Michelle Walker wild swimming

The Wild Dart Swim: I did it!

Emily Cooper


Michelle Walker, our Deputy Technical Director, recently completed the 5 kilometre Wild Dart swim. This is the final chapter of Michelle's wild swimming series. There's still time to donate to her fundraiser, if you're able to!

There was much packing and checking of swim kit to do last Friday before picking the kids up from school and heading down to Devon ready for the early race start the next day. My 13 year old daughter and her friend had entered the 2.5k swim, so the whole family was coming down to camp and either take part in the event or spectate. After setting up camp and sorting food, we had transport logistics to sort out, leaving a car at a suitable point mid-way between the 2.5 and 5k finish lines.

There was one more task I wanted to do on the Friday night – take a water sample for testing with some new bacterial water quality test kits which we are trying out. They wouldn’t give an answer for 48 hours, so it would be too late for the next day, but I wanted to take some samples as we are slowly building a database of bacterial results for rivers to fill a big knowledge gap. I knew there was a good chance that the water quality would be poor, as it had rained the day before, and there are several sewer storm overflows immediately upstream of Steamer Quay in Totnes where the swim started, which discharged untreated sewage over 130 times in 2020. That is more than twice a week, so there’s a high chance that there was untreated sewage in the river when we were due to set off.

Still, with over £600 of sponsorship, there was no backing out now! I set my alarm for 6am and tried to sleep, but pre-race nerves and some noisy 4am seagulls meant that I didn’t have a very restful night. My early morning training paid off though – I knew I had done ok after a couple of broken nights, so I felt reasonably confident. Once we were registered there was time to chat to swim buddies, including the three intrepid Westcountry Rivers Trust team who were tackling the 2.5k. Next year it would be great to get a Rivers Trust team together!

I was in the second wave to set off, and with Covid distancing, it was a very civilised start with none of the usual chaos and cutting up of a mass swim start. I set off at a steady pace, but within a couple of hundred metres I was struggling with my breathing and couldn’t put my face in the water. This often happens if I’m anxious in a race and has happened several times with the wetsuit that I trained with, so I knew what to do – flip on to my back and do backstroke until my breathing rate steadies and I can put my face in again. I could see the nearest safety kayak looking at me with concern and probably wondering if I was intending to do backstroke for the whole 5k!

Soon though I started to relax in to the swim – popping my head up every now and then to enjoy the beautiful scenery. The Dart really is a stunning river – the overhanging trees lining the banks and dipping their branches in to the water on the highest spring tide looks like some Amazonian wilderness. When I last swam here I saw a Kingfisher darting along the bank, but no such luck this time. My arms started to feel really tired and leaden by the second kilometre, and I began to worry that I wasn’t going to make it. However, after waving to waiting family at the half way point my energy levels picked up and I started to feel a pull from the tide as we rounded the Sharpham bend. 1km from the finish I almost literally bumped in to one of my Clevedon swim buddies, and pushed myself to keep up with her, finishing in 1hr 35 minutes – considerably faster than I was predicting.

As for those water quality results? Well, the sample I took at the Ashprington Point finish showed clean water, but as suspected the Totnes result came back as highly polluted with faecal indicator organisms (FIOs). I’ve asked South West Water to confirm, but it seems highly likely that the storm overflows just upstream of the start were discharging untreated sewage in the day or two before the swim.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve not suffered any ill effects, and haven’t heard of any of my fellow swimmers going down with an illness following the event, but we shouldn’t have to contend with this in order to enjoy swimming, paddling, fishing or playing in our rivers. The rain we had before the swim was not exceptional so why is our sewerage system not able to cope with typical summer rain showers? If you think this is an unacceptable situation please consider supporting The Rivers Trust and read more about how we are tackling this and other issues facing our rivers.

Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who sponsored my swim – the money raised will help us buy more water quality test kits to share with grassroots campaigns who are looking to challenge the status quo, seek designated bathing water status for popular river recreation sites and clean up our beautiful, wild rivers.

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