along with crowds of people. “THIS WAY.” Someone yelled, gesticulating towards her direction as the now gushing river tried to tug me out to sea. “Woah. Is this the end?” I replied as she reached out for my hand, nodding and smiling. “Well, that came quicker than I anticipated.”
My naked feet clawed up the delightfully sandy shoreline, making me feel a bit more Ursula Andress in Dr No, rather than the electrocuted Quasimodo that I’d been emulating on those pesky pebbled beaches I’d been swimming along in the South coast all week. And then we were handed a free towel to dry ourselves off, although the sun did a pretty good job of that anyway.
I was quite chuffed to only be 15 minutes behind James Irvine, the fastest swimmer who stroked in at 1 hour 4 minutes. The first four swimmers were apparently swimming together like a pod of front crawling dolphins, simultaneously stroking before the last river bend. Kate Rew, The Outdoor Society founder, assumed they knew each other. It must have just been the magic in the water that had begun with the swans at the start.
As I returned to the beach to watch the Mini Swoosh, a crowd of people started enthusiastically cheering. “Come on, you’ve got this.” The swoosh had massively picked up pace now, and if you were too far over were in danger of missing the finishing line and ending up on Burgh Island. This swimmer swam furiously across the current, kept going until he knew he was safe and then fell on his knees on the shallow sandy bank to have a breather. His family waded out towards him, his wife picked him up and gave him a ginormous smooch, as the beach erupted in an enormous applause.