Wet, wild, adventurous, exhilarating, amazing, beautiful, friendly. Just a few of the many words I’ve been using to describe the pioneer Hurly Burly on Saturday but, frankly, the list is endless. Despite all of my doubts and worries it goes down as one of the best days of my life! I’m not sure I can properly put into words how wonderful it was but, even two days later, I still have a grin on my face – I think that says it all really.
I awoke before my alarm on Saturday at 3:50am. I’d slept surprisingly well having gone to bed with a mixture of nerves and excitement. My chauffer dutifully appeared at 4:15 and we were off! Porridge, tea, coffee and bananas in the car for breakfast was accompanied by darkness, deathly quiet roads and banter with my bestest swim buddy. We seemed to get to Barmouth in no time at all. The approach to Barmouth takes you along the Mawddach River which I’d shortly be jumping into. The light started to improve and I was suddenly aware I could see the river. Any nerves I may have had evaporated to be replaced by pure excitement. Even in the low, early morning light it looked beautiful. A wide river edged by wooded hills leading straight up into the mountains.
I’ve never done an Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) event before but from pictures and write ups I’d seen they looked very chilled out and welcoming. To my delight the first thing we saw as we drove past registration was a small fire on the beach with a hardy bunch of people in woolly hats gently warming themselves. It wasn’t busy or frenetic, volunteers were calmly getting things organised and swimmers were milling around enjoying the view and a spot of peace and quiet before the start. There was a gentle sense of anticipation in the air but with only around 200 swimmers it never felt busy or crowded. It was windy and cloudy and there were some big breakers on the main beach but the little harbour tucked in behind the sand dunes provided a relatively sheltered and calm location for the start line.
My friend had volunteered to help out fairly last minute. She figured she may as well do something useful while I was floating aimlessly for a few hours. She has a background in events management, does plenty of events herself and helps run our local Junior Parkrun so it comes pretty naturally to her. Sure enough, within minutes she had a clipboard and a hi-vis jacket. She also gained a walkie-talkie while I was swimming. I think she may have been in heaven! She was there to sign me in at the swim start and, lo and behold, who could I see helping people out as I was approaching the finish? Of course it was my friend, Amanda. If anyone’s reading this who also happened to be swimming, do you remember the very encouraging lady at the finish who looked like she was wearing shorts? She was probably shouting variations of “well done”, “amazing job” and “you’re nearly there”. That was Amanda. She was with me! I’m so proud. By the way, the reason she appeared to be wearing shorts was that, whilst helping people out at the finish, she ended up going in the river up to her waist in an entirely impractical pair of tracksuit bottoms – oops!
Pre-swim I managed a quiet brew down by the fire to collect my thoughts and load up on a few last calories. Despite the strong wind it was fairly mild so I didn’t get cold getting changed in the communal changing room that was the car park. A quick briefing and a bag drop later and we herded ourselves into our relevant waves. The leisurely wave headed out five minutes before my medium wave with a fast wave heading out about ten minutes later. The beach and harbour were teaming with the various powerboats, jet-skis and paddleboards that were going to be our safety support for the next couple of hours. The tide was coming in fast as we waited on the beach and the sea had reached our ankles by the time we headed off. Then we were off!
A short swim straight off from the beach in the sheltered harbour then into the current straight under the railway bridge which was topped by spectators cheering us on. Whoops of happiness rang out from a number of swimmers as we passed under the bridge. As we whipped past the bridge supports and channel buoys it became obvious just how fast the tide was moving. It was exhilarating! I’ve done a spot of white water kayaking in the past and, accidentally, have found myself swimming down a number of fast moving rivers. It was always quite scary and induced a spot of panic. This was entirely different. The river was so wide and deep there was clearly nothing to crash into and we were supported by the happy smiling faces of the safety teams who kept a close eye on us all.
One of the best decisions I made on the day was to take my waterproof camera with me. I was clicking away within ten minutes of us setting off. The first time I stopped I was aware one of the safety paddle boarders was nearby. I was a bit paranoid he was going to come and ask if I was OK or to ask me to keep moving rather than stopping to enjoy the view. Absolutely not, as soon as he saw my camera he asked if I wanted my photo taking. I got the impression all the safety guys were as excited to be there as the rest of us.
We’d been provided with a brief route description by the OSS a few days before so I knew that after the railway bridge we’d be heading into the widest, fastest and potentially waviest part of the swim. This was the part I was most apprehensive about. I’ve swum in choppy conditions but I’m not overly keen on getting pummelled by waves. I could tell we were moving at a good speed and the wind behind us was speeding us along even faster. It also made the waves pretty big. However, to my surprise, I absolutely loved it! The waves grew in size very gradually and they had a big enough wave length to give you chance to get into a rhythm with them. I had a few moments where I couldn’t get my breath but I just rode it out until I could feel the next wave heading over and popped my head up to breathe when I could. At one point I thought it had started raining only to realise it was just spray off the top of the waves. The waves dispersed the swimmers more at this point and the height of the waves meant you often couldn’t see anyone else. At times, it felt like I was the only person out there. Now that’s normally something that would send me into a panic but I was enjoying it so much, nothing could stop me. It was truly exciting and wild. That said I’m not sure I could have managed it for the whole 10km.
The wet and wild section began to diminish, the river started to narrow and the hills crowded slightly closer. The river calmed and the rapid push of the tide started to ease. I got into a gentle rhythmical stroke, only disturbed by the odd bit of seaweed. It was at this point the water became shallow enough to walk for a bit. It wasn’t that I wanted to walk or needed a rest from the swim but it gave me a chance to properly enjoy the scenery. Flocks of geese in V formations were noisily flying overhead and the clouds started to break up to show off a little more hill here and there with even a sneak peak of some blue sky. Most people had stopped to enjoy the view and everyone was jovially chatting away. What a place to stop for a chat with a bunch of complete strangers! The middle of a wide river, waist deep in murky river water, wetsuited up. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t recognise any of them without their swimming hats and goggles but they were all a joy to behold. The overwhelming love we all had for what we were doing right there and then was awe-inspiring. I quickly found that whenever I stopped it was usually the same people around me, all swimming at a similar pace, in our own little worlds whilst we swam but popping up for a quick hello whenever we stopped to enjoy the view.
The walking section was the first time I’d looked at my watch. It wasn’t an event with timing chips so I’d started my stopwatch on my cheap old waterproof watch as we set off. I wasn’t swimming for a time but I did want to know how long the whole thing would take me. At this point I’d been swimming for 1 hour and 20 minutes. The water temperature had dropped considerably by now as the fresh cold water of the river had taken over from the slightly warmer sea water. I could see the odd person being picked up by the jet skis, I assumed because they were feeling the cold. But I still felt fresh and full of energy. I knew I could swim for a good while yet. I’d overheard one of the paddle boarders say we had about 3km left to go. In flat, calm conditions that would normally take me an hour so but with the last bit of the tidal pull behind me I figured I might manage it slightly quicker. Fine by me I thought and I put my head down.
Now this was the section identified in the route as the debris zone. There was plenty of seaweed, leaves and twigs. However, what I didn’t quite realise about an estuary swim was the amount of scum in the water. The water was very cloudy but there was also a good amount of scum on the surface. I now realise this accumulates on your face when you’re swimming resulting in a particularly attractive “scum beard”. There is video evidence – gorgeous!!
A while into the calm, head down swim to the end section I spotted a family watching from the bank. I stopped and waved, they waved back. A good while later I stopped to admire the scenery again. I expected the family to be completely out of sight by then but no, I could still see them. I’d moved up river but not as far as I expected. Up ahead I noticed people walking again. I swam a bit further and sure enough I could stand up too. Oh! An unexpected thing happened! The current I’d felt pushing us up river on the previous walking section had changed and was now pushing us down river. The tide had turned! I soon realised people were walking because they could no longer swim and make any headway. I was struggling to even walk given the combination of slippery saltmarsh under foot and strong downstream current so I decided to head back out to swim for it. I made some progress and even overtook some of the people attempting to walk but it soon became clear I wasn’t really moving. I could see people being fished out by the jet skis and powerboats. I chatted to one of the paddle boarders just to confirm I wasn’t actually going anywhere. It was true, whilst swimming I was stationary and if I stopped I started moving downstream – back towards the start. I could see the finish, a few hundred metres round the corner but I just wasn’t going to get there. I had a good bit of swim left in me but the cold was starting to get to my hands and I was struggling to keep my fingers straight to pull through the water properly. I gave the heads up to a paddle boarder that I was happy to swim in what had become an endless pool to keep myself warm but to send a boat over to pick me up when they had room.
I wasn’t going to swim to the end but I wasn’t in the slightest bit bothered. It was the best swim of my life and had I not been caught by the tide I’d have finished without any problems. I’d got stuck because I’d stopped and enjoyed the scenery, the people and the sheer spectacle of the event. If I hadn’t done that it wouldn’t have been the magical day it was.
When I got into the boat I checked my watch again. I’d been in the water for 2 hours and 30 minutes. I was shocked, I have no idea where that last hour and a bit had gone, it felt like about 20 minutes since I’d last checked my time. A sure sign of enjoyment surely! I plopped out of the boat near the finish and swam the last few metres to the get out to be greeted by my friend. I was ecstatic! Not for the reasons I would have thought though. Before the swim I thought I’d be pleased to just finish, that I’d be so tired I’d just want to get out and to be done with it. But there was none of that, I was elated at what an amazing day it had been, I’d found it relatively easy and clearly what training I had done had completely paid off. The atmosphere had been perfect, the scenery stunning and I wanted to jump back in and do it all again.
A quick change, hot chocolate, food and the long drive back home with excellent company. Swiftly followed by celebrations at the 40th birthday of another good swimming friend. What a perfect end to the day. I got to relive the excitement of my day surrounded by all the friends who’ve encouraged me over the last few weeks. Well timed birthday, thanks Captain Splashy! I think my only ailments the following day were gin induced too!
A great event, amazing people, top notch safety, no pressure or competition, beautiful surroundings and a proper sense of adventure – I guess that’s what the OSS is about. Will I be returning to the Mawddach if the Hurly Burly runs again in 2018? What do you think?!?