The Tide of Plastic


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

Hats, Boots and Gloves

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.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Cold Water Swimming

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming



Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Non-Zero-Sum Game

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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.

Polar Bears

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Silence of the Owls

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.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall