A Week in October

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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. 

 

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Lunacy

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

“Look out for the weirdoes out there.”

“Mister, I am one of the weirdoes.”

Lunacy, absolute lunacy.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Double or Quit

It is still dark under the trees as I slip and slide through the mud, stumble over tree roots and get slapped in the face by a leafless twig.  I am beginning to wonder if early morning river swims are coming to an end.  At the river the level is a little bit ‘up’ and the water surface swirls and sucks around the stones.  A series of ‘foambergs’ twirl by as I strip off.  Stepping in, the water has a definite autumnal quality, eeek!  I am however on a mission.

I have worn rash vests and long tights as a defence against early autumn chills or late spring cold and they have their place, but today I am trying out something that on the face of it (if it works) will have that ‘how stupid not to have thought of it before’ quality.  I step in further and reach that moment where the water is just at the top of my inner thighs, that moment when I involuntarily lift onto tip toes.

I’m in and the water is chilly, though to be fair it is not as cold as it has been recently.  Even so it bites at my legs, arms and shoulders and an inadvertent mouthful sets my teeth on edge and tightens my lips.  However, the rest of me is not feeling it.  There is a slow drop in temperature against my torso but that plateaus at a ‘not too bad’ level.

How stupid not to have thought of it before.  I am wearing 2 swimsuits.

The under one has a regular racer back with a fully lined front, the top one is one of the new Speedo Hydrasuits I bought a few weeks ago.  With just either on its own I would be puffing and blowing furiously, but together there is evidently a wetsuit effect going on and they are trapping an ever so thin layer or layers of water creating a gradient between the river and me.

That is however only a first impression.  A little over 30 minutes later and I am back on the bank and stripping off.  I feel fine, but always do, look out for the afterdrop.  My boots are on, laces tied, I am chatting with the woman who is having a dip from the opposite bank, on the edge of the tree obscured sunshine that is just breaking through.  My teeth are not chatted, my eyes are not smarting, I do not have those icy fingers down my spine and my hands are not shaking.  My toes are numb however as they should be.

I also only have two swimsuits to wring out and I put those on before I left the house, all so much more manageable than a wetsuit or soggy rash vest and tights.  Minimalist is good.  Maybe I should start a new minimalist swim movement as an antidote to those who insist you have a cart full of ‘essential extras’ before leaving the house.

In all the posts I have read about swimming in colder water, rash vests, wetsuits, booties, gloves, hats and leggings have all featured, but not once have I ever read or heard anyone say ‘double layer 2 swimsuits or quit’.  Altogether now ‘how stupid not to have thought of it before’.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Before Dawn

The forecast for yesterday was solid rain, but that did not materialize.  Nevertheless, the river was at least 12 inches higher than might have been expected after a few rain free days so maybe it has been raining up on the moor.  It was however quite swimable, though the dipper’s rock was completely submerged and I could get no closer than 5m to the churning water that marked its unseen presence even though I was swimming flat out against the flow.

This morning the level is back where I would expect it though still running too fast at this point in the year to contemplate a loop down to the shallows before a push to the top of the pool.  The water is far too fast over the shallows for that to be viable.

The swirling surface of the water is wreathed in threads of mist.  There is no apparent sense to it.  In some places it streams up off the surface in sheets which drift imperceptibly into the cover of the trees.  Elsewhere random puffs of mist inexplicably billow up from the surface as if the river has just exhaled.  Each time I exhale I add to the haze.  I dip into the river as the church clock chimes seven.  The sunrise is as yet no more than a dull glow below the tree line downstream.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It is odd to now swim beneath branches and twigs that were just 12 hours ago trailing in the river.  And unlike last night I am now swimming with each stroke advancing me beneath the tree, whereas before it took me ten or more strokes to advance ten centimeters.  I am past the apples trees, past the sunken log (not a problem last night but now there to snag an uninformed toe), past the Himalayan Balsam which still hints the air with that slightly sickly odour and past the half submerged branch with just a few forlorn leaves nodding rapidly in some form of St Vitus’s Dance.

I am into the still water and bowling along then out into the full flow again.  The Dipper’s rock is there but remains elusive.  The current hurls me back downstream into a morning still dark beneath the mist shrouded trees.

On my second return however the sun finally crests the trees downstream and the pool illuminates in a blaze of fire, the tongues of mist now lick upwards scorching the undersides of the leaves with an orange reflected glow.  It is dazzlingly bright.  I set off back up the pool for the third and final time.

The dawn glory is all over by the time I shoot back down the pool.  The sun has cleared the trees and the fire-orange glow has paled to intense yellow-white against a bleached blue background.  It has been as memorable as my first equinox swim earlier in the week only now it is on time, or at least on the same day.

I furiously towel dry as the shivers set in, each moment will make it harder to tie my boot laces, but I am layering up as fast as possible.  Maybe the trick is to put the boots on first, then get dressed.  Tying laces is hardly a precision job, but it does need doing right, whereas putting a hoodie on can presumably be done shivers or not.

Leave that with me until tomorrow morning.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Ying and Yang or the Hot and the Cold.

It’s autumn so not too surprisingly the weather is closing in, the air is chill in the early morning, the water is tracking the air temperature in a consistently downward direction and there has been more wind and rain, which has put the water flow in the River Dart up to the point where it is an unbeatable endless pool.  It is good exercise to try however and the effort leaves me slightly less chilled after 40 minutes than otherwise would be the case.  The sea water remains 4 or 5 degrees warmer than the river but if anything having a good swim is even more dependant on settled and specifically less breezy weather.

Accepting that the situation will only drift downhill for the next 4 months I decided to give indoor pool swimming a go again.

It has been possibly 10 years or more since I last visited the leisure centre for a swim and little has changed except that the locker room and showers had just been refurbished back then and once more require a makeover.  Compared to the river bank at 7am the changing room is like a sauna to me and I dread what the water will feel like.

The scents of the riverbank are subtle: a touch of damp earth, a pinch of leaf mould, a soupcon of Himalayan Balsam.  Over all lies the indefinable smell of the water, utterly distinctive, and best described as ‘that river smell’.  By comparison there is nothing subtle about the scent of a chlorine stocked pool, it leaps up, grabs your throat and beats about your senses.  It’s not a bad smell or an unpleasant smell it simply leaves no doubt who’s the boss.

The water is undoubtedly warmer than I am used to, somewhere around 26C (the river is dipping below 14C and the sea about 17C).  I do maybe 10 leisurely lengths to gauge which lane to swim in and then set to as if I were head on into the fast flowing bit of the river.  30 minutes later and I have had enough, I feel physically faint from overheating and my face has gone a colour to compliment my red River Dart 10km swim hat.  There is no respite.  I was looking forward to the shower, which was cold on the way in, but used by others it has warmed up to a temperature that is so hot I cannot stand under it.  My shower is therefore cursory and I drive to work with all the car windows open and the cold air blower at full blast.  Two hours later I am still feeling a little flushed and I smell of chlorine, I am not a happy bunny.

This morning it is a few minutes after 7 as I squelch through mud that a few weeks ago was a firm dry track.  You don’t get that at the pool.  Elsewhere I step around the slick patches of mud and over the tangled tree roots.  The river is not as high as I had feared; true the sandbags are covered, but the top ‘step’ is clear so the flow will be manageable with 75% effort.  In other words I might get to the top of the pool before being swept back.

The water needles cold at my skin, but I am not about to complain given the alternative.  The first 1/3 of the pool is a mad push into the flow making only glacially slow headway.  The middle 1/3 is quite still, a counter eddy and then it is into the shallows and the full flow where it takes about 5 minutes of frantic effort to cover 5m distance.  Then I am at a standstill, pushing hard but not going anywhere.  Kneeling on the bottom I am a little short of the rock the dipper sits on to watch as I usually swim by.  The other rock I sight on by the far bank which should stand green and mossy 6 inches above the water is marked by barely a ripple as the water sweeps over it.

Armed with my camera I shoot back downstream into the sunrise where the sun is backlighting the thin mist rising from the water.

 

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Sunrise has evidently roused the wildlife out of bed too.  As I begin my second run the cormorant wings overhead angling down to the next pool upstream.  Two dippers then stage a head on fly-by passing almost within reach to my right and no sooner have they passed than two kingfishers zip upstream to my left and whilst one carries on out of sight the second banks sharply and vanishes onto a hidden perch above some shallow, still water.

Third time around and the sun has swept behind the trees and all but the very fringe of part of the pool is in shade.  After 35 minutes I step out of the water and see the thermometer says 11.8°C, ooh!  I am toweling frantically when the first shiver starts and by the time I come to tie my boot laces my hands are jittering all over the place.  However, a brisk ½ mile stamp back through the woods to the car should shake off the worst of it.

I wonder though exactly how much longer I can tough it out.

The Ying and Yang or the Hot and the Cold.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Last Apple on the Tree

There is no sound quite as distinctive as the sodden ‘thunk’ of an apple falling from a tree.  When they fall from the tree beside the River Dart at Still Pool there is sometimes an additional crisp rattle of tight apple skin being bruised as it bounces over rounded pebbles and a ‘splosh’ as it drops into the shallows.

This morning the gust of wind that brings a patter of heavy rain drops shaken from the leaves onto the drizzle mottled surface of the river is perfectly timed as I swim past the apple tree and there is that ‘thunk’, rattle, splosh.  A single bright red apple bobs in the shallows.  It won’t go far there in the slack water I will pick it up when I come back from my third time around.

There are several apples trees along the bank, once an orchard or just random happenstance I cannot tell.  I suspect the latter as the distribution of the remaining trees is random to say the least and the fruit from most is inedible.  It is a lucky chance then that this one tree produces colourful fruit with a fresh sweet taste and that it is handy to the river.

The fruit has been plentiful this season but is now coming to an end.  I wade through the shallows and slip and slide barefoot up the steep rain slick bank.  There is something about clay between toes.  All the low hanging fruit I have either had away already or lies fallen, bruised and rotting in undergrowth sagging under the weight of autumn.  Two full, juicy, red fruit remain, both well out of reach, both consequently objects of desire.  My first rattle of the trunk looses only a few small fruit and I will scout those up in a moment.  I put more weight behind my next shake as it occurs to me that anyone passing might find it odd that some in dripping swimwear with feet skittering for purchase in the mud is shaking a tree.  I see it in reverse.  If I wasn’t doing something odd then that would be odd.  I mean it is just after 7:30am, it is again raining, it is the end of the first week of September, it is not exactly warm and I’ve spent the last 30 minutes swimming in the river.  Most people might consider that odd and by comparison shaking apples down from a tree is just a perfectly normal extension of that.  Odd+ if you like.

One of the objects of desire flicks at the tip of the drooping branch from which it hangs and breaks free.  It arches out slightly from the tree and lands with a thunk softened by bent grass.  Amongst the fallen there are 7 other apples that have not started to rot just yet though all are covered in leaves, mud and grass to different degrees.  I launch each into the middle of the river and they bob away in a swift little convoy.  The one from earlier is still in the shallows so I give it a quick rinse, take a bite and wade back into the river to collect up each apple in turn, give it a quick rinse and then stuff it into my swimwear.  Now that will look odd!

I know I am going to obsess about that one last apple and there is little chance of getting back for another swim this evening (duty calls).  Will the wind bring it down today or will it still be there for me tomorrow morning?  In the meantime I will get dry and finish eating my breakfast.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

What a Difference a Day Makes.

Today I am filled with optimism.  The weather began to improve yesterday late afternoon and I dashed back to Still Pool for another nifty 40 minute swim as the sun nudged down behind the trees sending random shafts of light lancing through to the river and the sky above, cloudless, faded from pale towards darker shades of blue.  This morning the sky is mostly cloudless and there is barely a hint of breeze moving the tree tops.  The horizon turns from pink to orange to golden and sunlight lances into the kitchen lighting up the steam from my coffee cup.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Golden light filters through the redwood trees, though the mornings no longer have the warmth of mid-June that scented the air with pine resin, and reflects up off the water making the river bank trees glow.  My, my, it must have been raining somewhere, the river is up a clear 10cms on yesterday.

10cms (or 4 inches in Brexit money) does not sound much I grant you, but across 5m of river that is a lot of extra water trying to get somewhere in a hurry.  And it has a slight extra chill edge to it as I wade in to the still water in the lee of the rocks.

The water deepens sharply and in 3 paces I can no longer touch the bottom with outstretched toes, but here the water is almost still.  I swim a few brisk strokes down to the shallows and turn upstream into the line of bubbles that mark the line of the fastest flowing water.  The water is certainly in a hurry to get somewhere.  My shoulders are still a little tired after yesterday and they ache and complain as I push into the flow, with each stroke barely advancing me a head’s length.

My direct route up the pool eventually takes me out of the faster flowing water and into the shallows on the inside of the bend, though even here this morning despite the placid looking surface the water is fairly racing along.  It is only ½ way up the pool that there is a short, still patch of water and I can catch my breath, but not for long.  I am soon in the shallows, the water surface chops and splashes hiding the randomly placed boulder hazards.  I find one of them with my knee but only discover ½ an hour later when I am drying that I found it quite hard and it was quite sharp and I am leaking a red streak all down my shin.  Ah, the joy of cold water.

I am abreast the dipper rock (the dipper is not at home), another fast flowing and choppy patch of water is in front of me, only 1m across but it takes a dozen strokes to clear it to the still water in the lee of the next rock.  Across from me towards the far bank there is a moss covered rock I use as another marker, or there should be, it was there yesterday evening a little green oasis in the flow, but now it is entirely submerged.

I push off and float the first 5m being whooshed along by the flow, the water is too shallow to swim this side without kicking the stones of the river bed.  Where the water calms a little it is deeper and I race back down the centre line of the pool leaning in to the left hand curve past the diving rock and I’m back where I started.  It has taken 13 minutes, same as always, for the round trip, but instead of the usual 8 up and 5 back, this has been more like 10 up, 3 back.

Despite the apparently free ride back I was swimming as fast as I could and am now a little breathless.  Various muscles are also complaining; ‘Shut up, this is good for you!’

One down, two to go.

And the forecast is good for this evening.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall