Cold Acclimatization

It may not seem a whole great deal but since late September the sea temperature has fallen steadily from 18°C to exactly 12.0°C whilst standing in the shallows of St Mary’s Bay today.  Six degrees, what is 6 degrees?  Well if you are in the open sea 6 degrees is the difference between swimming a mile and a half over about an hour and arriving back at the beach still feeling functional and cutting that to just a mile and 40 minutes and beginning to shiver uncontrollably as you get dried and dressed.  This is of course wearing nothing more than swimwear and a pair of goggles.

Irrespective of the wisdom of swimming any distance when the sea is only 12C the question is nevertheless ‘what can be done to prepare for swimming under such conditions?’ because I will keep swimming and it will get colder yet.

Clearly keep swimming and track the seasonal change in water temperature is a good place to start.  This may debatably induce physiological changes but it certainly induces mental changes and a preparedness that ‘it will be cold but I am expecting that’.

There is a further school of thought that advocates cold showers, 10 minutes a day.  I have always been skeptical about that.  How can 10 minutes a day in a cold shower compensate for the remaining 23 hours wrapped up in clothes etc. keeping warm?  That just doesn’t stack up surely you are acclimatizing to being warm.

For this to work surely you want to take the stereotypical postman approach and go around all day and in all weathers in a short sleeved shirt and shorts or skirt, it’s your choice.

The swim today from the beach in St Mary’s Bay out to Durl Rock in the lee shelter of Berry Head was close to idyllic.  For the most part the sea was flat calm with a lazy oily quality and only occasionally was it ruffled by the slight breeze.  And the sun poured down.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Close to high tide and the current flow was northwards in the open sea, but where it met the headland some flow was turned back into the bay.  Whilst this left me swimming into the current initially it did mean that the water sweeping in from the open sea was crystal clear almost to the surf line.  Of course at some point I reached the area where the current was being turned aside and here things get strange.  One moment I was swimming into the current, the next it was behind me and yet within 50m it had turned against me again and then it was pushing sideways at me and I could feel my legs swinging away to one side leaving me to swim crabwise towards the rock.  The first time I swam this way perhaps 8 years ago I was somewhat panicked by this sudden reversal as on that occasion it left me swimming head into a current as I neared the beach without seeming to be able to reach it.  Now I simply accept it and swim on.

Durl Rock stood proud against the blue sky but with a slightly bigger swell sloshing white water over the lower rocks.  On a very big spring tide almost the whole rock submerges hence the need to leave a pinnacle standing at the outer marker as an impromptu beacon.  Today the rock is submerged in gulls and as I finally reach a hand to slap the rock: ‘I was here!’, an oyster catcher breaks ranks and in an instant the sky is filled with a cloud of birds that return to wheel and scream above me.  I have evidently broken their reverie as they dog me on my return swim and now with the slight breeze behind me I push on at the fastest pace I can keep up.

The last 100m in to the beach brings with it a little tension.  As I set off a seal was bobbing away down the far end of the beach.  I am cautious of seals especially when the water is not too clear and now close to the beach there is more sand stirred in.  Seals bite, well they bite me, and once here one drew quite a dribble of blood from my ankle.  The seal may have moved on or may still be out of sight at the far end of the beach hidden in the glare of the sunshine, but I am soon wading through the slight surf with all my limbs still attached.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

One mile almost to the inch and 40 minutes almost to the second (which is not too bad making allowance for bird watching and photo opportunities) and I am not feeling the least bit chilly, maybe I am acclimatizing.  However, the sun is off the beach now and the thermometer hovers at just 8C in the shade and is not making allowance for wind chill and there is quite a lot of that.  Acclimatized I may be but before I finally lift my bag onto my back I am shivering quite dramatically and very much look forward to the warming stomp down the beach and Jacob’s Ladder of steps to climb to get back to the car.

 

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The Bag in Winter

As a seagull did something less than appropriate on my swimming bag when I left it on the beach earlier it needed a wash so I tipped the contents out.  Of course what an individual carries in their swim bag is personal to each of us, some carry more, whereas I try to travel light.  It is however now decidedly chilly both in and out of the water so I am stepping up to the challenge of a mile a day by carrying a little extra:

Fleece hat, neck buff and gloves,
Leggings,
Foam changing mat,
Bags for wet swimwear,
Swimwear, back-up swimwear, extra back-up swimwear,
Karabiner and hair bands
Towel
Hoody sweatshirt,
Goggles, noseclip, ear plugs,
No more tears (for anti-misting goggles),
Deodorant,
Tiger balm.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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Knowing When to Retreat (as climbers call it)

As I stood in the kitchen sipping coffee and watching the sunrise this morning it slowly dawned on me that I should have headed to the river on the way in to work. Instead I had fixed it in my head yesterday that I’d go the full distance around St Mary’s Bay in the sunshine at lunchtime.

Sunshine there was and it was warm and there was plenty of it with only a light if wickedly chill breeze exactly as forecast, a perfect swim day. The sea however had other ideas.

It should have been quite calm under the headland but instead it was a washing machine, not on full maximum spin, but on more of a ‘synthetics’ setting. However, after 20 minutes, which should have got me the full 1/2 mile out to the rock when in fact I had covered only half that distance, it was quite clear that this was not the day I had planned.

And after another 20 minutes spent getting back to the surf line I definitely knew I’d had a good workout even if I’d got nowhere.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

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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.

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All Kinds of Crazy

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me I decided it would be a top idea to swim out to Thatcher Rock this morning.  It was a top idea, but with every kind of weather from full on sunshine to pelting rain and howling wind and a full rainbow.  By the time I’d circled the bay, been to the rock and got back I’d done nearly a mile.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

 

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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

 

 

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No Swimming Here

 

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The sign appears quite emphatic and there are others too, in fact no swimming signs in profusion.  And all they say may be true, but actually none of those things singly or in combination actually means one should not go swimming, only that there is a need to approach with caution.  Besides it is quite tricky to swim in shallow water and deep doesn’t make a lot of difference once you are out of your depth.  Quite the contrary in fact as on a shallow beach you could be only 1 meter out of your depth but it could be 100m to sufficiently shallow water, whereas on a steep beach it may only be a few meters.  Currents are obviously harder to read and I can see evidence of rip currents from the way the shingle has been sculpted, but they are not certain death so long as you understand them and don’t try to swim against them: swim around.

There is not a great deal of surf, nothing like on my previous visits when swimming has been blown out every time.  Recent storm Brian obviously did throw up quite some surf as the car park is strewn with large pebbles and a part of it has been washed away.  There is however one stranded Portuguese man o’ war, now why was death by ‘jellyfish’ not on the sign?  But like the rest I’ll take my chances on that score.  Besides will you just look at that sunset, what could possibly go wrong against a backdrop like that?

I am off and swimming, buoyed up by the gentle swell.  As expected I have gathered quite an audience and it occurs to me that surely the mere fact that I am swimming here in the first place in the closing days of October is a reassurance in itself that I might have some previous experience and some idea of what I’m doing.

It further occurs to me that by applying that reverse engineering reasoning then where many people are at a beach in summer they must all be idiots.  And as it is probably the case that far more people get rescued in summer than in winter it must be more dangerous to swim in summer.  You see, it makes sense.

Unless of course the winter ones are simply never seen again much less get rescued.  Hmmm, I suspect I have overlooked something in my reasoning.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Anyway here I am, by myself, swimming where I shouldn’t be out well beyond the end of the breakwater and I am still in search of the dangerous currents and killer ‘jellyfish’.  It is true however that I am out of my depth though the water is a bit murky so without being able to see my feet it is hard to be sure.  It doesn’t much matter anyway because I am quite content to let my feet float up and lie back and enjoy the sunset.  Even I can see that winter is on the way and these opportunities will be few and far between once a few more weeks have gone by.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

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