Double Dip Tuesday

As I load my bag into the car Venus is shining brightly in an eastern sky that is just beginning to lighten and high above me the baleful red eye of Betelgeuse still shines brightly.  The thermometer on the dash of the car beeps for the first time in maybe six months to tell me the temperature is 3.5C.  The air is perfectly still.

A few miles later as I unload my bag Betelgeuse has winked out whilst Venus is fading as the sky brightens bluer and yet the woods seem even darker than yesterday morning.  An owl hoots far off in the trees to my right to be answered by the keening of a buzzard directly above me.  I am not however alone in this dawn madness and one of the regular dog walkers passes me.  “You’re not going swimming?”  “Of course.”  “You’re mad.”  He may have a point.  Meanwhile far off at the turn of the path a will-o-the-wisp light from a jogger’s headtorch flicks amongst the trees and is lost.

The river is indistinguishable from yesterday, flowing fast, flecked with whirling streaks of bubbles and just covering the top ‘step’.  I am double swimsuited (again) and once more though the water (11.9C I find out later) needles at my exposed arms and legs there is a distinct warmth across my chest and stomach.  “But is this just reinventing the wetsuit?” someone posted as a reply to my comments on social media yesterday.  Well yes, sort of, except I can put on 2 swimsuits under my clothes to drive down and 2 wet swimsuits are easier to pack up and dry later than a wetsuit.  Otherwise, yes I have reinvented the wetsuit.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It’s effective though and 40 minutes later having swum through a sunrise that no longer graces the river’s surface with any direct sunlight in stark contrast to just 2 weeks ago I climb out feeling reasonably warm with only very minor shivers to follow, but icy blocks for feet.  Having said a brief ‘Hi’ to the other regular morning dipper I stamp off through the sun dappled woods in an effort to pound some warmth back into frozen toes.  Distantly the church clock chimes for eight.

I have fully recovered by lunchtime and have a window of opportunity which takes me to St Mary’s Bay.  Conditions are near perfect with the outward swim to Durl Head in the sheltered lee of the cliffs but then wind and current will carry us across the bay to Sharkham and then in past Mussel Rock.  ‘Us’, for I am not alone.  I have been joined by Dave who swims locally but has not previously had the opportunity to swim out to Durl Head and Anthony who is on a bit of a holiday, is a relative newcomer to outdoor swimming and is tackling this as his first full on sea swim.. For a first outing it is a bold move being 1.5 miles around with little opportunity to exit early.  There are plenty of experienced sea swimmers who would think carefully about this swim and so they should, I have, matching wind, tides and currents for optimum safety.

50m out from the beach and we leave behind the sand filled water and as sharply as if it were a line drawn in the sand pass into the bright clear greeny-blue water of the open bay.  We take it gently out to Durl Head and whilst I may have done this a dozen times before it is a gorgeous sun filled day in calm water and to be enjoyed as if it were the first time.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Dave is not keen to swim the full circuit.  I personally have no issues with swimming by myself and respect Dave’s judgment that he is quite happy to take it slowly and swim back in to the beach in the sheltered water by himself.  Anthony and I strike out for Sharkham Point.  It is only the 3rd of October but the 5 knot buoy has been taken in on the deadline with the coming of autumn sometime between Thursday and today.  As we leave the lee of the land the sea becomes splashier but from behind us and not in our faces.  We also pick up the current and from half way across the pace towards the headland accelerates appreciably.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Where the current meets the headland the water is in part turned in towards the beach and all the while the wind is slackening as we move into the lee of the land again.  Treading water just outside Mussel Rock to grab a few snaps of Anthony I line up the end of the rock with a marker on the far cliff.  A wave lifts me up a few inches and sweeps me in towards the beach, and again, and again and it is evident that I am moving at quite a pace with no effort.  No effort however means no warmth and as I get into the still water I go flat out for the final few 100 meters so that Dave and I arrive almost simultaneously back at our start point.

We are ready to head back to the cars when the seal pops his head up.  I have mixed feelings about seals and possibly as this could be the one who once took a hefty ‘nip’ at my ankle on this same beach the feeling is not entirely filled with love.  As we walk down the beach he follows us no more than 10m out from the tide line, but he does seem to have a 6th sense for when Anthony has his camera ready and manages to roll and duck out of shot every time bar the last.

We part in the car park in gloriously warm sunshine, but there was a nip in the water today and the 5 knot buoys are taken in for a reason, there will not be many more opportunities to make this circuit this year.


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

The Hunt for the Portuguese man o’ war

The first reports of these colonial animals washing up on Cornish beaches came in about 2 weeks ago since when they have made slow and steady progress along the coast.  Yesterday there was a photo of one on the beach at Blackpool Sands just 10 miles south of here and this morning in the estuary of the River Dart and that is right on the doorstep.  The downside is the wind has turned northerly so progress in this direction along the coast will likely be severely curtailed.  I would love to see one, but not too up close and personal.

The conditions for a swim around St Mary’s Bay could hardly be better.  From the beach I can swim out to Durl Rock in the shelter of the high cliffs of Berry Head.  From Durl Rock past the 5 knot buoy and across the open water to Sharkham Point I will have the wind behind me and the tidal current will be swinging around behind me too.  The swim in along the beach should then not be a problem.

Despite the sea being nearly flat calm there is an awful lot of sand stirred up along the surf line but 50m out and it has been swept away by the current which is swinging south along the beach.  Ironically that means the current further out is still to the north but it is being turned around in the bay in a huge vortex by the headland.  I can actually feel it as I swim, zipping along in a still patch of water and then 10m later hitting it head on, only for that to be followed by another still patch.  It is actually possible to see it swinging the water about and carrying bubbles hither and thither.  Consequently it takes me 25 minutes to cover the ½ mile to Durl Rock.

Turning south and I’m off like Michael Phelps.  Last week I battered headlong into both wind and current as far as the 5 knot buoy whereas today it looks closer stroke after stroke.  Out here away from beach and rocks the water is beautifully clear; a deep, dark aquamarine, and even the algae that streaked the water beneath the cliff have gone.  I drift past the buoy before turning to swim again and now the headland before me is fairly looming.  The second ½ mile took only 15 minutes, these things even out.

I am headlong into the current again, I can tell because I am now swimming water that is almost white with sand carried off the beach ahead of me.  As I draw level with Mussel Rock I turn towards it, skirting it on the beach side.  The water is a little clearer here which is just as well as I do not want to graze myself on the barnacle covered rocks.  A lone seagull stands sentinel on the high point, first on one leg, then on the other perhaps undecided about the swimmer and whether to stay or go. 

I keep my course parallel to the beach a little way out where there is less swell and little chance of hitting any submerged rocks before finally turning in towards my bag with a last big push to get back in a fraction over an hour.  That was slow, but there was never really any rush.

Should you happen to get stung by one of these or indeed by a jellyfish the current best advice is douse the area in vinegar (it has to be vinegar other acidic washes are not effective) and then apply heat (45C) for up to 45 minutes by immersion in hot water or with a hot gel pack.


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 carnival float has been derailed, almost literally.  We were ¾ of the way to Sidmouth to hitch it up for the carnival parade when we got a call to tell us the tow hitch was bent and beyond use.  Gathered around the wounded float we all agreed rather glumly that we were going nowhere, but that as we were there we may as well sit in and watch the parade for a change as obviously if you are in it you see only the back and of the float in front.

Leaving the rest of the team to buy their supper from a place that may eventually give them all a further lasting memory of the evening I headed down to the seafront.

It was well past sunset and the low clouds were ushering in an early dusk.  The sea was bumpy but not all that much so and the street lights glanced off the waves crests before they burst foaming on the steeply banked pebbles.  Finding a little spot out of the breeze I changed quickly and picked my way carefully over the uneven pebbles as the waves tried to push me off my feet.  The beach shelves steeply however and in a few steps I am off and swimming.  Swimming in a very loose sense of the word, bouncing up and down in the swell is more the thing.

Darkness is however setting in quite noticeably with the lights along the seafront shining out ever more brightly which in turn only enhances the dark shadows on the beach.  I was unsure when the new swimming bag arrived that the bright colours were such a good idea, however, after only a few minutes when it is time to head back in the bag positively glows like a beacon on the otherwise featureless beach, it looks like it was a smart move now.

Dried and dressed in double quick time I climb back up the steps where I am met by a woman who has been watching.

“Does it take long to get acclimatized?” she asks.

“Well, I swim all year so it just happens.” I tell her.  Anyway, what does she mean ‘acclimatized’?  It is 18C in there, the thing I most have to worry about is getting too warm.  Maybe that’s what she meant.  No, I don’t think so either.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Autumn Equinox

It has for a very long time been my thing to mark the transition of the seasons with a swim of note, come rain, wind, shine or frost.  I have had all of those and sometimes so much so that there has  had to be a postponement, but usually only for a day.  the forecast for Thursday or more importantly Friday is poor so I’m calling it today.

The swims can be longer or shorter but at present I am on a mission to lose some weight and tone my middle for shocking reasons which will become apparent in the fullness of time and consequently I have pushed my distance up to 2km.  That was al well and good on Monday and Tuesday at Mansands and St Mary’s Bay respectively, but today the wind has come southerly which limits the comfortable places for a long swim near here to Elberry Cove.  Elberry is a lovely spot: sheltered and it can be a sun trap , but it is best swum at high tide and this is low tide.

The water is insanely warm, my thermometer says 18C when I dunk it in later.  That can’t be right surely?  Having waded out a fair distance to find enough water I swim along the beach and then turn up the way beneath the shelter of the hill.  For a brief moment there is sunshine but then the clouds pull together again and that is that.

I have not gone far when I spot a heron in the shallows.  He eyes me warily and sure enough when I am about 10m away he leaps upwards with a huge down sweep of wings and swings away low across the water in an arc that will land him about 100m further up the shore.  He comes in too close to a second heron who resents the intrusion into his fishing spot and there is a loud squawking, flap of wings and prancing and the first bird moves on again.  Now however I am bearing down on the second bird and he too is off.

The second bird lands close to the first, there is safety in numbers and they have now entered the territory of a third.  It seems that being chased by a swimmer is too much for any of them to cope with and one by one by one they lurch into the air and lumber around the headland that is my destination.  There is nothing aerodynamic about a heron.

To draw out my swim I head out into deeper water and tack like a sailing ship against the breeze back into the beach for 50 minutes and 1.4 miles according to Google Earth.

This was of course when I took a water temperature measurement as I have been that long in the water and I’m stood on the beach wrapped only in a towel, not even in sunshine, and I feel quite warm and flushed.  That alone and the herons besides make this a notable equinox swim.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Seven Ps

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It seems that every day it gets a little tougher to keep on swimming in the river.  The sunrises last week were phenomenal and both yesterday and today I am sure they would have equally spectacular if the fierce red-orange glow stream in my windows at 7am was anything to go by.  However, every day the thermometer nudges down and whilst I would like to think I can acclimatize I know I cannot; I have never been a cold weather person.  It drifted from 11.8C to 11.5C over just 48 hours and at that rate it would have slipped past 11C this morning.  Shivering fit to bust makes me feel distinctly queasy.  Consequently both yesterday and today I have taken to the sea.

Whilst not only being (relatively) warmer at about 16C and therefore quite tolerable, the sea also offers up the possibility of longer swims without the up-and-back offered by a 250m long pool in the river.  On the flip side there are currents, tides and the wind direction to consider as well as the relative risk of being far from the shore and any sort of help.  Proper Pre-Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance, or the 7 Ps, is therefore a key watch phrase.

Yesterday I took myself down to Mansands where the currents in the bay are minimal at any state of the tide which is one hazard crossed from the list.  The wind was light and northerly so the sea is sheltered under the high cliffs, item two crossed off.  Being far from the shore I will just have to deal with, though actually the shallow dish of the bay means that from point to point it may be 1/2 a mile but from swim to shore is never more than 0.2 miles.  Aside from the pure drudgery of the seemingly unending swim back along the rocky coast it was a care free 1.3 miles.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

St Mary’s Bay is not the same.  For starters the currents are downright perverse and twist and turn around the bay changing from left to right and back again within a few hundred metres.  The swim from beach to Durl Head offers no escape to the shore which is vertical cliffs in most places rising straight from the water.  Then at the mid point of the crossing from headland to headland you are as much as 0.4 miles from shore.  This is an altogether more challenging experience.

I am standing thigh deep in the water just off the beach.  The sea is relatively calm but I know that at low tide the current will generally run north to south.  If I swim out to Durl Head then I will be head on into it, but if I swim across from Sharkham Point in the open water there will be a lot more of it.  The fly in the ointment is the breeze.  It is light but contrary to the forecast it is south-easterly and not northerly.  Had it been northerly I would have both wind and current at my back for the crossing to Sharkham Point.  As it is I will have both wind and the fetch on the waves in my face if I swim south or the current in my face if I swim north.  I am more wary of the current.

I am half way from beach to Durl Head when the current kicks in.  I am keeping a relatively straight course heading for the nick where the rock is separated by a few metres of water from the land, but it is quite clear that I am swimming in a crabwise fashion with my feet pushed to my right.  Of course I could be imagining it except that every now and then a little piece of flotsam crosses my path from left to right at a disturbing pace. That would be disconcerting but for the fact that this is not my first time swimming this course and I am expecting it to be a bit strange.  It is 900m (a little over 1/2 a mile) from beach to rock and it is only in the last 100m that the current is shifted by the rock.  However, now as I turn south I have both current and wind in my face.

It is 300m from the rock to the 5 Knot buoy and this is the challenging bit with the constant slap-slap of wavelets into my face.  My goggles are tucked in my swimwear and I am seriously considering putting them on as I pass the yellow buoy except that ahead of me I can see calmer water.  Nevertheless it is another 200m until there is a marked change in the sea and in the distance of 50m the sea flattens even though it is a further 500m to the headland.  Just off the headland things are very different and I can see a sharp dark line across the water, glittering above and flecked with white where the full current runs headlong into the fetch of the waves and the water tumbles over and over, I am well out of that.

The final 200m in the lee of the headland and the water surface is like glass. Only now with the surface so even can I look down and appreciate how clear the sea is.  Below me are brown kelp covered rocks separated by clear patches of sand and the water has a truly aquamarine tint to it.  Along the shore then across the bay again just seaward of Mussel Rock where two ill placed lobster pots have been left high and dry by the tide.  In the dead calm water I am able to really put some effort into my stroke, reaching out with long firm pulls of my arms I am fairly hurtling past the rock.

Now however I must keep a course parallel to the beach as there are lots of submerged, barnacle covered, skin lacerating rocks just beneath the surface.  I keep on until I am once again directly off shore of my bag and towel before turning in as I know there is a sand filled channel right in to the beach here.  The water is no longer clear but full of sand but the temperature jumps noticeably and then I am touching the bottom in little more than knee deep water.  In all that was 1.4 miles or 2.3km in a fraction under 50 minutes, which I think was pretty fair going.

Tomorrow the wind changes to southerly and I am already planning to swim at Elberry Cove which will have about the only shelter.  The river will have to wait.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall