The Pool Below the Bridge

One of the joys of swimming the whole of the River Dart from sources to sea was finding well hidden and less well hidden swimming holes.  Some are sufficiently difficult to reach that the reward is not necessarily worth the effort, whilst others though are hidden in plain sight.

The car is pulled off the road but only just and passing cars make it rock slightly.  The river bank occupies no more than 30 feet between river and road, down a soft muddy bank between tree roots and onto steps of black, river polished stone.

The river does not look like much.  Upstream is a low-humped stone bridge.  A car crosses it slightly too quickly, brakes sharply and makes the 90 degree turn before racing away.  Across to the far bank and down stream the river the surface is buckled by small waves, each balancing a noisy crest of bubbles giving the impression that to all intents and purposes there is little but rocks and shallows hidden below.

I rest my bum down on the flat rock almost at water level, dangling my feet to find the narrow ledge that if I were to sit on it would leave me just head out of water.  I push away with my arms and drop in missing the ledge.  Despite the chill I hold my breath and vanish beneath the surface, the water closes over the top of my head as my outstretched toes tap the river bed.

The pool is not big, maybe ¼ of the way across the river and 15 feet upstream but it only shallows slightly in every direction before the river bed rises sharply to just a little below the water’s surface.  What quirk of the river bed and eddies off the bridge keep it from filling with sand and gravel I can’t imagine but I am glad of those eccentricities in the flow.

wild swimming
wild swimming

Another car crosses the bridge, slowly, admiring the view no doubt and not rushing to be home, nevertheless I don’t expect they saw me, or expected to see me as I must be almost invisible with just my head showing. Another week or 2 with more leaves on the trees and this will be as obscure a spot as any pool in the river on the farthest part of the moor.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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Diving In

I enjoying diving into water though I have no desire to do it from a great height, 5 or 6 feet is about my limit and I’d rather do that 5 or 6 times than go for one big one.  And diving even if you are already stood a foot deep in water is fun too.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I find it helps to pick a spot on the water to aim at, a leaf or a little bubble, about a body length and a half away and then it’s just a case of trying to hit it with your fingertips and it all seems to happen quite naturally.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Hesitation is what ruins it and makes it hurt.  You have to keep your arms out, head tucked in and legs straight. If you try to peek at what you’re aiming at your head will tilt back and you’ll smack your face in the water.  Similarly if you don’t keep your legs straight there is a tendency to bend them at the knees, especially if you feel you’re slightly out of control, it’s almost like trying to use your feet as brakes, only that doesn’t work when you’re mid-air but what does happen is you smack your calf muscles into the water and that hurts.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Obviously it goes without saying that you should:

1) Make sure the water is clear of obstructions. There may have been nothing there yesterday but something may have gone in the water since, check every time.  Unless you are absolutely sure of the depth keep your dive shallow.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

2) That said, make sure that there is enough width of water that you can come back to the surface before hitting the far side be that a river bank or rocks.

3) Be extra careful when diving into an oncoming flow of water.  I did that once at a place I’d dived often before only there was a bit more water flow and as I hit the water the flow tilted my head down and I hit the bottom and broke 2 fingers.

If you are in any doubt, DON’T.  The water will still be there tomorrow, so it is best to make sure you are too.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Swim Bingo

With the Polar Bear Challenge laid to bed it’s on to something new.

Swim Bingo has only two things in common with the PBC: a 200m minimum distance and swimming, obviously.

There are 35 challenges which spread over 7 months is a challenge a week give or take so I have put a line through the rules that you can claim no more than “2 challenges per swim and no more than 5 per day” and modified that to only claim 1 challenge per swim.  This is not a race.

It cannot be a race anyway as one set of challenges is a swim per month and October is not going to move about the calendar any time soon.  And as with the PBC there is nothing to say you have to claim a challenge simply because you did it.  For the PBC it was 2 swims per month and I probably did 15 each month that qualified, but I claimed on swims that were specially notable or enjoyable.

With that in mind I made up my own bingo card and after considerable juggling came up with an arrangement that places one more tricky challenge into each line and column.  That should serve to draw the process out, but also forces some forward planning.  No doubt the planning will be different for other people but what I will have to keep an eye on is the night swim (because I can’t be bothered with swimming when you can’t see anything) and the lido swim (because the nearest is in Plymouth: Tinside Lido).  There are ‘jokers’ to cover those but that seems to be a little bit of a cop out.  It’s supposed to be a challenge, if you can’t do the challenge, don’t legitimize cheating.

Two weeks down and this is my progress.

wild swimming
wild swimming

 

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

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

The Tide of Plastic

#2minutebeachclean
#2minutebeachclean

I swam into a piece of plastic waste today.  There are often bits in the surf but this was way off the beach and an unusual event especially given the miles of open water swimming I do.

Plastic waste is everywhere, look around.  David Attenborough in the Blue Planet 2 series has undoubtedly brought to a wider audience the plight of the oceans, but it is something that some of us have been aware of and battling with for years.  Martin Dorey established the #2minutebeachclean some years ago and that provided a banner under which those of us who take an empty bag each time we go to the beach and inevitably return with it full could muster.

But are some people taking it too far with their ‘plastic free’ lifestyle claims?  No-one is plastic free.  You may go to the fruit stall and buy only loose goods and put them into your cloth bag, but how do you think they got to the store?  They were picked in the fields into plastic crates, shipped in plastic crates, delivered to the shop in plastic crates and very possibly along the way wrapped in disposable plastic covers.  That’s burying your head in the sand not living plastic free.  And please, please, stop taking photos on your phone (mostly plastic) and blogging on your computer (mostly plastic) and posting on the internet (down plastic phone cables).  Think it through!

Plastic is essential to the world in which we live though we do not value it sufficiently and should be more responsible especially over ‘single use plastic’.  However, the aim should not be to stop using single use plastics as, for example, hypodermic syringes are ‘single use plastics’ and for very good reason. Many ‘single use’ plastics offer significant benefits to our lifestyle.

If the fiscal value of plastic was adjusted in line with the practical value then plastic that is intended to be thrown away would decline.

Nevertheless we should stop throwing plastic away. There is a finite market for recycled plastic at present but only because people want shiny looks like new items and will not accept recycled which may not have the same presentation. If my PC was made of recycled plastic would it work any less well?

I am a fanatical beach cleaner, but it is like closing the stable door after the horse bolted. It would be far better to stop it getting in the sea / river / hedgerow / environment as a whole in the first place.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

What Risk?

There is risk associated with any activity and most individuals, whether they realise it or not, judge risk based on their experience.  However bystanders are often quick to adversely judge those involved in activity often negatively on the basis of what they have been told, or more precisely, what they think they have been told.

Objectively the risk of an activity is fixed and would traditionally be assessed by means of a matrix that sets ‘likelihood’ against ‘severity’.  A personal perception of risk and how much risk you deem acceptable given the possible impact on your life in general are somewhat different things.

For example, irrespective of how experienced you are you could still slip on a rock whilst walking and break a leg. The likelihood is nevertheless ‘very low’ (it happens but rarely), the severity though if you were alone could be high as the outcome could possibly death (blood loss, shock, cold, darkness, can’t be found, landing in water). Any instance where severity is potentially death (or life altering outcomes) needs ‘mitigation’.

In this case likelihood may further diminish because from experience you recognise that wet rocks covered in moss are inherently slippery, but that is personal and to properly assess risk you need to assume no prior experience. The severity will diminish if you have means to send for help be that a mobile or someone else, but those are ‘mitigating actions’ and other mitigating factors may be applied. Generally then walking alone on, for example, Dartmoor with adequate mitigating measures lowers to risk to ‘acceptable’.

The problem with a swimming incident is that the progress from incident to outcome is likely to be minutes and mitigation is therefore difficult. Take as a related example the kayak incident on the Dart recently. Many people kayak the Dart, fatal incidents do occur (2 in 5 years for sure), but should an incident occur often the time to death is so short that even in a group the chance that someone will be able to stop and come to aid or do anything in a river in spate is negligible. This has also been my experience of swimming deaths, in that the only 3 that I have a personal connection with have all been people who were swimming with others, but before anyone noticed it was too late

I am however constantly surprised that people who go swimming do such a poor job of risk management. Will the tide be in or out, will it be sunshine or rain seems to be about the limit in most cases. But with all the resources available on-line it is no problem to apply even a little common sense to work out that after 2 days of rain it may be sunny now but the river is still probably ‘high’ or that with the wind blowing from that direction one side of the headland will be sheltered the other may have a big surf.

Personally I think about the risk every time I go swimming and I may consider the weather forecast (including wind direction), tide times and heights and flow direction and current strength, web cams (lots of those), the environment agency river levels page, etc, and I think about how I feel, good for a long swim or short? And even on arrival I have been known to go ‘you know what? Not today’ and go home again. And then there is the question of being visible in the water. Because essentially alone or with others once you are in the water there is potential for a fatal outcome.

Once you are in the water therefore risk and outcome become pretty meaningless. Mitigating the risk BEFORE you get in the water is therefore the thing in my opinion.

There is a further consideration and that is well-being. I will die eventually, that is a given. If I go swimming I keep myself fit which contributes to my well-being and ability to do other things and the alternative might be ‘couch potato’ which is possibly going to move me along to being dead sooner than the chance from a swimming related incident. And along the way I have seen some wonderful things and met lovely people. When you die the sum of your life is still zero (you cannot take anything with you) no matter how you lived it, but in the meantime?

The whole notion of ‘herd mentality’ is one that I have had many arguments over. The problem is that one person determines the risk for themselves at a specific time and in light of their ability and often in hindsight thinking more about the experience they had than how it might have gone differently. And their risk assessment may be rubbish anyway.  Nevertheless they broadcast that swimming at such and such a spot is ‘lovely and completely safe’.  The next person coming along goes ‘well it was OK for them it will be OK for me’.

Outdoor swimmers often counter negative comments with the ‘you are more likely to die whilst driving to work’ argument, but it is patently not a fair comparison. Looked at simply, how many people die in vehicle accidents per year and what is the cumulative time spent by the whole population in vehicles. Compare that to number of swimming fatalities and the cumulative time swimming. Swimming fatalities per hour of activity time I would guess far exceed vehicle deaths.

Do not therefore be put off by the comments of the uninformed or horror stories that may have no truth in them, nor become blasé to the risks.  Instead make a judgement each time you swim and if you have to walk away, then walk away.  After all whilst you want to live life you do only get one go at it and you are along time dead.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall