A river. A creek to start with, boats bobbing  on the high tide between widening banks, children crabbing from the dam, kayaks in bright colours drawn up on the bank. Starting out three together with two kayaks of our own paddled by kind and friendly support crew. The familiar cool of this alien element, brackish here with salt, buoying me up as I reach and stretch and catch and pull, heading out past the boats in the wake of my pink hatted fellow swimmers. Falling in behind the yellow kayak of my own paddler, her blue hatted, red life-jacketed form reassuringly present, gliding upright alongside me, keeping an eye out for me and for danger, so that danger and I never meet.

Relaxing into what my therapist calls perfect trust. Trust in Sarah my kayaker, to lead me well. Trust in the water, to hold me up. Trust in my body, fit and strong and acclimatised enough to make this swim not just possible, but easy. And trust in myself, allowing myself to relax, to breathe, to enjoy. Just enough air going into my lungs, just enough air going out.  Getting into my rhythm, stretch and catch and pull and push, bubble bubble breathe left, bubble bubble breathe right. Trees to one side, Sarah to the other, and ahead, when I sight, raising myself slightly on my forward arm, Peter’s calm back, blue kayak and white paddles arcing up and over as Kathrine’s and Cassandra’s arms arc up and over and back into the water between tiny splashes on the silk-smooth water.

Turning now at a fork and swimming into a narrower channel, as the banks come towards us and Philip Larkin’s green castles rise rich and high and beautiful on either side. The river still broad and deep enough though, and close enough to the sea, to give us a gift beyond its own beauty and peace and easy flow. Sarah calls out to me, pointing with her paddle across the water “Look – a seal!” I can only just see it without my glasses and through misty goggles, but I catch sight of a black head bobbing for a few moments across the broad glitter of the water. We head on, buoyed up, to join the faster swimmers  already at our turning point sharing jelly-babies and swigs of water and smiles.

And then it’s off again, back the way we came, arms still strong enough, breathing still relaxed enough, rolling from the hips and gliding easy until Sarah waves and points “He’s there again”. I can see him for sure now, a pointed dark cone above the water, maybe a hundred yards away. A bit closer we stop for another look. Sarah is doubtful “He’s been up for an awfully long time. Maybe just flotsam”. We head closer and she waves again to stop me ” It’s definitely him”. It is. Even I can see him clearly, head sticking right out, drifting along. He’s so still we wonder if he’s all right, and Sarah paddles a bit closer to check. As she approaches he looks round, almost as if to say “How rude!”, turns to face us so we see his eyes, his nostrils, his wide springy whiskers, then he turns back, giving me a fine view of the mottles on the back of his neck, and sinks gracefully out of sight. My first seal, gift of the Dart, and of Sarah’s sharp eyes.

And then it’s back, hugging the bank until the turn into the creek and putting on a little spurt to finish well against the tiny current under the eyes of the families crabbing in the sun. As I come into the steps a man bends down to ask “How far did you swim?”, and when Sarah answers ” Six K”, he replies “Wow”. A small stroke of pride for me, not spoiled when I find as I get out that for a moment I can hardly stand, so used have my legs become to gentle kicking.

And then it’s changing, and smiles and congratulations, and flapjacks and brownies and home-made soup out of our hosts’ camper-van kitchen, and with the others who swam today we chat the way open-water swimmers always do. First about the swims we’ve done, and then about the others, the ones who swam the Channel, the ones who didn’t quite. If you’re an open water swimmer you can never really think “Wow” about your achievements because you know what it takes to swim the Channel, that dark, dirty and unforgiving old lady who defeats so many within sight of France. But today was a “Wow!” day anyhow, even though all I did was swim the Dart. I spent time doing the thing I love best in one of the most beautiful places in the world, I made some new friendships, and deepened an existing one, and I saw a seal. What more, really, could you ask?

It seems a shame, after all that loveliness, but I do have to do *small fanfare* The Footballing Fact Of The Day.
You would have to go some to see a seal during a football match. I was going to mention the football match held annually on Bramble Bank in the Solent, except that Wikipedia informs me it’s a cricket match. There are rumours that there have been football matches played on Scroby Sands off Great Yarmouth but “extensive research” (ie five minutes on Google, hem hem) have failed to confirm this. So there you go. You can’t see a seal during a football match.
That was The Footballing Fact Of The Day. I thank you.