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Riding the incoming tide up the River Waveney

Last weekend’s Waveney Swim ticked a lot of boxes for me, not least that we swam upriver on an incoming tide, and the current gave us a lovely push. I ended up swimming 11.5km in about the same time I’d expect to swim 10km in still water. It’s fun watching the river banks fly by at a much faster speed than you know you can swim.

Other highlights for me are that it’s a point-to-point swim, navigation is easy (just follow the river), it’s in an agreeable location and they offer flapjacks at the feed stations (more on those later).

This year was the second running of the event (you can read Joanne Jones’ review of the 2018 version here) and you already get the sense this is a swim that’s gaining an enthusiastic following in the outdoor swimming community. Mel Holland, the creator and organiser of the swim, is an accomplished and experienced swimmer and pulled together first-rate safety and volunteer teams to ensure participants were properly looked after.

On the Friday before the swim, there were fears the event may have to be shortened or even abandoned as weather forecasts warned of storms. Luckily, the storms held off and we had perfect swimming conditions: minimal wind, blue skies and warm water (well, about 19 degrees).

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One thing that can put people off swimming in lowland rivers is that the water can be murky. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s polluted or unhealthy. In many cases, the lack of clarity is due to silt, which might make you look a bit mucky, but won’t do you any harm. The problem is, you can see very little under the water, and this was the case in the Waveney. However, it’s something you get used to as an outdoor swimmer and while I prefer beautiful clear water, I’m not particularly bothered if it’s a bit silty. Besides, the Waveney is clearer than other places I’ve swum and I could at least see my hand in front of my face (just) and the occasional plant on the river bed. I was reassured, too, about the water quality as we swam past lots of lilies.

Although it was in the briefing notes, I couldn’t remember the distance to the first feed station. As I became increasingly hungry, I began to fear I’d missed it (it’s happened to me before on swims). At one point, I stopped the swimmer next to me and asked how long we’d been swimming. Fifty-six minutes! That’s a long time for me to swim without eating anything. It turns out the first stop was at 4.9km, and was only just around the next corner. When I was offered flapjacks, I couldn’t resist.

Unfortunately, I can’t eat flapjacks quickly. I was still half way through when the swimmers I was with set off again. As they raced away, I stuffed the rest of the bar into my mouth and began swimming again, my cheeks packed with oats like a hamster’s. This, in case you’re wondering, is not a good tactic. I’ve never mastered breathing in through my nose while swimming, so I had to open my mouth, which meant the flapjack mixed with river water and crumbs got stuck in my throat. Despite all of the above, when I was offered flapjacks at the second feed station, I took them again, and went through the same thing a second time! I will learn one day.

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The second two sections are both 3.3km, although the final one felt longer. I couldn’t tell if this was because I was tiring or the tide was starting to turn – or at least slacken off. You know you’re approaching the end when you see the A146 road bridge over the river, which is about 150m from the finish. Turning left into the harbour triggered memories of a boating holiday a few years ago when I’d tried and failed to reverse our hired houseboat onto a mooring between two other boats. Luckily I didn’t have to do anything that complicated this time but I did struggle with the ladder to climb out as the bottom rung was close to the surface – lifting my leg triggered a sharp and painful cramp!

Despite this ladder trouble at the end, I definitely recommend this event – just make sure you finish your flapjacks before swimming. And, if you have the time, I’d also recommend booking a few days in the area. There’s plenty to see and do.

I hope the Waveney Swim continues to grow and attract a wide range of swimmers. Putting on these type of events is a labour of love with a not insignificant financial risk to the organisers. Great swims like this open up stretches of water to swimmers that would be difficult or even dangerous to swim on your own and they deserve the full support of the outdoor swimming community.

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.