Seasonal Variations: Easterly Breeze.

It is something of a case of clouds and silver linings depending on where you stand.  For the most part the South-West of England receives wind off the North Atlantic that keeps us a lot warmer than we should be at this latitude all year around.  Torbay is doubly blessed and both sea and weather temperature generally are several degrees warmer than other places as little as 10 miles away.  It has to be said then that whilst others attempting the Polar Bear Challenge have been braving water temperatures as low as 1 or 2°C, the sea here is still 7 or 8°C.  But then in February we usually get a run of colder easterly winds.

The cloud side of that is that the wind is colder than expected and blows onshore and this last week the sea has been unswimable in any meaningful sense.  Paddle and bounce about like you are in a washing machine maybe, but a proper swim has been out of the question.  The silver lining side for a beachcombing obsessive like me is that there are unusual finds amongst the litter.  On Tuesday it was a lemon, absolutely nothing wrong with it so it probably had not come far but nonetheless.  On Friday it was Lego bricks, plural, finding a single brick around here is almost unheard of, but 2 on one tide!

A few years ago the easterlies were strong and went on almost solidly for a month and the beaches were strewn with driftwood, another great find.  This year however it seems to be a day or three here and there. 

Today once again there is not a breath of wind and at dawn there is not a cloud in the sky so I am up and off to Watcombe once again.  It’s low tide at the beach, the sun is a finger width above the horizon and the water is flat.  Even when people say the sea is flat calm there is often an underlying swell but not today it has been pressed so that even the creases have been ironed out.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I swim full tilt straight out from the beach.  The solitary cloud that spattered me with icy drops as I changed has drifted out to sea and covered up the sun giving an eerie light that only adds further to the unsettlingly flat sea.  This cannot be right.

I’m 15 minutes out from the beach which is worth about 600m.  A solitary gannet flies overhead, the colony of 100+ birds that were a daily feature 2 weeks ago seems to have dispersed.  I stop swimming; this has finally got to me.  The sea is flat.  Of course lakes and reservoirs are flat too but that’s expected, this is not.  There is genuinely not even the slightest swell and the ripples made by my swimming and those by the slight breeze criss-cross.  It looks like the sea has been tiled.

The water however has a stunning aquamarine tint that I associate with Watcombe as with nowhere else.  Flipping on my back I turn and kick shore wards throwing up great gouts of water against the sun.  It is however a little too chilly to spend too long messing about I’m a long way from the beach.  Far, far away on the beach a solitary figure muffled against the chill is leaning on the railing watching their dog on the sand and very possibly me.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Enclosed by the bay once more I swim in to the beach and try to get to my feet.  The sand is shifting where I step and I have no feeling in my feet at all, the rest of me is fine, but not my feet and I stagger and lurch in the shallows and weave drunkenly up the beach. And now the partner of the cloud that rained on me earlier is back and spattering me with icy drops again.

Hmmm, no where’s the silver lining in that?


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Low, Low Tide

The biggest spring tides are always a few days after the full moon or new moon with those after the new moon being slightly bigger due to the summation of the gravitational effects of sun and moon.  And for reasons not entirely clear to me the spring tides in February are the biggest of the year (answers in a comment please).  Today I have arrived at St Mary’s Bay almost spot on low tide and the magnitude can be gauged by the fact that there is barely a 3m wide strip of water separating the sand from Mussel Rock and the water is little more than a few inches deep at that.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

As I walk off along the surf line razor clams disturbed by my footfalls draw speedily down into the sand sending up jets of water as much as 18 inches high and leave only a shallow depression rapidly filling with wet sand.  Squirt, squirt, squirt squirt squirt; it is mildly amusing to say the least.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The tide however is turning and as I change to swim the sea is creeping wave upon wave further across the sand.  The sea is chill, I’d guess till close to 8°C and having been jogging I’m a little cautious that I may get chilled faster than usual.  Nevertheless I’m soon settled in and tracing a wide triangle out and across the bay.

I am however stalking a bird.  This one, or one similar was here last week and I didn’t get a close enough look to tell which it was and I’m not going to get close enough today either.  It’s an auk of some kind but as I swim along casually in its general direction, pretending I’m not looking, it swims nonchalantly in a spiral in the opposite direction.  It’s all about the beak shape and with the swell of the sea I really can’t see that clearly.  Bird, I know where you live and I will be back.

Meanwhile it’s back to the beach for me.  It’s been lovely in the clear green water and not too chill, but the clouds are sweeping in, there’s a hint of rain about the place and it will be a lot colder on the beach than in the water.  It’s best to quit before I regret staying and anyway that’s been my second polar bear challenge swim for February, and then some.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

St Brighid’s Day


The full moon from last night still hangs in the western sky and is sufficiently bright that there is only a false dawn as the sun brightened eastern sky meets the moon half way.  Nevertheless beneath the tight lattice of tree branches darkness temporarily holds the field and I have to tread carefully down the pathway strewn with the slippery remnants of autumn leaves.  There is not a sound, breathless, the trees stand still and cut out any sound from the distant road.  Mine was the only car in the car park whilst the dog walkers remain in their centrally heated havens, but who can blame them as it is bitterly chill and even the birds cannot raise a dawn chorus.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It is high tide at Watcombe and almost imperceptible waves ripple against the base of the sea wall leaving not an inch of sand exposed.  The sky meanwhile resembles an accident in a paint factory with reds, oranges and yellows splashed over blue fading to purple and a few grey clouds.  Sunrise is still 10 minutes away but I hurry into the water and push hard into open water to see the sun at its best.

Even when I can see it the seal’s head is dark against the rocks, it must have been some 6th sense that made me scan the water in its direction.  However after I splash energetically with my arms and legs; a signal that seems to mean ‘I don’t want to play’, it is content to roll on its back exposing a pale mottled belly to watch me swim by.

The clouds across the horizon are now lined with gold and pale rays rise into the sky whilst the softly swelling surface of the aquamarine water is smeared with colours that flow, melt and reform.  Meanwhile the windows of the houses along the cliff top of Babbacombe Bay shine out and are answered by pinpricks of light stretching around the coast past Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton and beyond.

I’ve been pootling about and admiring the view and the current has carried me across the mouth of the bay and now the headland is closing up the view of the beach, I’ll be in Exmouth if I’m not careful.  I am also now coming to realize exactly how cold the water is, about 8°C at a guess and over the past weeks and months my guesses have been pretty much spot on.

It’s a full on 10 minute swim back in and it looks like I have had the best of the day for the time being at least as there’s a bank of thin cloud across the sun turning it hazy.  What’s more it has turned noticeably chillier as I stamp back up the steep slope to the car in the hope of stirring some feeling back into my toes.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I do suffer extreme beach envy when I see photos other people post of white sandy beaches stretching unblemished to a sun bleached horizon under a tropical blue sky, where the sea is crystal clear and packed with aquatic life, but here has its moments too, count that as a great start to February’s polar bear challenge.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Seals: swim or avoid?

I was reading a little piece the other day about what to do if you find yourself swimming with a seal.  The advice was that they are mostly non-aggressive but as a general rule leave them be.  That is not my experience.

In my experience, and I got nudged by one again last week at St Mary’s Bay, you most often do not know they are there until they swim in behind you and bite at your legs or feet, it’s just their way of deciding if you are friend or foe or food.  At St Mary’s last week I was in the surf in only waist deep water and the seal swam straight into me from the side.

Most often if you create a lot of splashing with your feet and then swim away breast stroke they figure you are not something they want to get involved with, but it’s not fool proof and often they will shadow you especially if you swim crawl which seems to attract them in.

Other times they simply will not leave you alone and I have been chased out onto the rocks at Elberry Cove by one that not only bit several times at my feet and legs but repeatedly swam in under me coming up to hit me in the stomach and tangling itself in my legs making it almost impossible to swim away.

Wetsuit or swimsuit doesn’t make a difference. Summer or winter, no difference.

St Marys Bay seal
St Marys Bay seal bite

To date I have got away fairly lightly with only nicks in my wetsuit or surface cuts to my skin but I have heard of other local swimmers being deeply bitten and needing stitches.

My honest advice is do not swim if you see a seal and get out of the water as quickly as possible if you encounter one. Not all of them turn nasty but would you take the chance?

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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

The Dubious Merits of Cold Water Swimming.

Is cold water swimming good for you? I don’t know. Better than doing what by comparison?

My throat cough has now turned into a nose cold and sitting indoors this morning watching the rain cascading off the shed roof was not doing anything for me. So as soon as it looked like there was going to be a break in the weather I obviously jumped in the camper van and set off to go swimming. Under the same circumstances I would not have gone for a run so clearly swimming is better for me than running. Stand back the blue touch paper has been lit.

I chose a great spot under the sea wall out of the wind but in the sunshine which was as well because I then got cornered by someone who wanted to ask where else I swam, how far, how often and I was stood there about 10 minutes in my swimwear and didn’t freeze to death. I then swam the 600m round trip to the rock whilst watching the stunning light show provided by sun and clouds, bouncing up and down a fair bit in the waves once clear of the headland and resigning myself to the fact that though I had stuffed all my clothes in my waterproof bag the towel was pushed in at the top and I had not rolled the top down and it was now raining rather a lot. 600m is not so much but hit the spot perfectly.

Since my swim I have not been coughing and spluttering anything like as much as I was this morning. However the paperwork I was supposed to be doing on my extra day off work has not done itself in my absence. So in that respect going swimming was not good for me.

On balance though I think I am up significantly on the day.

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