The Humber estuary is a significant part of the landscape between Grimsby and Hull and one that has to be swam across.  A swim is always more exciting if there’s a destination; across a river, channel, or estuary, or from one side the other. Especially one with a large and intimidating bridge next to it. Swimming in rivers and the research for the Dips and Chips book has inspired an eccentric love of bridges. So, it makes sense to swim across the Humber Estuary next to The Humber Bridge.

About the swim

The Humber Swim is a swim across the Estuary from Barton on Humber on the south side to Hessle on the North side.

It’s a swim not a race and is organised to race funds for The Humber Rescue, an independent charity that supplies fast response search and rescue operations on the Humber Estuary.

It’s organised by a small and friendly team of volunteers rather than a commercially driven events company. This gives it a completely different feel to most other open water swimming events.

You get a place by contacting Sarah and Frank Scholes through The Humber Facebook group rather than an impersonal online events portal.  The cost is less than £50 and everyone is asked to do some fundraising as well.

There are several dates over the summer which are planned around the tide times. There are only about 12 places for each swim. This makes it a super friendly, safe, and fun event.

The meeting point is at Humber Rescue at Hessle, but the swim starts from Barton on Humber. The lifeboat crew take the swimmers across the estuary in two groups in the lifeboats and the swim starts by jumping off the boat.

Due to the strength of the tide and weather conditions the distance and duration of this swim varies from 1 mile  to 4km, and it might take anything from 30 minutes to over 90 minutes. I swam 3100m and it took me 60min.

While it’s not a huge distance it’s not a swim for novice swimmers. You don’t necessarily need to be fast, but you need experience of open water, swimming in tough weather conditions and swimming in the sea.

You can swim with or without a wetsuit and there are no extra forms to fill in if you choose to go without. In my group 4 out of 12 swam without wetsuits.  I don’t know what the temperature was, but I managed perfectly well without a wetsuit despite it being my longest non-wetsuit swim of the season.

Tow floats are compulsory to make us as visible as possible to the support boats and to each other. Even with a tow float the waves can get big and choppy making it difficult to spot swimmers in between the waves.

There is parking either in the country park or in the pub next door for a small fee which can be paid either with cash or via mobile phone app.

About my swim

The event volunteers let us climb aboard the boat and then collected our shoes so that they would be ready for us when we landed at the end of the swim. This is such a super service making us all feel well looked after. The beach is a bit stony and even though its only small, having some shoes at the end is definitely a great help.

We’re also able to wear our dry robes in the boat which they promise us will be delivered back to shore for after our swim which they were.

It was super fun and a great privilege to have a ride in the lifeboat (even only for a few minutes) and observe the volunteer boat crew in action. It was also a chance to chat to my fellow swimmers and of course get more nervous by the minute!

The swimmers had been split into 2 groups of 6 swimmers of roughly the same ability with a faster group and a not so fast group. As it’s not a race we were asked to try to stick together as a group to make it easier for the two rescue boats to look after us.

We spent a few minutes bobbing about in the boats on the other side waiting for precisely high tide when the currents are at its weakest before we started our swim. Sitting there in the boat it was quite intimidating looking at the estuary. It’s not exactly a beautiful inviting blue colour but more a murky grey brown with an intimidating bridge over the top! Being in the boat you’re a lot closer to the water with no shelter. This means the weather and water conditions are much clearer than standing on the shore and it was certainly a bit choppier with stronger wind conditions than I had realised.

Then we were told it was time to start swimming. There was no starting klaxon, countdown, starting watch or timing mat. We just took turns to jump in the water off the boat and off we went! With the boat crew watching and everyone else in the water I had no option to faff about and take ages to get in. I just had to jump!

We were asked to regroup quickly because one swimmer was a bit further back. This led to a few minutes treading water, catching our breath, and giving each other reassuring and encouraging messages.

There isn’t a set route to follow but you listen to the instructions in the safety briefing and from other experienced swimmers and aim for the Green Buoy. Also, as we stick together as a group its easy to learn what to aim for next.

Our swim was choppy! There was no rhythm to the waves, and it was super hard work to swim through. I often missed a stroke or got water in my mouth.

I often wasn’t sure where I was going so used the other swimmers for guidance. There were moments when no one was visible in between the waves but in general all the other swimmers were nearby and easy to spot so I never felt alone. The rescue boat was never far away and having professionals looking after us was reassuring.

We continued to regroup periodically which was fun and I took the opportunity to take photos and video with my GoPro which is always securely tied to my tow float.  And one of the experienced swimmers in our group gave us pointers on what to aim for.

The Humber is a treacherous stretch of water because of the incredibly strong tides. It’s not possible to swim across without boat support and can only be done at a point in the tidal cycle when the currents are the weakest. This is called a slack tide and happens either side of a high or low tide.

Because of the tides and strength of the current it’s not likely that you’ll manage to swim in a straight line but more of an S shape. This is because once the tide has turned and starts to go out the water will start taking you towards the sea. If you swam in a straight line, you would be unlikely to make it back to Humber Rescue station but would be much further down the beach.

When we started our swim, we swam upstream under the bridge and then aimed for the famous green buoy which is the marker of the main shipping channel. Then we aimed for a point on the other side of the estuary upstream of the slipway at Humber rescue.

Around about ¾ of the swim was bumpy, choppy, and challenging. Then suddenly the conditions changed when I reached the shipping channel and when the tidal flow started to increase slightly as it started to go out. I felt the conditions become more predictable with a more consistent swell which is much easier to swim in. I also felt the current sweeping me forward and I suddenly felt I was swimming a lot faster.

The water also felt warmer, and it felt like the swim was almost complete with the hardest bit over. As I got closer to shore, I could see the slipway and I felt like I was home with just a few more strokes in a straight line and I’d be landed.

Then suddenly, I looked up and I’d drifted downstream of the slipway. No problem I thought. I’m a triathlete! I can swim all out, hell for leather and make it!!! So, I put my head down and dug deep determined to get on the slip way. It’s fun!!! I feel amazing! I can see everyone on the beach.

Then I look up again and I’m nowhere. In fact, I’m going backwards! This was a total surprise! And totally confused me even though we’d been briefed about it. I really hadn’t expected it to be so powerful.  It was also a little scary to notice the water had so much power over me. For a moment I didn’t really know what to do until one of the volunteers encouraged me to keep swimming towards the shore.

I was still swimming hard and going sideways! But it eventually occurred to me I was so close maybe I could put my feet down and stand up. I had landed a few metres downstream of the slipway directly under the bridge. I was greeted by a volunteer who welcomed me ashore, gave me a bottle of water and fetched my shoes.  Only one swimmer in our group managed to land directly on the slipway with swimmers landing at varying points on the beach on both sides of the bridge.

Tips for the swim

  • Train so that you’re fit to swim for up to 90min.
  • Do some swimming in rough, choppy conditions and the sea.
  • Learn how to site efficiently without it interrupting your stroke
  • Learn how to breathe to both sides so that you can deal with the chop and waves without constantly swallowing water
  • Take your time and breathe! It’s normal to be a bit tense and a bit nervous at any event no matter how experienced you are. Pacing yourself and focussing on your breath can help to keep you relaxed and calm.
  • Make friends with the other swimmers and give everyone lots of encouragement. Make it a team event so that you support each other.
  • If you’re very nervous then find another swimmer to buddy with.
  • Arrive early so you have time meet the other swimmers and volunteers
  • Get a GoPro or waterproof camera and tie it to your tow float to take photos
  • Soak up the atmosphere and enjoy being in the water!