There’s a light breeze and thin cloud cover over the River Dart Estuary at Dittisham as I hop down the wall into ankle deep water that covers the beach of fine gravel and sand. I joke with Pat that it’s too cold and that after all the effort she has gone to we should pack up and go home. She waves me off ‘I’ll see you in Kingswear’ she tells me and as my clothes and car key is in the back of her car I will have to swim. It’s not cold anyway, it is just right.
I swim upstream along the shore to the end of the sailing club where the Dart 10km comes ashore before turning across the open river. Thus the 2 ends of the swim will be joined.
I thread through the boats on their swing moorings, the river is empty of moving boats leaving me clear to cross to the far bank and the ferry put in below Greenway House. On the inside of the bend now I can feel the current picking up as high tide has passed. Going with the flow I find my rhythm, elbows high, hands reaching, gliding, sweeping back. It must be working as I am flying past the trees that overhang the water, their branches just clear of the high tide water, dark leaved oaks that envelope hidden grottoes in mystery, here and there a rock or flash of beach briefly glimpsed.
Three miles is the longest swim I have done in ages but I am quite confident that it is within reach, I like to think of myself as adventurous not rash and foolish. The water is a shade of aquamarine and I have no idea how clear there is simply nothing against which to measure the clarity, it is aquamarine in all directions, except where I meet and cut through a patch of seaweed debris caught in the current.
There is a little boat house on the bank where boat house meets alpine cottage with a steep, high ridged roof above ‘Georgian’ style doors with half moon glass at the top. A man is watching me from the quay, he turns away and now it is my turn to watch every time I turn my head to breathe as he unhooks panels painted to look like the half moon glass revealing the true glass below. I imagine a dozen scenarios that would warrant that as I stroke downstream.
The river is open without moored boats, several yachts pass by, a motor launch, the small ferries and then the larger Dartmouth-Totnes sightseeing ferry. I imagine the tannoy announcement, ‘If you look to your right you will see a crazy person’. This does not feel crazy, this is brilliant even with the slight slop of waves.
With a desire to stay out of boat traffic I decide to go inside of the moored boats at Noss Creek rather than hold to the middle of the river. It is like entering a labyrinth. I am sure it makes sense from a boat but from water level it is quite bewildering and I have no confidence that if I simply go with the flow that I will exit the far end as even through my goggles when I sight I can see a quay. I pick my way crabwise through the moorings to an open channel and then quite suddenly I exit the moorings and there is another wide and empty stretch of river. 1 hour down and 2 miles down.
The next obstacle I know will be coming up: The Higher Dart Car Ferry. I can see it against the bank and then thankfully it begins to pull away leaving me clear to swim on, occasionally glimpsing people watching from the bank. The steam train whistles its departure from Kingswear, the engine trails a plume of smoke and steam and as it approaches I see it is painted black, I don’t recall the name of that one; the green one is Goliath. Passengers crowd the windows which are after all those with the view and I am center stage against the backdrop of HMS Britannia the naval academy high on the far hillside.
More boats, lots of boats. I keep my line foolishly imagining I will be able to cross through to the open water at the middle of the river but this marina is even more tortuous than the last. People on the floating pontoons watch me pass by, they like me are probably wondering where I am going. Emerging from between the lines of boats I find the way ahead of me is blocked by a pontoon reaching out into the river and packed with boats. It is about at this moment that the current takes its place center stage. I am being swept into the boats and I really don’t want that. To go sideways I find myself swimming at about a 20 degree angle back upstream still very aware that the bow of the furthest boat is getting closer and closer. As in a film in which a door is closing sealing in the fated I race towards the dwindling exit and in a style that Indiana Jones would be proud of I pass the boat with inches to spare, actually swimming beneath the curve of the bow. That was ‘fun’.
Progress is now slowest. I can see the passenger ferry jetty and I know that beyond is the car ferry and the end of my other piece of string, but to get there I must pass by several fingers of the marina out of which a boat could emerge without notice and in this current avoiding action could be tricky for either of us. Check, clear to go, swim to the next set of moorings, check, swim and repeat.
The passenger ferry is pulling out I tread water letting it clear away, the pilot is watching from the bridge no doubt glad I didn’t attempt to play chicken. However the other half of the ferry duo is well across the river and coming my way and whilst I’m sure I must have some sort of right of way I have no intention of putting it to the test and instead swim speedily past the mooring, turning in to the still water beyond the pontoon. Foot passengers disembark and look down on me, but I can go nowhere until the car ferry pulls out.
I wade up the concrete incline and Pat is waiting there for me with my shoes and a welcome drink, I had not realised just how numb my tongue had become.
1 hour 35 minutes, maybe 40 minutes, it could have been 1 hour 30 but for the marinas and waiting for the ferry, but that is it and the time is not important. The bigger picture is that I have now tied the ends of 2 pieces of string, the first of which stretches 30 unbroken miles up the coast to Teignmouth, the other of which stretches upstream: 10 miles of estuary to Totnes Weir, 17 miles to Dartmeet and then a sum of 21 miles to the dual sources, call it 50 miles with wiggles. That’s quite a long way.
My 100 Swims South-West Google map.