As the temperatures dropped and the summer light started to fade, six members of the OSS team entered the water for one last big adventure and a challenge set only by the environment. OSS Contributor Lance Sagar on rediscovering the Hurly Burly.
We’re huddled under wooly hats and changing robes on a cold concrete slipway, slowly pulling on our wetsuits. There’s an impressive sunrise happening somewhere outside of the valley but the steep sides keep us in an eerie twilight. “Accept that it goes on forever” was the advice from the evening before, from OSS team member Kari Furre – find a way to be comfortable in the moment rather than thinking too much about the finish. But I’m distracted by the pain in my left hand. A last minute accident – impaling it on an uncovered piece of metal in the bunkhouse – has sapped my confidence. If the injury is bad then I won’t make it to the end, and I don’t need reminding about the risks of swimming with a fresh wound. My eyes meet with those of Cameron Alexander, the OSS Creative Producer, and he looks nervous. Neither of us are convinced we’re ready for “forever” this morning.
The idea was born a few months earlier, at the end of a big weekend of river swimming. We were feeling deflated, lamenting the lack of other big swims on the horizon. This couldn’t just be it, could it? Summer swimming over, at least as far as big adventures go. Nothing to motivate us to keep fit and no big expedition to look forward to. Then we started thinking about the Hurly Burly, once a formal event invented by Kate Rew and run with The OSS, but which hasn’t run for the last few years. There was nothing to stop us from just going there and swimming it.
The Hurly Burly is a peerless river swim, one strongly shaped by its location in North Wales at the edge of Snowdonia and the time of year it is swum. On the day that will bring the highest tide, you set off from the mouth of the estuary at Barmouth heading upstream, aided by the advancing ocean as the water starts to rise. It is a 10km journey against the flow of the river. This works as long as you get to the destination, Penmaenpool, while the tide is still pushing hard. Miss the window or swim too slowly and you’re unlikely to get there at all.
I had hoped to swim it in 2019, a year when the tide charts unhelpfully double booked the event with the arrival of Hurricane Lorenzo on the Welsh coast. I remember the team trying valiantly to find a way to run the event. I also remember whole trees being sent down the river by the storm. It wasn’t to be. Since then the Hurly Burly has always seemed like a battle to me, one where the river and the weather are on the field. I hoped they’d be on our side this time.
This would be our one last big swim of the year. Something to motivate us to train and to keep fit for the next three months but also a way to end the summer in style, dragging it out until the last day of September before finally permitting it to cede to Autumn, when colder temperatures would keep our heads up and our swims short.
A few days before the swim we had a video call to plan and report back on how well all of that training had gone. Committing to it had been easy, delivering on that commitment had proved harder. Covid had reduced our team in the water to six, as OSS Secretary Simon accepted that he wasn’t going to be fit enough to swim. Neither Kari nor Kate had found much opportunity to train. Legal Adviser Nathan had done none at all, ruled out by injury. Creative Producer Cameron appeared to be the most concerned of the group, feeling a lack of distance swimming experience. My training hadn’t taken me near half the distance. At least Amanda, our Instagram Community Manager, had been putting the work in. You can’t keep Amanda out of the water.
You go when the tide says you go, so there was little fanfare when we set off. By the end we would be blessed with a substantial support crew, including a boat, a kayak and two paddleboarders, but at this stage only Tim (Kate’s husband) and his mate had shown up. The water in the harbour was cold and murky. My hand immediately stung and I caught a flash of red as my palm traced its way into the water. I was painfully aware of the risk I was taking as I felt the cold water make its way down the back of my wetsuit. The initial feeling of cold didn’t last long though and soon I began to settle in. My hand still worked as it should, there was no head-freeze and I quickly found that I was warm enough for a long swim. We were practically swimming in sea water at this stage, and this carries the heat of a whole summer with it.
The idea was that the paddleboarders would lead the way up the estuary, spotting the fast water for us and preventing us from beaching in the shallows. This was an estuary in the process of filling up, spreading out from a narrow stream to cover the vast tidal flats that surround it. We needed to be ahead of much of the water though, rather than waiting for it to fill, so finding a swimmable path through a wide expanse that was recently a narrow stream was not a straightforward task.
As we rounded the clock tower we caught our first sight of the whole valley, finally appreciating its scale as it spread out before us. The rain had held off but the cloud cover brought out the deep greens in the forests which flanked the river. Mist coated the higher edges of the valley. “Where are our paddleboarders?” asked Amanda. It was easy to forget that we had a specific route to follow in order to catch the fast moving tidal surge as we swam against the natural flow of the river. Without the paddleboarders we’d struggle to find it. “Aim for the narrow bit” I offered, hoping it would indeed be that simple. The group split in half with Amanda, Nathan and I swimming down the middle of the estuary while Kate, Kari and Cameron hugged the shore to the left. I had a feeling that our decision to take a different route from the swim’s founders and all of our visible support craft may be one we’d be revisiting at a later point.
I had a feeling that our decision to take a different route from the swim’s founders and all of our visible support craft may be one we’d be revisiting at a later point.
After settling into the swim and making our way deeper into the valley, we took a moment to rest and take in the surroundings. I’d heard this described as the most beautiful marathon swim in the UK and it was delivering on that promise. Amanda spoke of how impossible it would have been to predict this even half a year ago, that a series of events would bring us to a place like this, with a team like this, doing something as ridiculous as racing the tide to swim the wrong way up a river. We were grateful to be there.
The water was still shallow and it was only when I managed to place a foot on the ground that I could feel just how fast the tide was sending us up the estuary. The rain had held off, the water was as flat as could ever be hoped in such a place and we were being pushed upstream by a strong tide. Perhaps the Hurly Burly can indeed be a battle but today the conditions were firmly on our side. Early thoughts of cold water, injuries and choppy conditions dissolved and what remained was the valley, the water and the team racing through it. Nathan joined us and it was the first time we noticed his stroke, smoothly twisting his hands directly over his head and into the water. It’s very different to my approach but given he was in the same place despite not having been able to train, it must work well. Amanda and I continued to throw our hands at the water like we were fighting it.
I look up to sight – Paddleboarders! They can see the fast water from their elevated position and quickly guide us to it. We head left, towards the forest that surrounds the estuary and the other three swimmers. As soon as we enter the fast water it becomes apparent that we’ve been missing out – this is a serious push. I spot Kate in the water, amazed at our terrible navigation. I see Kari who swam the initial recce swim for the Hurly Burly, re-pioneering the route. And then I say hello to Cameron, relieved of the earlier uncertainty and reborn a marathon swimmer who knows he can make it to the end.
The fast water aids our progress as the estuary narrows and we are hit by a sudden drop in temperature. This is where we pass from the sea to the river. The narrowing of the estuary brings the surrounding forests closer and we offer up some superlatives. “They were spectacular all the way back there too” reply our paddleboarders, reminding us just how far from the prescribed route we had strayed. We cross the channel to the right, then swing back out to the left. Pathfinding is more important here as we’re entering the domain of the river and we need to find water that is still heading in our direction. I can hear the birds calling out, and I spot the larger ones wading on the shoreline.
As we pass a large grassy embankment, a wooden bridge and white pub come into view. These mark the end of the swim. I turn to Amanda, my swim buddy for this journey, and we both agree that we don’t want it to end. That early challenge to “accept that it goes on forever” seems so ironic now. We’ve come a long way from the cold, nervous swimmers getting ready by the harbour but thanks to the push of the advancing tide, it has only taken us an hour and a half. We stop to take in the environment once more and we’re treated to what may be the best view of the swim, as we raise our eyes from the remarkably flat surface of the river, up the seemingly endless forest and towards the mist rolling over the steep valley sides.
As we sit in the garden of the George III Hotel, watching the river whilst sipping hot chocolate, the direction of the water changes. The river has started to reassert itself over the advancing tide. This is why we had to swim with some urgency, or we’d have found ourselves swimming against the flow. Now it really is over, and with it passes the season of head-down, fitness inspiring, long distance adventure swimming. Any sadness barely registers above the joy of the morning and the fact that we made it to the end together. Could we swim back to the start now? Did we just invent the Hurly Boomerang? I think we’re going to have to let it go.
This had been the best of river swimming – A journey through a remarkable landscape, where working with the flow of the river and the timing of the tide was essential to reaching our destination. It was a swim where we all knew each other a little better by the end. It involved rediscovering not only the route, but that curious, maverick spirit that we often search for but sometimes lose in the commotion of campaigning, collaborating and producing. It was a new way of saying goodbye to summer too, taking its place among those other markers of the seasons such as the equinox and the solstice, and leaving us with a renewed appetite for further adventures once the long days return. For that hour and a half though, we didn’t think about any of that. We were just six friends in red swimming hats, challenging a river to a race.