Big Surf

The easterly breezes have persisted and strengthened and any thoughts of getting to the sea for a swim are no more than flights of fancy.  Bob, bounce or even frolic maybe, but swim, not a chance.  Frustratingly then the skies are clear and blue and the sunshine pleasantly warm.

The westerly facing coasts should however be relatively sheltered and as I have not done much to expand my Wild Swimming Devon & Cornwall map of late so I’m on a road trip to Bude.

It must be 25 years at least since I was last in Bude but little has changed more than superficially.  The tree at the bottom of the high street is taller and the ‘tat’ in the shops is ‘tattier’.  But it’s true.

It’s about high tide at the pool and waves periodically wash over the wall with an occasional larger one flinging over a fountain of spray.  And the changing place on the edge of the pool is almost entirely sheltered from the wind, whilst being in full sunshine.  My plan has clearly paid off.

I slip and slide down the concrete slope until I reach knee depth water and feel sand and pebbles under my toes.  The thermometer said 7°C, well in the sunshine and in the shallows maybe but it is colder than that and chatting with Lizzie one of the local swimmers afterwards she says 5°.  I’m going with 5 as I set off energetically towards the far end of the pool and by the time I reach the end I have hardened to it.

Six lengths and about 500m however are quite enough and I nip out to grab the camera as the waves have got much bigger.  A couple slosh curtains of water into the pool from off the flat top of the wall and then the one I’m waiting for bursts over the wall in a wave of white foam which sizzles across the pool and swamps me.  Bobbing about in the water not swimming has got me chilled.  I get dressed but then continue to faff about taking photos until my hands shake uncontrollably and my fingertips are numb.

It is only a 15 minute drive to Widemouth Bay.  Here the waves are crashing on the beach in long lines of surf with their crests thrown back in streaming veils by the offshore breeze.  There is no shelter here so I change in the van, throw my hoodie over the top and walk barefoot to the tideline.  There are a few surfers but I am the only swimmer.  However, there is no real chance of swimming each wave knocks me off my feet and all I can manage is a half dozen strokes between each wave.  Even ducking under the breaking waves does not move me forward and chilled once more after 15 minutes I retire to the comfort of a fresh dry towel and the relative warmth of the van.

I’ll have to take a look at the map back home and pick out some more north coast swim spots as that has been far too uch fun not to do it again soon.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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Razorbill

The gannets that were so much a feature of the bay through January have moved on.  That is possibly not a surprise as there can only be just so many fish in the sea and the assault from the air was relentless.  However as I set off from St Mary’s Beach there were 2 or 3 far out in the open water.

The first 50m out from the beach always seems hardest, obviously there is a surf and as a consequence the water always carries a lot of stirred up sand making it opaque so that progress seems slow and there is always the lurking fear of a surprise seal attack.  The divide between sandy and clear water is often almost as sharp as if it has been scratched out with a knife as it appears today.

‘Out here’ the sea in the sunshine holds the deepest shade of greeny-blue and the sun takes the edge off the cold.  It is however much bumpier than it appeared from the beach and I am getting bounced up and down more than I am going forward.  It doesn’t matter I am only in it for the fun of it today.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I’m not really paying attention and nor it seems is the razorbill.  I’ve got just so close several times before but the bird has a sly way of turning away so it is always looking over its shoulder with a clear line of escape.  Today though it surfaces almost within grasp and I finally get a clear look at the sturdy beak that gives it the name.  With a startled fluster of feathers the bird dives and I don’t see it again.

I swim off in the direction of Mussel Rock but out of the shelter of the headland the sea gets dramatically rougher in no time at all.  But out here is where the gannets are and one comes in low in a majestic sweep that turns up and without a wing beat carries the bird high and far out to sea, looping its way out past Sharkham Point.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

However, I’m tired of being thrown about so it’s time to pull my goggles time and head back in and surprisingly it has been almost 30 minutes swimming.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Seasonal Variations: Easterly Breeze.

It is something of a case of clouds and silver linings depending on where you stand.  For the most part the South-West of England receives wind off the North Atlantic that keeps us a lot warmer than we should be at this latitude all year around.  Torbay is doubly blessed and both sea and weather temperature generally are several degrees warmer than other places as little as 10 miles away.  It has to be said then that whilst others attempting the Polar Bear Challenge have been braving water temperatures as low as 1 or 2°C, the sea here is still 7 or 8°C.  But then in February we usually get a run of colder easterly winds.

The cloud side of that is that the wind is colder than expected and blows onshore and this last week the sea has been unswimable in any meaningful sense.  Paddle and bounce about like you are in a washing machine maybe, but a proper swim has been out of the question.  The silver lining side for a beachcombing obsessive like me is that there are unusual finds amongst the litter.  On Tuesday it was a lemon, absolutely nothing wrong with it so it probably had not come far but nonetheless.  On Friday it was Lego bricks, plural, finding a single brick around here is almost unheard of, but 2 on one tide!

A few years ago the easterlies were strong and went on almost solidly for a month and the beaches were strewn with driftwood, another great find.  This year however it seems to be a day or three here and there. 

Today once again there is not a breath of wind and at dawn there is not a cloud in the sky so I am up and off to Watcombe once again.  It’s low tide at the beach, the sun is a finger width above the horizon and the water is flat.  Even when people say the sea is flat calm there is often an underlying swell but not today it has been pressed so that even the creases have been ironed out.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I swim full tilt straight out from the beach.  The solitary cloud that spattered me with icy drops as I changed has drifted out to sea and covered up the sun giving an eerie light that only adds further to the unsettlingly flat sea.  This cannot be right.

I’m 15 minutes out from the beach which is worth about 600m.  A solitary gannet flies overhead, the colony of 100+ birds that were a daily feature 2 weeks ago seems to have dispersed.  I stop swimming; this has finally got to me.  The sea is flat.  Of course lakes and reservoirs are flat too but that’s expected, this is not.  There is genuinely not even the slightest swell and the ripples made by my swimming and those by the slight breeze criss-cross.  It looks like the sea has been tiled.

The water however has a stunning aquamarine tint that I associate with Watcombe as with nowhere else.  Flipping on my back I turn and kick shore wards throwing up great gouts of water against the sun.  It is however a little too chilly to spend too long messing about I’m a long way from the beach.  Far, far away on the beach a solitary figure muffled against the chill is leaning on the railing watching their dog on the sand and very possibly me.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Enclosed by the bay once more I swim in to the beach and try to get to my feet.  The sand is shifting where I step and I have no feeling in my feet at all, the rest of me is fine, but not my feet and I stagger and lurch in the shallows and weave drunkenly up the beach. And now the partner of the cloud that rained on me earlier is back and spattering me with icy drops again.

Hmmm, no where’s the silver lining in that?

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Low, Low Tide

The biggest spring tides are always a few days after the full moon or new moon with those after the new moon being slightly bigger due to the summation of the gravitational effects of sun and moon.  And for reasons not entirely clear to me the spring tides in February are the biggest of the year (answers in a comment please).  Today I have arrived at St Mary’s Bay almost spot on low tide and the magnitude can be gauged by the fact that there is barely a 3m wide strip of water separating the sand from Mussel Rock and the water is little more than a few inches deep at that.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

As I walk off along the surf line razor clams disturbed by my footfalls draw speedily down into the sand sending up jets of water as much as 18 inches high and leave only a shallow depression rapidly filling with wet sand.  Squirt, squirt, squirt squirt squirt; it is mildly amusing to say the least.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The tide however is turning and as I change to swim the sea is creeping wave upon wave further across the sand.  The sea is chill, I’d guess till close to 8°C and having been jogging I’m a little cautious that I may get chilled faster than usual.  Nevertheless I’m soon settled in and tracing a wide triangle out and across the bay.

I am however stalking a bird.  This one, or one similar was here last week and I didn’t get a close enough look to tell which it was and I’m not going to get close enough today either.  It’s an auk of some kind but as I swim along casually in its general direction, pretending I’m not looking, it swims nonchalantly in a spiral in the opposite direction.  It’s all about the beak shape and with the swell of the sea I really can’t see that clearly.  Bird, I know where you live and I will be back.

Meanwhile it’s back to the beach for me.  It’s been lovely in the clear green water and not too chill, but the clouds are sweeping in, there’s a hint of rain about the place and it will be a lot colder on the beach than in the water.  It’s best to quit before I regret staying and anyway that’s been my second polar bear challenge swim for February, and then some.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

St Brighid’s Day

 

The full moon from last night still hangs in the western sky and is sufficiently bright that there is only a false dawn as the sun brightened eastern sky meets the moon half way.  Nevertheless beneath the tight lattice of tree branches darkness temporarily holds the field and I have to tread carefully down the pathway strewn with the slippery remnants of autumn leaves.  There is not a sound, breathless, the trees stand still and cut out any sound from the distant road.  Mine was the only car in the car park whilst the dog walkers remain in their centrally heated havens, but who can blame them as it is bitterly chill and even the birds cannot raise a dawn chorus.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It is high tide at Watcombe and almost imperceptible waves ripple against the base of the sea wall leaving not an inch of sand exposed.  The sky meanwhile resembles an accident in a paint factory with reds, oranges and yellows splashed over blue fading to purple and a few grey clouds.  Sunrise is still 10 minutes away but I hurry into the water and push hard into open water to see the sun at its best.

Even when I can see it the seal’s head is dark against the rocks, it must have been some 6th sense that made me scan the water in its direction.  However after I splash energetically with my arms and legs; a signal that seems to mean ‘I don’t want to play’, it is content to roll on its back exposing a pale mottled belly to watch me swim by.

The clouds across the horizon are now lined with gold and pale rays rise into the sky whilst the softly swelling surface of the aquamarine water is smeared with colours that flow, melt and reform.  Meanwhile the windows of the houses along the cliff top of Babbacombe Bay shine out and are answered by pinpricks of light stretching around the coast past Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton and beyond.

I’ve been pootling about and admiring the view and the current has carried me across the mouth of the bay and now the headland is closing up the view of the beach, I’ll be in Exmouth if I’m not careful.  I am also now coming to realize exactly how cold the water is, about 8°C at a guess and over the past weeks and months my guesses have been pretty much spot on.

It’s a full on 10 minute swim back in and it looks like I have had the best of the day for the time being at least as there’s a bank of thin cloud across the sun turning it hazy.  What’s more it has turned noticeably chillier as I stamp back up the steep slope to the car in the hope of stirring some feeling back into my toes.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I do suffer extreme beach envy when I see photos other people post of white sandy beaches stretching unblemished to a sun bleached horizon under a tropical blue sky, where the sea is crystal clear and packed with aquatic life, but here has its moments too, count that as a great start to February’s polar bear challenge.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall