When I entered the Dart 10k in 2014 my aim was to finish last. That is to say I wanted to finish - and fully expected to be among the last to do so. I'd taken up open water swimming a couple of years ago for fitness, fun and relaxation after suddenly discovering I could do distance crawl - and I'd spent the previous winter learning how to breath on both sides. I'm a lot closer to my pension than my graduation so I'm not doing this to be a racer or an athlete.
The Dart 10k is the major event organised by the Outdoor Swimming Society and runs from Totnes in Devon half way to Dartmouth. Although on the maps the course appears to be up-stream of the river estuary that runs into the English Channel, in fact the tide sweeps all the way up to Totnes. So the swimmers embark at high tide and hope to get a little help from the ebb of the seawater. But this also means the water you swim in is salty nearly from the start.
I expected a swim of longer than four hours - and it was only as the event got closer that I began to believe I might achieve it in less than four hours.
In the event, I nearly achieved last place - except that two or three people managed to be more leisurely than me.
The Dart organisers call their slowest swimmers the Leisurely Wave - but still expect them to achieve a mile, comfortably, in at least 40 minutes. Before entering the water, I'd already discovered that quite a few 'leisurely' swimmers could sustain miles of 35 minutes or better over the distance of six miles. In truth the bulk of the entrants to the swim put themselves down for the leisurely wave, regardless of their capabilities. The question was - how many of us were there in the swim for whom a 40-minute mile was our fastest mile, not our slowest?
This is what I thought the Dart swim would be like and how I planned it before I did it.
- I took a boat trip from Totnes to Dartmouth;
- using the map I broke the course into 500m stretches.
- the first half of the course broke neatly down into 1km stretches separated by bends
- it would be really deep all the way - so reaching my glucose tablets, which I intended to carry, would be hard;
- I could swim keeping both banks equidistant;
- I could easily find the channels of water with the fastest flow;
- or I could take a course on the left bank of the river, where most of the deep channels are;
- the support from the current and the tide would be about 1km per hour;
- I could work out when the faster "waves" of swimmers would overtake me;
- the reed bed about 1km from Totnes would be fun and soothing;
- the tree "cathedral" of deep forested banks, just after the first pontoon, would be awe-inspiring;
- the merger of two rivers just before Stoke Gabriel would be a bubble bath;
- navigating this crossing would be tricky - but could be done by treating the right bank of the Dart as a distant island;
- the big lagoon after that point would be a nightmare;
- the second pontoon - in the big lagoon - would be hard to find;
- the final stretch around the Dittisham headland would prove hard.
Take the bends first of all. Here's some lessons I learnt about river swimming, from the Dart and a couple of earlier expeditions on the Trent:
- Don't plan to mark the course by counting the bends;
- when you think you're round a bend, you're probably only half way round;
- in your imagination you may sweep majestically round the bends; in practice you'll spend all your time changing direction to avoid hitting the bank;
- if you are hitting the bank, you may well be on a bend;
- if you can see a bend coming up, you are about half a mile from it.
We set off from the ramp at the rowing club - and were immediately shepherded across the river to the right-hand bank.
And at that point I realised that even at Totnes, the river is a lot wider than you can possibly imagine - until you swim in it.
There are two easy ways to navigate a course like this. One is to follow the people in front of you; the second is to keep to one of the banks.
The rest of the yellow wavers were stop-starting in the early stages - so I moved to the bank to get some freedom to swim. The trees come down to the river side so it's a fun swim but - oops - is that a tree I nearly bumped into.
Sooner or later the other yellow wavers found their pace - and maybe just half a dozen of us were left making a leisurely pace. Dodging trees was now just half the challenge. Personally, I was confronting the problem of having tried to do the swim with a new swim hat and an official swim hat - also new - rammed on top of it. My temples were hurting - and it made me feel cold and sick. Follow the advice: don't bring new equipment (although what you do about the official swim hat I'm unsure. Can we have it a week beforehand next time? Get it the day before and sleep in it?)
At about 1km the public path on the left came to an end and I stopped and gave a thumbs up to my supporters. They didn't see me do this - or so they said. I checked my watch and so far as I could see I was doing fine.
The Reed Bed
I had looked forward to the reed bed, which comes next. Most of it is protected by a low wall. After about 500m there's an inlet in the bed (which the tour guide earlier in the year said is an ecological disaster) and if you're hugging the bank you have to make sure you don't swim into it. Actually, if you were being truly leisurely you would swim a little bit into the inlet and have a look round.
It's a little tricky here, if the other swimmers have disappeared, as the reed bed mouth is maybe 50m wide and, even with paddleboarder guidance, you have to work out where its far side is.
A 'wave 'of swimmers passing by can be just that - a wave. The waves knock you about like a speedboat. Personally I can't see why, when you are having a pleasant swim down a scenic river, you need to splash so much . Indeed I can't see why everyone doesn't stop and enjoy the atmosphere and take a little swim in the reed bed inlet. But it's important to remember that people are there for all sorts of reasons - in fact at least 15 different reasons.
This is the point, between 1k and 2k, where I'd learnt you discover what is going wrong on a long swim. It's sometimes the time when you realise misted up goggles are never going to demist. I'd replaced my goggles several weeks before the event and had just about adjusted to the new ones and didn't need my spare set - but the tight swim caps and salt-water were making me feel nauseous.
The Two Beaches
The end of the reed bed marks the 2k point and after that you expect to swing around a double bend and find a beach on the left hand side and then a second beach on the right - each about 500m long. If you swing you're lucky. I hit the far side of the reed inlet and hugged the bank to the right.
About half way up this stretch there's a jetty where a small number of spectators gathered. Time for leisurely swimmers to stop and chat to them - or at least give them a wave with a hand.
The first pontoon
By this time I was looking forward to rounding a bend and finding the first pontoon -and here's a surprise. It appears suddenly as you're following the second beach. That's because you haven't noticed you've gone round a bend.
And there was another surprise.The water on the right side, which I was following a little too closely, suddenly became quite shallow.
So just before the pontoon you can stop, stand up, chat to other swimmers and take some energy from my glucose tablets. After all at this point, you've nearly completed a third of the course. I took the chance to adjust my goggles and my hat as well.
If you're going to be Leisurely, get yourself a utility belt - as I did. On my belt (pictured on land) I carried a, supposedly, waterproof pouch with a pack of glucose tables - and a spare set of goggles.
Then I set off for the pontoon. The river flows fast here and I nearly missed it. In fact I got some vigorous exercise swimming across the current and just about managed to catch the last of the handles that swimmers use to grab the pontoons. I began to wonder whether, maybe, I'd been missing the best currents and that was why everyone flashed by so fast.
I'd been hoping for bananas but I think they must have all gone. Fresh water from bottles diluted the salt water in my stomach. That made a big difference - I just wished later I'd taken more glucose tablets.
From the pontoon the river sweeps round a large bend into the 'Woodland Cathedral'. Swimmers were setting off to cut the corner and I followed them. By this time most of the red wave had overtaken me and most of the yellow wave had left me behind, just as my calculator predicted. And the white and blue hats were mostly a distant memory.
And according to my watch, I was on schedule, my own if nobody else's. But I didn't seem to be getting as much help from the tide and the current as I had hoped.
I thought I'd cut the bend - but I just swam into it. And that would explain why I found myself hugging the right bank for a while.
The Woodland Cathedral
And then just when you think you can break away from the bank to find the centre of the river, you are directed back by the coastguards to swim to the right of a large buoy. You can just see it on the bottom right hand side of the picture.
The day was hazy so it was difficult to know if I could see the end of the 1km stretch through the Cathedral. But after a while I could see the houses that mark the northern edge of Stoke Gabriel on the left bank of the river.
Stoke Gabriel north-side
According to the map, when you round the bend here there should be another 1km stretch before you break into the big lagoon.
This is not what happens. As soon as you get opposite the houses you can see the river opening up ahead of you. And you begin worrying about which direction you should take.
From the map I had expected to round the headland at the end of this stretch and then sight a course across the lagoon - which I thought would open in three directions: the river flowing in from the right, the main river and the entrance to the Mill Pool at Stoke Gabriel on the left. I never saw the entrance to the Mill Pool.
What you see from the water is a vast expanse of water to your right and a vast expanse to the left. And for all I could tell the leftward route, was the route into Stoke Gabriel. So I assumed I had to bear right.
Crossing the tributary into the Big Lagoon
Thankfully the organisers have paddleboarders patrolling this area. I asked the paddleboarder and he said stick right. So I did until I noticed other swimmers - in the distance - leaving the right bank and crossing the water here. And where the rivers met was no pleasantly foaming bubble bath.
I set off - and hit the most enormous waves rolling directly into me and all the other swimmers. What seems to happen is that the big lagoon funnels the wind coming up the estuary. This in turn hits the water flowing out of the Dart and the large tributary to the right.
I'd trained in choppy sea conditions and still found this almost unswimmable. I was taking in mouthfuls of salt water and several times dropped down to an ineffective breast stroke. I began to doubt whether I could complete the crossing, let alone the swim.
And what you don't know - or I did not know - was whether we would face these conditions all along the second half of the swim. We were entering the big lagoon and I had expected it to be tough and exposed and my fears seemed justified. How on earth could you swim 4 to 5k in conditions like this?
The Big Lagoon
Into the big lagoon and the water was still choppy. The paddleboarders encouraged us to seek the shelter of the bank - which I did.
Here's the next surprise. The water in the big lagoon is shallow. Presumably it's a little deeper for the fastest swimmers. It was often too shallow to swim. My arms were dredging the mud on the bottom. It's still a little choppy and as I was still feeling sick from the crossing - and feeling physically shattered too, it was slow going.
But the view on the right hand side, at the foot of Kirkham Copse, is as good as you'll get on a riverside. Trees dipping down to the water, spreading their roots into it. And no birds.
And then the paddleboarders said - just round there you will see the next pontoon. And it appears - and it's like an oil rig in the North Sea.
It's still a challenge to get to the pontoon but a different kind of challenge. The water has calmed but you either swim in water that's calmish but too shallow and your arms go into the mud - or out in the deeper water where it's rougher. I did a bit of both.
The second Pontoon
There is nowhere more welcoming than this pontoon. Even though they had few supplies left. The crew said they were 7km along the course. That's 3k left to go.The organisers had said it might be 8k. So with another swimmer I stopped and rested and drank about two bottles of fresh water and burped the salt into my digestive system. I looked at my glucose tablets but they were saturated in salt.And there was 3k left to do.
The paddleboarder who was with us asked how I felt - out of ten. I said five. "We can live with five," he said. When you're 'leisurely' you're a little suspicious of the paddleboarders as you're expecting them to haul you out of the water at any moment. So it was good to feel they're on your side.
The Big Lagoon
And then comes the best surprise at all.
There was nothing "tough" about the second kilometre across the big lagoon. There's boats moored all along it and you swim to the right of them, along the edge of a long beach.
Personally I like swimming by boats. It is a lovely peaceful swim and thanks to the refreshment break - all that fresh water - I was comfortable.
At the end my personal paddleboarder was a little bit confused about the route and indicated the finish was to the right, past a ramp marking the end of the lagoon. I queried this, we checked it with a jetski and eventually confirmed what I thought. We had to head left to the Dittisham peninsula, looming ahead.
The second tributary
So I struck out between two boats and set sights on the peninsula. To get there you are crossing another tributary - and here the same happened as at the previous tributary.
Large waves came crashing in as the wind tunnel and the water funnelled round the peninsula clashed with the two rivers converging.
So I ceased to be leisurely. I thought of the finishing line and the people I was raising money for and I hit the water, repeatedly, barely any stopping. I decided to give it everything to cross to that peninsula. I think there may have been a calmer but longer route around the boats that some swimmers took.
No, I don't regret taking on the waves - but did I save much distance?
Round Dittisham peninsula
One of the paddleboarders pointed to another swimmer zipping past on the left. 'If you just swim out a bit there's a strong current that will take you to the end,' she said. So I did and for the second time I wondered if I had missed out on the best currents. You can see the change of course in the kink on the map.
What would be the best way to catch this current, if you knew to look for it? When I was crossing the tributary I had my sights on the peninsula. I wanted to make the crossing as short as possible and reach the bank. In fact the ideal thing is to start sighting to the left of the peninsula so you curve around it. I'm not sure it's easy in those waves - but the other swimmer must have done something of that kind.On the map, you can see a kink where I turned into the beach and then out into the open water, prompted by the paddleboarder.
And there was still no sign of the destination. Where am I going? I said, and she indicated some fields in the distance vaguely. I was really grateful for the support of the paddleboarders but it's important to remember they lie nearly as low in the water as you do. Their visibility may be no better.
I have no idea whether swimming out to find the current helped - but Dittisham was to my right, not straight ahead.
It still wasn't clear where you finish. I saw a couple of yellow flags on the mudbank and assumed they were some kind of marker. Then as I was about to swim past I saw a small crowd - and heard a little bit of cheering. Now I really expected a big cheer for us leisurely laggards - but never mind. There was a little bit of noise. So I got to my feet and then noticed the other swimmer - the one who'd overtaken me in the current - collapsed in the water. With the paddleboarder I helped her to her feet - she had cramp - and she was escorted to the finish, 10 seconds ahead of me. Our time was 4 hours and 15 minutes.
Finally, when you finish you have to walk over some blue mats to get your time recorded. If you linger to chat or have photos taken, you just add to your recorded time. If I'd known there were others coming I'd have lingered more.
As I was warming up I was asked if I would do it again. I replied "probably not". My reasoning was that in apparently mild conditions it had been pretty tough. What would it be like with thick rain, colder water, drizzle or worse wind?
That's what I said then. Now I think I should book into a swimming pool and see if I can do a mile in 40 minutes.
I enjoyed those long, sometimes leisurely weekend swims over the summer and could have enjoyed the Dart with the right headwear.
It's a mystery why all but a handful of swimmers complete the course in less than four hours. Geographically I swam almost exactly 10k. Based on my time, I swam the equivalent of 8k, just as the training manual says. Over that distance I'd expect to average 2k an hour.
The entry requirement says you should be able to complete a mile in 40 minutes and then swim on. It seems that most entrants maintain quite a steady pace. That would mean most of the yellow, leisurely wave would complete within 3hrs 20 minutes (or 200 minutes).
But why should that be the case? In preparation this was a typical set of times for me (yes I did take preparation seriously.):
Mile 1: 40 minutes
Mile 2: 44 minutes
Mile 3: 50 minutes
Mile 4: 54 minutes
Mile 5 (which I never got round to completing): 56-60 minutes?
That's an expected time of 4hrs 8 minutes. I completed in 4 hrs 15 minutes after at least one lengthy break. Just three people finished after me. Just six people out of 700 took longer than four hours.
Finally what was the effect of the tide on a four hour, 10k swim? This altitude graph from my GPS gives a clue.
One further tip: plan for long queues for the loos when you arrive in Totnes. Even the men's.
This is a useful alternative view of the course by a local swimmer: http://bigsplashswimming.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/river-dart-10k.html