I read a post by someone the other day that said something to the effect of ‘it’s a really rough beach, all pebbles, and footwear is essential’. Which is odd, as I swim at that same beach a lot and whilst it is pebbles they are all smooth. When it comes to what is seen as necessary kit then some of it is highly personal and is about boosting self-confidence.
Thoughts at this time of year with the temperature falling turn inevitably to winter essentials. I have never felt the need for any sort of footwear irrespective of temperature, duration or conditions underfoot (though on that score I have cut my feet so many times I think they are now mostly past it).
I do sometimes wear gloves but that’s not about temperature it is because of a long standing problem from broken bones in my hand which from time to time comes back to haunt me and means something like picking up a coffee cup is quite painful (I keep straws handy just in case) and the repeated push of water on my hand can be very painful, the gloves just give support, though actually, as today, strapping my thumb to my forefinger with a hair band does just as well if not better.
I will swim on as the temperature drops, managing about 30 minutes at 7-8°C before reaching for the wetsuit, but around our bit of coast that is about where the temperature bottoms out. And I will continue to swim shorter times, much shorter times, without the wetsuit in the river which can get down to zero C.
Nevertheless it is personal preference but if you feel footwear and/or gloves and/or woolly hat and/or anything works for you then it works for you there is no universal right or wrong.
A good Article on Hypothermia appeared in my reading list recently. The single most important point in this article is that hypothermia takes time a message I have been pushing for years. However, time and again alarmist and misleading information is put about by reputable organizations up to and including the RNLI that suggests hypothermia can set in or kill you in just a few minutes.
As the article explains there is a gasp reflex (cold shock reflex) from sudden immersion in cold water (walk into a cold shower if you want to try this) and clearly if your face is underwater that can be almost instantly fatal.
Hypothermia takes time, though the exact time will vary with water temperature, alcohol consumption, natural body insulation, and simply how warm you are to start with. Nevertheless as the article points out, long before full hypothermia sets in ability becomes impaired so that you may well be unable to make even a short swim back to safety.
Perhaps the most relevant part for cold water swimmers concerns the description of the ‘recovery’ stage. It is all very well to say “wrap up, do not move, get warm”, but that is a luxury swimmers do not have. Arriving back on river bank or beach the imperative is to get warm as quickly as possible because the immediate problem is ‘afterdrop’.
After the exertion of swimming for a few moments all seems well, but removed from the water the response of the body is to once more circulate blood from the core back to the extremities that have been experiencing reduced blood flow in order to retain heat in the core. Now of course cold blood is circulating back into the core and the shivering and discomfort of afterdrop sets in. There is perhaps barely time from exiting the water until shivering becomes so severe that it becomes a challenge to tie shoe laces.
This is the point at which following the advice in the article one would sit still, drink warm tea and wait the shivers out. Some people do indeed go in for wrapping up in a swimming robe and/or hugging a hot water bottle or get in their car with the heater going. My problem with the latter is that all the layers just put on are as effective at keeping warmth out as warmth in. Besides recovering from the shivers can take an hour and who has that long to sit and warm up? Whilst driving with the shivers would I imagine be as dangerous as driving whilst drunk.
Therefore there is little choice left in the matter; if sitting still is not an option then getting moving is not a choice it is the only option. It is my preferred option. I am not suggesting attempting a half marathon, not wearing all those clothes anyway, but a good stomp certainly gets the warming up process started.
For local swimmers here in Devon this is a timely discussion. The temperature of the river water is down almost 5°C on just two weeks ago; 8.5°C yesterday afternoon in the sunshine but only 7.5°C this morning after the frost. The sea temperature has also started to drop, though it has stayed unseasonably ‘warm’ through October it is now sliding down past 15°C and will probably reach 5-6°C by mid-February. Meanwhile the river can get to minus figures. People will keep on swimming though so it is important to separate fact from fiction and focus on the real dangers and not hypothermia which is simply a word most people recognize but few seem to understand.
There was frost on the car windscreen this morning, the first of the season, but otherwise it was a perfect clear sky morning without any breeze. Honestly though after yesterday when it took several hours for me to warm through after swimming, why am I doing this again?
I must have been especially quiet getting changed on the river bank; where the water flowed by with barely a ripple and steamed with mist (Still Pool living up to its name again), because as I stepped into the water the otter that was sat 10 feet away on the bank obviously got its first hint that I was there. All I saw was the brown shape and sinuous tail sliding quickly into the water and then the trail of bubbles breaking the surface as it swam across the pool: classic! Like a total amateur though I watched the bubble trail thinking it will have to come up soon, but of course it was swimming well ahead of the bubbles so I didn’t see it again.
Until now my aim has been whenever possible to do three times up and back which, depending on the flow of the river gives a distance of between 175m to 205m each way (402m = ¼ mile). If the flow is less the distance is further as it is possible to start from the edge of the downstream shallows and get right up into the top end shallows. However, as the flow increases the shallows flow too fast to swim but though the distance diminishes the effort to swim upstream increases to a tipping point where the river becomes and endless pool and distance is no longer an issue as swim as hard as you like you will go nowhere.
Clearly if the flow is slight and the water is warm (we are talking July) then I could swim up but float back and that would be a zero-sum game where all the added effort put in swimming against the current is wiped out by the free ride back making it equivalent to swimming in still water. However at the endless pool end of the spectrum it is self evidently a non-zero-sum game as clearly if I go nowhere there is no free ride back to detract from the effort of swimming just to ‘stand’ still. But then what about the points in between?
What I have determined from longer sea swims is that my pace is consistently 40m to 44m/ minute. In the endless pool non-zero-sum game scenario in the river the pace is clearly zero meters / minute. Let’s assume then that in the river I could swim at the same pace as in the open sea equivalent to the average of the above figures ie 42m / minute. The assumption is however wrong on at least two grounds which are firstly with shallows and eddies it is not possible to get a steady pace as strokes get missed and secondly head on to a current stifles the stroke making it less efficient. Consequently I will take the 40m / minute figure as my maximum river pace.
In the zero-sum scenario (swim up, float back) it stands to reason that over a given distance my pace should equate to 40m / minute. Anything less than that moves me further into the non-zero-sum scenario to a maximum value where the pace is zero meters / minute.
Actually though what I have found is that even in summer the pace is around 35m / minute and today when the river flow is somewhere between summer and endless pool my pace is about 28m / minute. Furthermore I estimate that when the river is flowing at the maximum rate where it is possible to actually swim upstream that pace drops to 25m / minute and I exit the water feeling very worked out.
Why, you are wondering, is there such a big gap between zero and 25m / minute? It’s a fair point and in a perfect situation it should be a continuum, but the river flows faster and slower along the course depending on shallows or deeper water and where I set off to swim from the current is swiftest and so at all points between zero and 25 I simply cannot start swimming. What I need is a uniform channel with variable flow, maybe some sort of pool perhaps?
And this is what keeps my mind off the fact that I am swimming in 8°C water at 7:30 in the morning where it feels as though my fingers and toes have fallen off.
One of the local swimmers I meet with occasionally has a thing for ‘ice miles’. It is far worse than it sounds. The goal is to swim 1 mile in open water less than 4°C. Not content with doing it the once she has now done it three times. The most I have ever inadvertently managed was about ¾ mile in the sea at the end of November where the water was most probably about 10°C. After that I was literally a gibbering blob and the concentration required to tie my boot laces was like being back in kindergarten; this loop, where does it go?
Part of the ability to do that sort of swim is physical acclimatization. Part of it is bloody mindedness. I sometimes think of the trains in the Rev. Audrey books, “I can do it, I can do it”. Why I should want to remains an enigma.
Now however I have paid my £5 to do something I was probably going to do anyway so as to get a badge which I won’t have any clear idea what to do with. It will no doubt end up in the back of the drawer along with an aging collection of running medals. This is not ingratitude or modesty; I’m quite pleased to have done these things but once done it is in my nature to have quickly moved on to the next crazy venture. In this case to swim 200m in open water at least twice a month from November to March inclusive: The Polar Bear Challenge.
There are of course rules. Swimwear only (no neoprene, woolly hats, boots or gloves) though a simple swimming cap, goggles and ear plugs are permitted. As I am still breaststroke fixated the latter are superfluous. The need for an independent observer has been waived. Just as well, as no-one I know would be stupid enough to be stood on the river bank at a little after 7am with the air temperature nudging down towards 3°C to watch me swim.
The thermometer has stuck at 8.8°C. Mist drifts forlornly about the still surface of the river. Sunken leaves rise and fall out of view in the shadowy depths. Thankfully the clocks have ‘gone back’ and the sun has just risen and whereas this time last week I was blundering about in near darkness and tripping over tree roots now at least I can see, if only in shades of black (utterly black, black as midnight, as black as black can be, pitch black, etc) and grey.
Forget about an observer, why am I doing this? Though actually as I take the first strokes out around the sunken rocks it does not feel so cold and that is deeply worrying in itself.
I push sideways across the river through the flow that was diverted around the rocks and I am in the slower moving water under the far bank and pushing upstream gaining momentum as I pass under the leafless branches and above the sandy shallows. It is a short lived advantage and now I am again battling the current, my fingers are tingling, my lips chill instantly every time I get splashed in the face and the soles of my feet are going numb. Well I imagine that’s what’s happening, they hurt and if that is not down to going numb then they have instead fallen off.
Push, push, push, I can do it, I can do it, why am I doing it? But now (I have recently decided to embrace the modern trend of using ‘but’ or ‘and’ as acceptable ways in which to begin a sentence. This is modern language evolving. However said evolution does not include the use of ‘your’ as a substitute for ‘you’re’ and I will rain down retribution on the next apostrophe ignorant person I see doing so) I am in the part of the river where there is little or no flow due to some quirk of the river bed and I surge forward again.
For almost 5 meters but then however I reach the top shallows where my knees bump against occasional rounded stones, which constricts my swimming style to more of a thrash than stroke. The surface of the river jiggles and splashes but I can gain a little advantage by moving towards the middle of the river, not too far just into a Goldilocks zone between patella splitting rocks and the full current that would sweep me back to Square 1.
I am now puffing like a steam train as well as sounding like one and each breath shoots out a cloud of vapour. I will do it, I will do it. Three meters, two meters, one meter, through the cross current and yay into the slack water in the lee of the Dipper Stone. That is as far as I can go as there is no depth of water only pebbles.
It is probably as well I am unobserved because now I’m stood little more than ankle deep in the middle of the river taking photos whilst my lobster pink skin steams.
Swim on, there’s another 175m yet to go back to my towel and that will be day 1 swim 1 completed.
The silhouettes of the branches are emerging from the darkness against the lightening sky whilst amongst the trees all is darkness so that the multi-hued autumn leaves that form a carpet strewn across the ground are no more than a pixilated mat in shades of grey. Walking from the clearing under the canopy of trees the silence and darkness envelopes everything. Away in the woods a pair of owls call and continue to do so until they fade from hearing. That’s when they are at their most fearsome; when you can no loner hear them stalking you.
Many people I know are afraid to go down to the woods to play and the idea of woods in darkness would terrify them. Maybe it is those killer owls. The most dangerous thing in these woods is me and that be good enough reason for others to be terrified. However the one thing that bothers me is that somewhere here there is a tree root. That will be it, the one I just stubbed my toes on. How is it possible that when I knew it was there and wanted to avoid it I was nevertheless drawn to it like an owl to the scent of fear.
The surface of the river is without a ripple except right at the foot of the rocks where the current rolls to the surface leaving a sinuous and every changing corded ripple that trails downstream past the leaf littered jetty until it is ironed flat by the flow of water. Were it not for that and the fallen leaves channeled into a narrow band flowing by out in midstream there would be little to suggest there was any flow at all. Even the chatter of the water over the pebbles downstream is subdued.
Retying my pony tail with additional bands to prevent any further leaf entanglement and scissors incidents I step into the water, give a short gasp at the cold and set off upstream pushing a swell ahead of me with my breaststroke. Emerging from under the tree canopy I see ahead of me upstream for a brief moment the sky overhead flushed orange with an unseen sunrise. However by the time I have returned on my second circuit the sky colour has faded to ashen grey, though the trees are now at least dull shades of green.
I am still alone in the silence as I set off for my third run. Up and back takes something like 12 minutes, but as I round the corner into the main pool for the end of my swim Clare is stood on the bank already slipping her sandals back on having changed, dipped, dried and dressed in my period of absence. We comment on the stillness, the calm before the storm, as rain and high winds are forecast for the afternoon. It does not seem possible.
But it was and by mid-afternoon the trees outside my office window are bent before the gale and leaves stream in a blizzard down the road that is gushing with water in the leaf choked gutters. Killer owls! Yeah, you try and hang on to your perches in that. Killer owls indeed.
There will be no river swimming tomorrow morning after this lot.
Monday. The sea was almost flat calm with just a slight offshore breeze at Broadsands. The really big difference in the last 10 days is that all the beach huts have been lifted into the car park for winter storage and the café has shut for the duration. I am about ½ way through my swim taking a direct route from the headland at the right of the bay towards Armchair Rock when I spot the small fishing boat heading my way. It’s a long way off there is plenty of room. The boat comes on directly at me. I angle away towards shore, The boat turns too and comes straight at me. ‘Scary Too’ is the name of the boat and she passes close by sending up a big wash. Very clearly the boat can and could see me. Maybe I was being paranoid but back on shore 4 people come up to me and confirm the boat did turn towards me and they were a lot further off than the boat and could see me clearly. I report it as a near miss to the Brixham Harbour Master. Opinion on Facebook is that I was in the wrong fro swimming without a tow float and the boat was quite within its rights to not keep a watch and/or run me down. A few more people have just dropped off my Christmas card list.
Tuesday. The wind is freshening and still westerly. I do not fancy Broadsands but the sea in the lee of Victoria Breakwater at Brixham will be sheltered. There is a hint of drizzle in the air and people wrapped in winter coats watch me head to the water. It is 16°C both in and out of the sea. The sea is smooth but there is an uneven swell which periodically slops in my face, but I am soon turning at the end of the ½ mile to the end of the breakwater and whilst I divert into more open water the swell is behind me now. A cormorant with a fish surfaces close to me. The bird has clearly never heard the phrase ‘never eat anything bigger than your own head’; it cannot possibly get the fish (a whiting I think) down. At the 3rd or 4th attempt the fish is sufficiently subdued and at the right angle and it vanishes into the bird. I am still 10 minutes out from the beach I swim on.
Wednesday. A bit of everything today. A mile swim to the end of the breakwater and back, taking full advantage of the flat calm in the lee shelter of the wall when everywhere else is white horses (proper planning that is). I collect one lost sea fishing float on the way out, but do not collect one dead sea bird. Collect a second float and one of those crab fishing lines on the way back (very useful for string and stuff in the shed). Whilst collecting the crab line a turnstone walked within a foot of me like it just didn’t care. Then gently float to within 4 feet of a white heron. Best of all, get dry, dressed and plonk into the seat of the car just as the torrential rain hit. That is perfect timing!
Thursday part1. It is very dark at 6:30 this morning under the trees and through the woods to the river. Sunrise is not for another hour yet in sharp contrast to just a few weeks ago when I was racing here to catch it over the river. The highlight of my 30 minute swim: 3 times up and back, is that the dippers have returned. At one moment there are 5 all chasing each other up and down the river zipping by me close enough that I can hear their wing beats and chirrups as they play follow the leader with barely a few inches between leader and tail. Surprisingly though the water is only 12°C I don’t have much by way of a shiver going as I stump back to the car.
Part2. They say it takes 1 month to establish a daily habit. I have been cramming in 30 to 60 minute swims nearly every day for 2 months. Habit has strayed into the territory of addiction. By mid-morning I am again looking at the weather, tide times and beach webcams. I am back in the water, the sea at Broadsands this time, by 12:30. Only a short one, just 9/10ths of a mile. I really, really, really fancy going around again, but I do not have the time.
Friday. Sarah is already sat with her feet hanging over the sea wall waiting for me when I get to Broadsands. The wind is still quite brisk but it is noticeably warmer then earlier in the week and blowing off the land has flattened out the surf to nothing more than a ripple. We swim a triangle around the bay in about 30 minutes over high tide. Whilst Sarah says she will not be swimming fast she has swum the channel and is a far more proficient swimmer than I am, as I found out when we swam practice sessions for the Dart 10k a few years ago, so I expect to be miles behind her as I am only swimming breaststroke. She swims slowly and lets me keep up, but it is faster than I swam it by myself yesterday and even the cold shower doesn’t feel so cold.
It’s 5:45, a.m., I don’t need to get up just yet. What with the sunrise not now happening until 7:20 (15 minutes a week it changes at this time of year) and the angle changing too, there is no rush to get to the river which will simply be dark (as well as cold). No, it’s no good, my internal alarm clock has got me up and there is no ‘snooze’ function on this aged model, I stare blankly at the featureless ceiling.
Twenty minutes later and I’m pulling on swimwear when I remember that today there is a conjunction of Venus and Mars and as it is a clear morning they should be visible. I put the kettle on and duck out to the back of the house to see Venus shining brightly and very close to it the red dot of Mars. My efforts at photography are futile and my feet are now cold.
Driving through the lane in near pitch black under the trees I pass a woman walking her dog. I never see anyone at this time in the morning, not once in 3 months down this way. She is wearing the shortest shorts that can still be shorts and not hotpants (remember hotpants from the ‘70s, well this spell checker doesn’t). You are a mad woman, it is 3°C and dark (she is not however wearing sunglasses, not carrying a pack of cigarettes). A mile later and I pass two people running. Never ever do I see anyone down this lane at this time, but that’s three this morning. Last night’s full moon has evidently brought the weirdoes out.
Conversely neither of the cars of the regular dog walkers is parked by the entrance to the woods. They have evidently heard there are weirdoes on the loose and have chosen to stay home. It is just as well I know my way beneath the trees as I can barely see a thing in the gloom. The owl from the other morning hoots ‘tu-wit’ and is answered ‘tu-woo’ from far off amongst the otherwise silent trees.
The thermometer nudges up as I drop it in the water: 8°C, 10.3°C but it sticks fast at 11.1°C. It is strange how cold can feel exactly like burning against skin and 11°C is not properly cold. For inexplicable reasons I have decided to swim down to single digits, it seems that may happen sometime soon.
The sky is lightening as I reach the dipper stone at the top of my second circuit, the river level has dropped only 3 inches since Tuesday but it makes all the difference to the flow. There is a quick flutter of wings. Kingfishers? Maybe not, it has been weeks since I last saw them and not only them but the ducks, cormorant, dippers and wagtails have all disappeared, so has the heron but that was not really a regular. Now mostly it is falling leaves except for the robin who has become a regular and the tiny wren that flitted about the bare twigs just above my head last swim.
As I swim back towards sunrise there is again a blur of motion which looks ‘kingfishery’, but which is heading away downstream.
I’m finishing my third and final loop, heading into the sunrise glow and straight out of the brightest part a dark shadow is speeding up the river towards me, skimming the water by just a few inches. The sharply pointed beaked shape is on a direct collision course with my face, but at the very last moment it does a Merrie Melodies worthy pause in mid-air (the mental caption “Spedium beakius” hangs there for a moment) before it banks right and flashes by in shades of orange and scintillating blue.
I towel and dress frantically pulling layers on as fast as my numb fingers, shaking hands and wet skin will allow. It’s not working and I shake and shiver all the way back to the car and afterwards. Maybe I should instead jog back, but there’s the irony, to warm up I’d have to wear less clothes as I presently look more Mr. Stay Puft than Usain Bolt.