A guide to Dover for swimmers – Part 1 – Dover Harbour

Dover shingle
Dover shingle

Like my previous guide to swimming in Sandycove, there are people who live in Dover and swim there (far) more regularly than I. But also like that post, in the absence of any of the people from either place writing about the respective locations, my articles will hopefully suffice and provide some useful information for some of you.

Dover is, and likely always will be the centre of the open water swimming world, as it was the starting point for Captain Webb’s first crossing and is still to this day the launching point for the world’s most famous swim. As such it fills the place that Katmandu and Chamonix do for climbers, or Wellington for Antarctic explorers. These are locations where like-minded individuals can bump in each other in the street, on the beach or mountains, or in the pub.

Dover is a port town, the port town in British history, and is a mix of history and modern transient commerce and social deprivation. It is also the place of swimmers and for many visiting Dover may have a Channel solo or relay booked and be down for a training swim or a reconnaissance or of course their actual swim window, or just want to swim in such a famous location.

This will be a three-part post; Part One about swimming in Dover and Part Two will about Varne Ridge Caravan Park, and the Part Three will be general information about Dover and the region that might be helpful for those visiting.

The swimmers in Dover_MG_1663.resized
The Swimmers art work on Dover esplanade

The picturesque white Edwardian building along the esplanade belie the visual aspects of most of the rest of Dover, and in the sunlight the area is very pretty and well maintained. The area is paid parking seven days a week from 9am to 6pm with parking ticket dispensers situated regularly along both side of the road.

Dover esplanade south -resized

Swimming in Dover Harbour is generally done by Channel swimmers, aspirants and crew from Swimmer’s Beach on the north-east end of the beach, which is the left end of the beach facing out to sea, bounded by the first concrete breakwater.

First time visitors may often feel intimidated and change at the Bus Shelter twenty-five metres up on the esplanade, however it is fine to just jump into the group and have a chat, as that is what many of the group are also doing. With weekly tide windows many of the people visiting will also only be there a short while, and the conversations and casual meetings and chats on Swimmer’s beach are for me anyway, the very high point of Dover. You never know whom you will meet, whether it’s King of the Channel Kevin Murphy, Big Love Nick CS&PF President Adams or Jackie Cobell, or someone from Ireland…

Irish (Sandycove) Channel swimmers at swimmers beach: Rob Bohane, Ciaran Byrne, Craig Morrison and Mr Supercrew the other Ciaran (O'Connor).
Irish (Sandycove) Channel swimmers at swimmers beach: Rob Bohane, Ciaran Byrne, Craig Morrison and Mr Supercrew the other Ciaran (O’Connor). There’s nowhere to put your bags while swimming.

During the summer season from early May until about mid September, solo and relay swimmers train every Saturday and Sunday morning from Swimmer’s Beach. Swim training is carried out under the watchful eyes of Channel General Freda Streeter and her crew of lieutenants Barrie the Shingle Stomper, Irene and Michelle.

Swimmer training in Dover DSCF3042 cropped-resizedChannel training is open to all swimmers of either persuasion, i.e. CS&PF or CSA, but does require a small fee for the season which will cover all the Maxim you can swallow and solo swimmers usually start at 9am while relay swimmers start at 10am. Occasional swimmers who wish to join the group still must pay a small fee.

If you don’t want to show up for the early morning training you can of course swim at any time and Swimmer’s beach is still the usual starting point.

Dover ferry_MG_1671-resized
Ferries also enter through the harbour wall as well as entries to the north and south.

There are three very important things to note about Dover beach:

  • The large tidal range of the Channel
  • The steep beach is shingle not sand
  • The entire harbour in NOT open to swimmers

Dover Sandals IMG_0105_modified

Dover can and swimmers slipway DSCF4104-resizedCombine the first two factors and you will be entering the water at any point on a steep beach. At very low tide there is a sand bottom and climbing the shingle is a very uncomfortable or even painful experience at any time of the tide and sandals are essential, along with someone to throw them down to you or collect them. This is a lesson that once learned is rarely forgotten. There is a concrete and stone slipway to the right of Swimmers Beach which can also be used for entry and exit, but instead of rocky is extremely slippery and there is a railing that runs across the end that is often submerged, so great care should be taken when entering that way.

One of my favourite things about swimming in Dover, is the underwater sound of the stone shingle shifting and slipping.

Swim range marking on (north/left) Ferry Pier
Parallel white swim range marking on (north/left) Ferry Pier

Over the years tensions about possible hazards and safety issues between Dover Authorities and swimmers was reduced by the introduction of an allowed range for swimmers in the Harbour. This outer limit of this range is marked by a pair of parallel white lines on the ferry and Prince of Wales piers. These can be seen from land but from either side of the harbour. There are two different signs indicating range but they don’t entirely agree as one is older.

Outside swim range markings on the Prince of Wales pier
Parallel outside swim range markings on the Prince of Wales pier. The clock-tower is out of view to the right from this angle.

The easiest way when heading to the north (left) end of the harbour is to aim for the corner between the esplanade and the pier. At the south (right) end the Harbour Clock-tower roughly marks the range and is easy to see except in late afternoon when you can just swim toward the Sun. The safe way to link these points is swim a fixed distance from the shore as it curves around from North-east to South-west.

Most of Dover Harbour from Dover Castle
Most of Dover Harbour from Dover Castle

The water in Dover Harbour is generally murky.  On occasion it can be impossible to see your hands, or even your upper arms. It is also very salty which can certainly require some adjustment and having some liquids ready after swimming is essential.

There is no fixed direction as swimmers can approach the beach from either direction. Swimmers usually swim the full range from pier to pier and care should be given to sight forward regularly to avoid head-on collisions. There are also marking poles (cans) along the beach section which protrude above high tide that should be avoided at the bottom end of beach retaining groins running down the shingle into the water.

The shingle beach, groins, cans, clocktower & pier.
The shingle beach, groins, cans, clock tower & pier at low  tide.

Despite the long piers and outer harbour wall protecting the harbour, because of the size of the entire harbour, strong winds can buffet the beach and result in unswimmable conditions. South-westerly winds cam cause the notorious (to anyone who has swim them) washing machine conditions at the north (ferry) side of the harbour and significant reflected waves result from both the ferry pier and the esplanade resulting in interesting swimming.

Outside of swimming range delineated by red line
Outside of swimming range delineated by red line – click for larger

The harbour is also used for rowing and dingy sailing and training. The only time I’ve seen a jet ski enter it was rapidly removed by Dover Harbour Police, though I am unsure of the regulations surrounding powercraft, I believe they are not allowed within the wider recreational area. (Dover is also the only port in the UK with its own dedicated police force, separate from the local police force).

The Captain Webb memorial is north of Swimmer’s Beach on the far side of the road , instead of logically in front of the sea.

During the summer months the Sport Complex at the far end of the beach from Swimmer’s Beach is open for showers and lockers for swimmers, (but I don’t know the cost or time limitations as I’ve never used it).

Steep stone banks-resized
The steep shingle at Swimmer’s Beach
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4 thoughts on “A guide to Dover for swimmers – Part 1 – Dover Harbour”

    1. Owen & Carol are over there this week with four others, Irish two-way relay record attempt, probably next Saturday. I was out Observing yesterday, Rob set a new Around Valentia Island record, taking it off Ned. We’re having weather here like hasn’t been seen in a decade, the Distance Camp swimmer’s big problem will be sunburn!

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