The Geographer: River Tay (Autumn 2018)

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14 Autumn 2018

Our Tay day Fiona Calvin

Last autumn driving across the Friarton Bridge, I wondered if it was possible to swim to Dundee, 35 kilometres distant. The furthest I had swum was three kilometres! Rosie Baxendine, my swimming buddy, shared my mad enthusiasm for the project; she had been wild swimming for two years, a year more than me. We both love the buzz from wild swimming; it allows you to be part of a world that is essentially alien to us. In the water you feel that stillness that is hard to achieve in life. There are swims that will stay with us for a long time, not for the distance or situation, but for the tranquillity.

watching the seals, the river and the tides interact. We planned to keep to the middle of the channel to get the best catch from the tide. Once we entered the water, we soon realised that the wind direction and strength made it impossible for us to sight on anything ahead in the choppy conditions. The estuary widens to five kilometres; making headway in a straight line was vital. We battled on, hoping for an improvement in conditions and slightly concerned at our lack of progress. Eventually we decided that we had to seek shelter in the lee of the shore. The swell eased, but being close to the shore brought its own issues; rounding Flisk Point there were four-foot standing waves. It was vital we kept in the mainstream of the tide as opposed to the countless eddies that would have brought us to a standstill. The kayakers were invaluable in helping us pick the right course. We learned to swim in the flotsam lines where the fast-moving water hit the slow. It made for difficult and physical swimming, but faster.

“We both love the buzz from wild swimming; it allows you to be part of a world that is essentially alien to us.”

May saw our first swim in the River Tay, brimming with wildflowers. We were hooked by the beauty, vastness and history of the Tay. Reading about the notorious tides associated with the estuary, we timed another swim to coincide with the first hour of an incoming tide. It was a sobering encounter; we made 600 metres in an hour of sprint swimming! Strangely, we didn’t feel deflated, but committed to a swim from Friarton to the Tay Road Bridge. Well-meaning friends tried to suggest less daunting options. We realised we would never manage to complete our adventure in one swim. We never set out to be the first or fastest; that had already been done by local swimmers. What we were achieving was much more personal. Over the coming weeks we swam sections of the Tay with our kayakers. We were ‘enlightened’ by the Tay: its epic mud banks; its ability to terrify and exhilarate one moment, calm and gentle the next; and its cold water, as I was plucked from one swim with hypothermia.

We had planned for August, but we were in danger of running out of daytime. Friday 13th July looked perfect! After all, what could possibly go wrong! The weather looked excellent for the morning swim but windier for the afternoon. We were on! Our alarm went off at 1:30 and the day that had obsessed us for months was finally here. We crept down to the river in the early morning darkness, with the roar of traffic from the looming Friarton Bridge above, and waded into the Tay. The first few strokes were magical, with the darkness enveloping us and the river a mirror stretching out in front. We made brilliant progress, swimming down the middle of the river to get the best of the tide flow, the dawn spreading across the easterly sky. We were joined by a curious seal as well as a couple of ospreys. Soon we were passing the Earn tributary, and just after four and a half hours and 17km we were at our bivvy spot. It had been a perfect swim. We dried out our wetsuits, lit a fire from driftwood and, refuelled with hot drinks and food cooked over the campfire, we slept wrapped up in sleeping bags. It was a wonderful few hours

In the distance we could see the iconic Tay Rail Bridge. As we neared the bridge, conditions eased and we could appreciate the incredible skies and cloud formations above us, providing a perfect backdrop to our location. Suddenly it felt like we were going to make it and we could enjoy the last leg of the swim to the Road Bridge, with Dundee and the V&A building jutting into the Tay on one side, and the splendid Victorian mansions of Newport-on-Tay on the other. As we neared the finish, our kayaker shouted there was a strong eddy that was in danger of carrying us through the bridge, and we needed to swim across it to the shore just under the bridge. Our epic swim of another four hours and 17km ended with a final struggle and sprint swim for the slippery rocks beneath the huge monolith that is the Tay Road Bridge. We had had the adventure of our lives. Photos by Adam Baxendine and Simon Calvin.

FURTHER READING Scottish Canoe Touring: An SCA Canoe and Kayak Guide (Scottish Canoe Association, May 2005)

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