My trainers became buoyant as salty water filtered its way through the holes. I found myself wishing i’d left them tucked neatly next to my bag, on the shore side of the mud, as we swam 200 mtrs across The Ray.
It was early Saturday morning and my mind was doing a dance with indecision. Mat Hawkes, The Open Water Swimming Coach, was offering a hosted, educational and fun introduction to The Ray and what the estuary has to offer at low tide. This was more about health and safety – fun and exploration.
The Ray is a body of water flowing from Leigh on Sea, through Chalkwell, Southend and into the Thames Estuary. A place which I’d observed kite and wind surfers fly across, as I walk the shoreline.
I’d always been curious about it but have no memory of swimming here. I do have memories of walking out on the mud – with my mother’s voice warning me of tide times and the flow of water coming in from both sides, not just behind. Only last year I’d finally walked out to the Mulberry Harbour with the Essex Ramblers and I’d enjoyed it so much, I kicked this indecision into touch and made my way down to the seafront.
I was pleased I did – on meeting Mat, he was immediately friendly and approachable. Offering me a big hug, to my outstretched hand. He made it easy.
There were many people at the meeting point ( a mix from my eyes of serious swimmers and interested dippers). After Mat went through a bit of advice and information, we made our way out as a group towards the estuary. I felt a bit nervous as I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t have a clue whether I could swim 200mtrs but somehow knew it wasn’t further than the swim I’d been fortunate to experience, whilst working at DARA on Koh Chang. Here I had steadily swam, challenging myself in the process but the water was warm and there was no current or wind conditions – which made it easier.
Throughout the summer I had been working towards personal goals that i’d set with my wild swimming. Gradually moving into a deeper body of water, whilst dealing with my fears.
I had been considering becoming more serious and thought this was a perfect opportunity to find out more, with someone living locally, who could deliver wild swimming lessons and coach me how to deal with nature and human intertwining in the process. If I decided to commit to developing my stroke and practice.
This is how I found myself, squelching through the mud and razor sharp oyster shells, contemplating if I had made the right choice. The women I conversed with were lovely which made it a little easier and everyone was friendly. I felt at ease around the people.
Arriving at the ray and looking out towards the other side, I knew that I’d need to concentrate on each stroke.
The front crawl in open water I had discovered was so different than in the pool. Learning that if I were in around 1:30 before high tide, then I didn’t feel the uncomfortable tow of the current pulling me outwards as the tide turned. I was learning the importance of being respectful to the sea and had always enjoyed the power of the ocean when learning to surf in Australia and knew the damaging effects it could have after visiting Koh Phi Phi after a tsunami, devastated the little island.
In we waded, so far the wind had been surprisingly warm and the water temperature felt ok. I didn’t get that sharp intake of breath I felt sometimes on entering the estuary and one of the women told me the warmest time can be september/october. I look forward to this!
The trainers I was wearing were a hindrance and made it more difficult than it need have been, I kept my eye firmly on the shore and concentrated on each stroke. At this point I didn’t really attempt the front crawl, knowing I needed my strength for the swim back and not being as confident with it, as I am when doing the breast stroke.
I’m really glad that I was with a group of people and Mat’s helpers (not sure if they were officially in that role) kept an eye on those of us who were less competent and I’m sure Mat had everyone in his sight. This was shown in his attention, manner and his counting skills!
Arriving at the estuary I felt tired so paddled and chatted again with Claire and Carmen, the two lovely ladies I’d walked out chatting with. Knowing I needed to keep my energy for the return swim. Feeling glad that i’d come out with a group and never ventured out here initially alone.
Mat spoke about swimming this far from shore being a spiritual experience for him, which I will ask him more about. I knew what he meant I think, but realised I experience spirituality in a different way.
The being in the water is far more important to me, I begun to understand as I made my way across, than the swimming in the water. Especially during the colder months when I can immerse myself into the cold. It feels good for my soul, I feel a connection with our world that I normally only get on leaving society and going travelling. In one way it connects me spiritually with the divine. It is my happy place.
The trainers proved to be a problem again. A bearded swimmer, Matt, holding a lifebuoy, came to my assistance as I decided to remove the trainers and Mat – the open water swimming coach, became my hero of the moment, as he undid them, pulled them off and took them with him as he confidently swam to shore. If I’m honest, I found it harder than I thought I would and at the end realised that if I were ever to develop my stroke, style and ability, then he would be the guy I would go to.
This experience helped me understand me more and my needs in the water, allowed me to venture out to the ray with a group and knowledgeable leader. Having a wonderful chat with Alison about Ibiza on our return to shore.
This fun morning has led me to be interested in attending Mat’s next introduction to open water swimming, to possibly explore a little bit more of what he has to offer and i’ve made some new friends in the process.
Check out The Open Water Swimming Coach if you want to explore the estuary more, away from the shore!