As I load my bag into the car Venus is shining brightly in an eastern sky that is just beginning to lighten and high above me the baleful red eye of Betelgeuse still shines brightly. The thermometer on the dash of the car beeps for the first time in maybe six months to tell me the temperature is 3.5C. The air is perfectly still.
A few miles later as I unload my bag Betelgeuse has winked out whilst Venus is fading as the sky brightens bluer and yet the woods seem even darker than yesterday morning. An owl hoots far off in the trees to my right to be answered by the keening of a buzzard directly above me. I am not however alone in this dawn madness and one of the regular dog walkers passes me. “You’re not going swimming?” “Of course.” “You’re mad.” He may have a point. Meanwhile far off at the turn of the path a will-o-the-wisp light from a jogger’s headtorch flicks amongst the trees and is lost.
The river is indistinguishable from yesterday, flowing fast, flecked with whirling streaks of bubbles and just covering the top ‘step’. I am double swimsuited (again) and once more though the water (11.9C I find out later) needles at my exposed arms and legs there is a distinct warmth across my chest and stomach. “But is this just reinventing the wetsuit?” someone posted as a reply to my comments on social media yesterday. Well yes, sort of, except I can put on 2 swimsuits under my clothes to drive down and 2 wet swimsuits are easier to pack up and dry later than a wetsuit. Otherwise, yes I have reinvented the wetsuit.
It’s effective though and 40 minutes later having swum through a sunrise that no longer graces the river’s surface with any direct sunlight in stark contrast to just 2 weeks ago I climb out feeling reasonably warm with only very minor shivers to follow, but icy blocks for feet. Having said a brief ‘Hi’ to the other regular morning dipper I stamp off through the sun dappled woods in an effort to pound some warmth back into frozen toes. Distantly the church clock chimes for eight.
I have fully recovered by lunchtime and have a window of opportunity which takes me to St Mary’s Bay. Conditions are near perfect with the outward swim to Durl Head in the sheltered lee of the cliffs but then wind and current will carry us across the bay to Sharkham and then in past Mussel Rock. ‘Us’, for I am not alone. I have been joined by Dave who swims locally but has not previously had the opportunity to swim out to Durl Head and Anthony who is on a bit of a holiday, is a relative newcomer to outdoor swimming and is tackling this as his first full on sea swim.. For a first outing it is a bold move being 1.5 miles around with little opportunity to exit early. There are plenty of experienced sea swimmers who would think carefully about this swim and so they should, I have, matching wind, tides and currents for optimum safety.
50m out from the beach and we leave behind the sand filled water and as sharply as if it were a line drawn in the sand pass into the bright clear greeny-blue water of the open bay. We take it gently out to Durl Head and whilst I may have done this a dozen times before it is a gorgeous sun filled day in calm water and to be enjoyed as if it were the first time.
Dave is not keen to swim the full circuit. I personally have no issues with swimming by myself and respect Dave’s judgment that he is quite happy to take it slowly and swim back in to the beach in the sheltered water by himself. Anthony and I strike out for Sharkham Point. It is only the 3rd of October but the 5 knot buoy has been taken in on the deadline with the coming of autumn sometime between Thursday and today. As we leave the lee of the land the sea becomes splashier but from behind us and not in our faces. We also pick up the current and from half way across the pace towards the headland accelerates appreciably.
Where the current meets the headland the water is in part turned in towards the beach and all the while the wind is slackening as we move into the lee of the land again. Treading water just outside Mussel Rock to grab a few snaps of Anthony I line up the end of the rock with a marker on the far cliff. A wave lifts me up a few inches and sweeps me in towards the beach, and again, and again and it is evident that I am moving at quite a pace with no effort. No effort however means no warmth and as I get into the still water I go flat out for the final few 100 meters so that Dave and I arrive almost simultaneously back at our start point.
We are ready to head back to the cars when the seal pops his head up. I have mixed feelings about seals and possibly as this could be the one who once took a hefty ‘nip’ at my ankle on this same beach the feeling is not entirely filled with love. As we walk down the beach he follows us no more than 10m out from the tide line, but he does seem to have a 6th sense for when Anthony has his camera ready and manages to roll and duck out of shot every time bar the last.
We part in the car park in gloriously warm sunshine, but there was a nip in the water today and the 5 knot buoys are taken in for a reason, there will not be many more opportunities to make this circuit this year.