The Last Polar Bear

I did my second for March and therefore final qualifying swim of the polar bear challenge back in the first week of the month and there have probably been 10 or more since.  However, it has been a poor swim month due to the weather, notwithstanding swimming at Sharrah Pool in the snow, another qualifier.  However I claimed the first official swim of the 2017/18 challenge just after dawn on 1st Nov and figured I’d try to claim the last with a sunset and blue moon swim.  Again the weather had other ideas.

It had been blowing and raining pretty much since Thursday and all the while I’ve had a nasty cold too.  Some people say you shouldn’t swim with a cold, but both running and swimming I qualify that by saying just so long as it’s only a head cold you’ll be fine.  You may feel awful, but you’ll be fine.  I feel awful, but the clouds are clearing a little and awful is not going to stop me.

The beach beneath Hope’s Nose is of course deserted though the fresh boot marks in the mud of the path tell a tale of someone coming and going.  The shore is sheltered from the breeze and the water slides softly on and off the pebbles and rocks.  I’ve walked to the far end of the beach and have begun a pick up of plastic bottles and other trash when I spot the boat fender.  And it’s a nice one, nearly new, in a dark blue jacket with new rope too, someone is wishing they could tie proper knots; this should be worth an exchange for a bottle of wine.

I soon have a bag full of rubbish.  The clouds are obviously not going to clear but the skyline over Torquay is a brightly glowing yellow band which leaves Thatcher Rock as a striking silhouette.  And thankfully the seal that was lazing just off the rocks appears to have gone.

Across the bay and back, that’s the plan, considerably more than the 200m required of the challenge (about 5x more), but if you are going to get wet you may as well get decently wet.  At first the water is dark beneath but once the sea bed falls away the water infuses with a clear green tint and though the wind is in my face I’m soon nearing the far headland.  Two seagulls are perched on a rock and I have decided that when they fly off that’s me done.  The first takes to the air whilst the second shuffles its feet nervously.  I’m looking at the people silhouetted on the next headland I guess with my bright pink Swim Secure tow float they can see me too and then the gull raises its wings, lifts off without a wingbeat and glides past me with an angry squawk.

Instead of just turning around I swim out a little towards Thatcher Rock to see the fading sunset and I spot a bird I don’t immediately recognize.  It lets me swim quite close before diving under the water.  It’s a shag, with a very pronounced crest of feathers, that’s what threw me.  I am mid-way between shore and Thatcher Rock and seriously contemplate swimming out but the light is already fading from the sky.

With the breeze behind me it is a more pleasant swim back and I go a little faster which is just as well because my left hand has got very chilled.  I swim in to the rocks and wade up the inclined slope of one large flat boulder to my clothes.  That was a great way to finish the challenge, roll on November, but not too quickly.

wild swimming
wild swimming

It turns out the fender costs about £45 new and the jacket £25 so even with a little hole in the jacket, the unblemished fender must be worth more than a bottle of wine.  Ebay it is then.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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My Little Piece of the Mediterranean

The last few feet onto the beach are the trickiest down a steep slope of solid packed mud with a veneer of loose gravel flakes poised to slip away from beneath a foot which would send me tumbling into the rocks.  There used to be a much easier way but that bit of hillside slid down to the beach a few years ago.  But I’m there and it is worth it every time.

wild swimming
wild swimming

The beach is small and the warm sand has that sea salt smell whilst a scent of pine drifts down the hillside from above.  It is the dark pines that give this bay its Mediterranean feel and I know of no place else along this coast that matches this distinct appearance.  I strip down to my swimming kit draping my clothes over a sand polished tree trunk whilst squinting out over the blue water to the banks of billowing clouds.

wild swimming
wild swimming

Into the water and I swim out past the headland.  There is more breeze out here and the water whips into my face whilst the swell flings gouts of foaming water into the gaps between the jumbled boulders.  A yacht is sailing into the River Dart estuary, heeling over, slowing righting then being battered down once more by a fresh gust.  That lurching I know from experience is not pleasant sailing.

I swim in the clear green water across to the far side of the bay where two oyster catchers come circling low over the water making their piercing cry before swooping down into a nook between the rocks.  Maybe they have a nest.  That reminds me that I should try and get a look in at the cormorant nest at Elberry, the hen bird was sat on eggs a few weeks ago and I am guessing there should be chicks now.

Drawing my swim out far longer than I actually have time for I zig-zag a course back towards the beach until finally the water becomes cloudy with stirred up sand and the swell lifts be onto my feet and onto the beach.  I grab my shoes and clothes and dry and change on top of a rock where I can dangle my feet into the waves to rinse the sand from between my toes.

Finally I stuff my bag with litter, mostly torn and shredded plastic bottles but with a few chunks of polystyrene too and I’m on my way again.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Quickest Possible Dip

On the beach beneath the high cliffs the air is almost completely still and when the sun breaks fitfully through the clouds the temperature rockets and then crashes as the cloud sweeps in again.  The headland shelters the beach, but out there where the rocks poke through the surface an occasional white topping of foam gives a hint that elsewhere there is a bit of a swell.

I find Long Sands a fascinating beach, always changing.  Today it lives up to its name a full sweep of sand except at the far end when the surface is a jumble of flat rock slabs.  But at other times the sand can vanish completely exposing the smoothed bed rock or the beach can become an endless field of hard pebbles.  And the beach level rises and falls.  There is a little crevice in the rock where I have sometimes tucked driftwood or finds when I’ve had too much to carry.  Sometimes it is above head height, other times at knee height.

wild swimming
wild swimming

I wade into the still, clear water over sand that feels spongy beneath my feet and set off towards the rocks at the end of the headland.  As I approach I begin to sense the rise and fall of the swell and I can see into Scabbacombe Beach and the other way up the coast the headland that shelters Mansands.  I head that way and then back in.  It has been little more than a 10 minute dip but sometimes that’s enough and now I can sit in the sunshine and brush the sand from between my toes in complete isolation.

wild swimming
wild swimming

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Clock Watching

In summer when the temperature all around is higher I don’t mind setting off to swim at sunrise, but in winter when it’s 6°C in the water and there’s frost on the beach I am less keen.  And this has been a very drawn out winter.  But the clocks changed last night to summer time moving the hour on by one and with sunrise effectively jumping forward too I’m down at the beach just a little after sunrise.  Sadly however the clouds have formed a grey and even blanket overhead.

I swim out in the flat calm water as the clouds brighten little by little.  This is a dramatic coast of cherry red cliffs, caves and clear green-blue water when the sun shines but right now it is as limpid as damp newspaper. I’m far enough out that I can see into the next bay, drifting that way towards the headland on the off chance that there may be something that needs to be salvaged but the beach is a clean sweep of dove grey pebbles and on that note I head back in, now forcing my way against the current until I’m in the lee of the other headland.

wild swimming
wild swimming

My feet have barely touched the beach when sunlight breaks across the beach as the sun lifts above the distant receding clouds.  It would have been nice if it had happen 20 minutes ago but now is just perfect, I’m cold and it is amazing how much warmth there is in this early spring, early morning sun, I’m happy with that.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The last day of winter

Summer is coming, but to be honest though it is the equinox and first day of spring in these parts tomorrow you could be forgiven for thinking this is still mid-winter.  We don’t get much snow in South-West England, well not in recent years anyway and it is possibly as much as 40 years since there has been snow on this scale locally.  Then twice in 2 weeks, but I am not complaining.

I have long harboured a whimsical notion of swimming at Sharrah Pool on the moorland section of the River Dart when there is snow on the ground.  The problem has been not only a lack of snow but, as 3 years ago when there has been snow, by the time my pathetic car will tackle the roads the warmth in the river has seen off the snow in the valley.  These conditions are however perfect for whilst there is 12 inches of snow in a “deep and crisp and even” layer across my garden it didn’t properly settled on the roads and I get to the New Bridge car park without difficulty.  Nevertheless as I rush along the riverside track as fast as possible given the abundant photo opportunities and following a solitary set of footprints all around there is a steady drip, drip of thawing winter.

wild swimming
wild swimming

Turning from the track onto the side path I have that joy of making the first footsteps in virgin snow and I know I’m grinning like an idiot and I’m photographing every twist and turn of a path that I have taken 100s of times in the past as if it was my very first outing.

Yes!  The footprints I rejoined on the track have got to Sharrah but then for some inexplicable (but much appreciated) reason gone off through the trees.  The river bank is pristine.  And the day is improving second by second as the holes in the clouds over head coalesce into gaps, into rents and then it is blue sky all the way, just dotted with the fluffiest white clouds.  I’m photographing everything with 2 cameras just in case.

wild swimming
wild swimming

Careful not to make tracks I dunk the thermometer into the river as I get changed.  It nudges up from an air temperature of -1.7°C to 3.7°C in the water, this is going to be a full on polar bear swim.  A few selfies on the big diving rock whilst trying not to slip off, which would hurt a lot, and then I wade into the water.  There is clearly something very wrong with anyone who wades into water this cold and thinks ‘oh, that’s not so bad’.

I am now using camera number 3, taking advantage of the wide angle perspective and I tread water repeatedly as I swim up the pool to the swoosh.  The river is moderately high and the swoosh is swooshier than usual.  I feel for the rock I know is there under the churning bubbles, pause, click, click, click, and then I launch myself into the flow.

It is a well known fact that people have just about neutral buoyancy in fresh water, but when a substantial part of the water has been replaced by bubbles that no longer applies.  I vanish under the ‘surface’ (it’s hard to be exactly sure where the water filled with bubbles becomes air filled with splashed water) and of course lifting my arm holding the camera up high to get a record of this madness only serves to lower me further under the water.  With my free arm I push myself around the corner, not wanting to get caught beneath the overhang, and then I am shot down the pool and back to where I started, not so much swimming as ‘floating with style’.  I ‘float’ on down to the shallows, click, click, click and then swim back to the diving rock (not today).  I dash through the snow, switch cameras and I’m back in the water to do the whole thing over again.

Now I stumble from the water.  The chill has caught up with me but only in my left hand which is as painful as a very painful thing indeed.  I’m grinding my teeth as I strip and dry (ankle deep in the snow) and then begin to fight my way damply into layers of clothes.  My left hand is as good as useless, why did I wear a shirt with buttons?  The hell with the buttons!  Layers, put on more layers: fleece, scarf and hat.  Well that’s the top end covered up and I’m sure anyone watching would find that very amusing.

Finally, but my hands are refusing to cooperate and tying the laces of my boots takes 3 attempts for each foot, which is frustrating when I know what I need to be doing is getting going and warming up.  But even when I’m finally ready to go I can’t help myself and progress is again punctuated: click, click, click.

I don’t actually notice when the shivering stops but I am exactly half way back to the car when all of a sudden my hands warm up, a moment that is almost but not quite the best part of the whole outing.  And tomorrow it’s spring.  Hmm, we shall see.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Elberry sunshine after the storm

wild swimming
wild swimming

Two organized mass beach cleans and no doubt countless 2 minute beach cleans have almost cleared Elberry Beach of the wreckage from the destroyed kiosk at Shoalstone Pool and the devastated conservatory of the Breakwater Bistro.  And now the large piles of bin bags and general waste are being hauled away bit by bit, day by day.  That leaves just a remodeled beach, several piles of scrap wood and a couple of tree trunks, and I have intentions towards some of that, which is in part why I am back.

Today the beach is also sheltered form the wicked chill breeze, well mostly, it is in the far corner where I am getting changed anyway and I’m in the sunshine too.  I swam here yesterday and the sea was quite calm but there was nowhere out of the breeze and no sunshine either.  No surprise then that I am here to take full advantage of the change of fortunes.

In the way that it happens my eyes begin to tune in to the glass fragments amongst the pebbles as I am changing and the broken bucket I picked up starts to fill: clink, clink, clink.  The more you look the more you see in green, brown and ‘clear’, some frosted, some fresh faced with sharp edges.  I have picked up sea glass here before but this is madness and I begin to wonder what storm process brought so much to the surface of the beach.  I also wonder how soon it will be before I tread on a sharp bit.

I am glad then to be buoyed up by the aquamarine water, but it feels considerably colder than yesterday despite the sunshine or maybe that’s it, the contrast with the warm beach simply makes the water feel colder.  I have gone no more than ½ way along the beach than the first walker stops to stare.

wild swimming
wild swimming

I zig-zag back and forth along the beach twice, it takes a little over 20 minutes to cover about 700m with progress slowed by the photo opportunities offered by such a perfect setting.  Yesterday I swam further out and did 500m but at a substantially faster rate.  Today though I now have 2 fan clubs, one gathered on and around the bench on the headland, the other sat on the pebbles.

I stagger back up the beach with the small rounded stones digging painfully into my numbed feet.  I’m also cold and strip off disregarding the fan club.  I’m the same pink shade as a boiled lobster and shivering like a leaf, it’s not a pretty sight but both times I shoot a glance at my fan club the woman is watching me right back.  God knows why, it cannot be a pretty sight as I fight my damp clammy skin into clingy clothes.  But then I’m done.

I hoist a length of wood onto one shoulder and grab the bucket with it’s collection of glass and general litter in the other and stamp my warming way back to the car.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Swimsecure Dry Bag Tow Float

I have never been entirely convinced about the need for any sort of swimming tow float.  In part that was because I was apprehensive about having something towing along between my legs and partly because I could not imagine what I would so desperately need to take along when swimming.  Other people talk about phones, water bottles or car keys.  Then again my approach to the security of personal possessions is haphazard.  I either spread my stuff out and leave it on the presumption that someone might pick up a bag but they are unlikely to pack it first and will assume there are no valuables or I tuck my car keys into a nook in a wall, behind a bush or even just under a stone.  It is a game of chance however the places I swim are not high crime.

The other aspect of a tow float is of course simply to be seen and that for me is something of a double edged sword.  Again whilst the places I often swim are more ‘obscure’ and therefore exempt from the jet skies and pleasure boats that have become a plague in recent years, that obscurity does mean that any boat that may pass by is unlikely to be keeping a lookout for a swimmer.  However there have been several near misses with jet skis for other swimmers even on ‘swimming’ beaches this year.  Furthermore, as more swimmers use brightly visible floats, those without have become almost invisible.

swim secure dry bag tow float
swim secure dry bag tow float

Enter on the scene the Swimsecure combined dry bag and tow float.  Taking it from the package I had to reach for sunglasses, the pink colour is beyond bright, it is stellar.  No-one could possibly miss it, and the pink colour distinguishes it clearly from the many lobster pot floats, it’s a clear statement ‘Swimmer Over Here!’.    My first impression is also that the material is very high quality and this has been made to do its job in all the conditions a person could reasonably swim in.  In addition the inner can readily be washed clean.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The capacity is 18 litres though that probably reduces to about half with the neck rolled down.  Even so there is room enough for a towel, car keys, phone, a pair of shoes, sunglasses and paperback, should you find you need all these.

Having put items into the bag and rolled and fastened the neck the bag is inflated by blowing into the non-return valves for the independent front and back compartments.  The float is then attached through either carry handle to a short leash and looped onto the waist strap.  A set of D rings fitted beside the clip where the bag top rolls down could also be used to attach the leash using the karabiner provided.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I have now had an opportunity to use the float in calm and rough conditions, still air and strong winds, swimming crawl and breast stroke.  Under all these conditions the float has been all but unnoticeable whilst swimming without catching on arms or legs and offering no drag.  The float rides high in the water and the contents have remained bone dry.

After use to remove the contents and pack away simply remove the non-return valves.

Whilst I cannot promise to use it for every swim the advantages are obvious and having had a couple of boat near misses myself not to use it would be foolish.  However where I am really looking forward to using it will be the ability to jog to a spot swim across a bay and then jog back with dry shoes, I have plans already so roll on summer.

All I can really say in conclusion is ‘why did I not get one sooner?’.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall