08/08/2014 by Carl Reynolds
Kari, the woman who taught me how to swim (contact her here), suggested we swim from Dartington to Dartmouth. A journey of approximately 18km. Unfortunately our kayaker pulled out the day before; and rather than mix it with the yachts from Dittisham onwards we decided to have a more leisurely sauntering type of swim downstream. Mrs Ape dropped us along the riverbank on the Dartington Estate and we glided down shallow waters to the weir above Totnes. As we approached the weir I said to Kari, “How do we get past this then?”, to which her reply was, “Dunno, never done it before!”. We swam up to the weir, our access facilitated by a sloping concrete slab, displacing a squabble of gulls and looked down. To one side a torrent, to the other a gentle slope looking temptingly slide-able…but with no way to ascertain what happens when you hit the bottom. Kari opted for the torrent, but I misheard her and jumped up onto the dividing wall and walked down the pier. It was the easy way.
Jumping back in, I tasted the first of many sips of slightly saline water. We had met the tidal reach. A toothless boatman, tugging on a fag, confirmed that the tide had just turned and wished us a pleasant rush downstream. We swam under a passing express train and looped round a meadow to the side of Totnes town before curving back to the lines of yachts and Dartmouth ferry. Having rained heavily the night before I was a little concerned that we’d be sharing the water with bottles, tins and other flotsam and jetsam, but the water stayed remarkably clear.
And then. A kilometre or so south of Totnes, on one of our many pauses to chat and admire the landscape we were joined by a seal. Kari, having been bumped and nudged by a boisterous seal a few weeks ago down in Dartmouth was none too happy, but we were in the water and so was she. She dipped under, we continued and as we stroked away downstream I’d see a black shape rise and fall to my side each time I breathed to the left. A little unnerving, but exhilarating too. She wants to swim with me, a seal and an aquatic ape! Kari was still worried, so a mile further on we jumped out at Sharpham Quay and tucked into some cheese sandwiches she’d secreted there earlier that morning and said ta-rah to the seal. To ensure our disengagement we walked a few hundred metres round the shore and then waded back through soft mud and out into the channel.
By now we were in the woods. Steep wooded banks bounded the widening river as we stroked past the point at Ashprington, Duncannon Village and then round the corner where the Dart opens up even more. From our perspective at water level it seemed a huge lake; and unless you knew to turn left, you might swim up some creek and really be in the mud. As we approached Stoke Gabriel harbour, I espied a pink swimming hat crawling out into the Dart, turned the corner and promptly ran aground in squidgy mud. Kari and I had already contemplated having to slide over mud banks to get into Stoke Gabriel, but the detail of the OS map belies the distance. Our pink hatted swimmer however came to our rescue and piloted us down the deeper channel; our journey only interrupted by an incoherent fisherman moaning about swimmers. I thanked him and swam on. Three and a half hours later with 10.5km of swimming and 0.5km of walking we met the beaming Mrs Ape, attracted an inevitable conversation with a passing tourist, the intrigued glances of many more and then, suddenly, it was over.
A few words of advice for those contemplating similar. Don’t do it by yourself. Have a support kayaker if possible. Squirrel some supplies away en-route (or tug a butt bouy behind you). Time your swim so that you are in Totnes just after the high tide. And be realistically confident that you are both cold tolerant and able to swim the distance. Otherwise you’ll at the very least be a pain in the arse to the rescue services or your mates; and at worse…