Bantham Swoosh 2017: on Magic and Challenge
Event: Outdoor Swimming Society Bantham Swoosh
When: 24th June 2017, 7am
What: 6km river swim (feels less, thanks to the ‘swoosh’ effect), 12-14 degrees C
What’s in a name? That which we call a Swoosh by any other word would be as swooshy.
Swoosh. It’s such a beautiful, swooshy word. A simple yet satisfying syllable evoking a sudden rush of liquid. The lick, perhaps, of the morning tide knocking against your face, or the feathering of a chill against your spine amid a bright swarm of orange caps.
Until now, the term swoosh had been yoinked by Nike, who’d kept it all to themselves as the name of their rather iconic logo.
And then the Outdoor Swimming Society came along with neoprene-clad mitts and yoinked it back to it’s rightful place, somewhere, I think, between chilly and delightful.
Now in its third year, the OSS Bantham Swoosh celebrates a new breed of race, the wet type that combines eager goose-bumpy folk and English cold waters in a bid to earn bacon baps and several layers of soggy towels. And the event is so popular, that it sells out within one day.
“I want a back like a bag of snakes,” says Andy, a member of my running club in Bristol that has been persuaded to the wetter side of endurance sport by a local Ironman triathlete – and Andy is not alone. Alongside him are five more of us runners-turned-Swooshers, who agreed to the 6km river swim just after Christmas 2016, on the basis that this crazy event was far enough away that it would probably never ever happen.
“I want a back like a bag of snakes,” – Andy, Swoosher.
But Swoosh event day did what event days are best at, and dutifully rolled around.
Before I could say “hypothermia”, what was merely an image of a few of us paddling down a bit of a stream (in my mind’s eye) turned into a very real 3.45am alarm going off, somewhere in a tent in deepest Devon.
The Night Before the Swoosh
It had been raining all night long. The winds had been turning from hums to howls and the tent had been shaking intermittently. I was nervous. I shimmied up to my boyfriend in my sleeping bag, like a caterpillar seeking consolation, and stared toward the shuddering canvas. Somewhere in the very small hours of Saturday 24th June 2017, I was questioning my sanity. A summer storm was unsettling the skies overhead, and in just four hours time, I’d be wading into a cold river.
Come 7am, I’d had some strange dreams, I’d sleepily poked around for my head torch, made it to Swoosh HQ, and applied an obscene amount of Bodyglide and Vaseline to my limbs, feeling like a Channel swimmer applying goose fat, before pulling a wetsuit over my sleep-deprived bod. I’d spent 30 mins on the Swoosh bus, drawing the event logo with my finger onto the window, made steamy by the body heat of a bus-load of excited neoprene-clad humans. It was a sight to behold.
After sunrise, a final wee and a briefing, I settled my gaze upon the swim start, with its ample waters and bobbing boats, and felt the familiar trickle of adrenaline enter my stomach in pre-event thrill.
In a relaxed manner, and looking almost identical now in black suits and orange swim caps, 200 or so of us waded into the water in a line, and began at our own pace, to move forward. This, we were told, was not a race. We were encouraged to look around and enjoy the views. It was quite the treat for a triathlete, to be given time to breathe and not have to worry about an elbow to the eye nor being swum across.
I settled into a relaxed pace, knowing that distance in open water is curiously far shorter to the mind than distance covered in a pool. Entering a lake, a quarry or the sea is always like wading into an aqua time machine. And despite the discomfort I would feel on the Swoosh due to the cold and my neck rub, this 6km swim would be no different.
It took me 1 hour 41 mins to complete the swim, which was more like 5km thanks to swimming downstream, and it would be fair to say that I battled somewhat with the cold. After a couple of kilometres, the cold settled onto my spine and wouldn’t budge, leading to a deep chill that worried me. Alongside this, I was losing skin on my neck with every breath, as a nasty rash appeared thanks to a new rash vest I’d worn to keep the cold out.
I seriously considered bailing. But I’d bailed on a swim before, and I knew the disappointment; I didn’t want it again. So I just kept swimming. To pass the time, I sang Greensleaves loudly in my head, which always gives me the perfect swimming rhythm and amuses me without fail.
When I saw the sandy banks of Bantham Beach I was elated, and almost immediately after climbing ashore, the difficulties evaporated from my mind. Later, recollection of the morning’s events became increasingly magical as the mundanity of week-day living set in.
Come Tuesday, with its identical train journeys, laptops, sensible (non-neoprene) clothes and endless drizzle, came pleasant memories of a fairy tale-like weekend spent literally immersed in the natural world with like-minded folk.
And on that concrete, office-based day, the word swoosh meant something new and extra special to me; summoning to mind swarms of post-dawn midsummer folk in matching caps, with the shared task of facing a great swell and face-slapping seaweed of the crab-dwelling river. Sharing such experiences at these events is what makes them so utterly moreish, so brilliant to be a part of.
The Bantham Swoosh was crafted and beautifully executed by a team that were passionate, friendly and helpful. They greeted me when I was barely awake with a smile, and warmed me with towels and hot chocolate when I shivered. I highly recommend it. www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/bantham-swoosh-swim