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


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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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Dodging Storm Brian

I imagined that ultimately my long early morning river swims would be brought low by cold.  The swimming is fine, it’s the shivering afterwards I can live without.  It seems however that it will be rainfall that finally draws a line at the river as more and more often it is simply too flooded to swim.  In that respect ‘Storm Brian’ has made the River Dart unswimable.

Fortunately there is the sea nearby and with some careful planning it is usually possible to find somewhere safe to swim no matter what the general conditions.  The forecast for Sunday morning is strong and gusty westerly (ie blowing from the west) winds so in that respect somewhere under the higher east facing cliffs looks appealing.  The sky is supposed to be clear and a sunrise has been ordered (though as I drive off in the dark it is raining which doesn’t seem promising).  It will be high tide so the current will be flowing northwards, a spring high tide which means flowing quite fast too.  The bay on the north side of Hope’s Nose is therefore an ideal location with one little note of caution.  The tide will sweep by the end of the headland leaving the bay sheltered, but, when it hits Black Head on the far side some flow will be turned back into the bay so that swimming there and back is not as straight-forward as it seems.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The sun just lifts above the horizon as I walk down the hillside and that creates a prolonged sunrise as the two changes in relative position just about cancel each other out.  The water however is grey in the shade of the cliff and a big swell surges over the pebbles though the surface is only a little choppy.  It is quite chilly in the water and out with the wind coming northerly across the bay.  Consequently my plan changes as swimming directly across the bay and head on into the wind and swell will be unpleasant even with or especially because of the current; wind over tide creates the worst in choppy water.  I will instead swim close in under the cliff, into the current, but out of the wind.

I push my way along under the dark and somewhat foreboding cliffs.  One thing is for sure there is no way out of the water along here as the first exit is a tiny beach towards the far end of the bay and a long flight of steps up to someone’s garden.  As I reach the bay I also cross the meridian into the sunshine, my direction of travel now working with the rising sun.  The cliffs light up and the sky glows blue above the trees.  Two cormorants are winging towards me, flying into the sun and clearly they’ve not seen me.  They are only a few meters ahead of me and possibly only 1 meter above the water when they suddenly swing one left and one right and I feel the downdraught of their wing beats.

Out by the point and I swim through a patch of dead water flecked with leaves and twigs and suddenly I am swimming forward at twice the pace I was as the tidal current catches me.  I am going only as far as the point, another 30m or so, no further as I have to swim against this next.

The swim back is something of a chore especially once I re-enter the shadow of the cliffs and everything once more loses its vibrancy turning now to dull shades of brown and khaki with the trees black silhouettes against the sky.  Returning to the beach is something of a relief.  However no sooner have I stepped from the water and pulled a towel from my bag than I look down to the waves swirling around the rock and no more than 5m from where I am standing a seal is bobbing in the waves.  At this close range I can clearly see individual whiskers and the stippled fur.  We look at each other, then the seal ducks under, resurfaces 5m further out and then gently floats out of sight around the next big rock.  I suspect this may be the seal that hangs about here and takes fish from the hooks of the fishermen and once he realizes I have no food he’s off to someone who might.

There is a moment now for a quick litter pick and it’s off home after an already eventful morning even though it is not yet 10 o’clock.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Swimming in the Forest

The drowned prehistoric forest off the west coast of Wales at Borth is possibly the best known example of its kind in the UK.  There are other examples dating back to two glacial periods 11 000 to 14 000 years ago when sea levels were lower with the water locked into massive ice sheets.  One such is in Torbay, though I have never seen it.

It takes a ‘just so’ combination of very low spring tides and a scouring current to remove the sand for the tree stumps to be exposed.  The tide today is not low enough but the sand at Broadsands is piled high against the sea wall especially at the left hand end of the beach such that the usual pebble bank and jumbled rocks are sunk in the sand.  However as I walk down the beach and wade out into the shallow water picking my way over the unseen pebbles none of this has yet occurred to me.

I step onto what I at first assume is a weed covered rock, then there are more.  Slowly it dawns on me that these are very soft rocks even were they covered in weed and more to the point the shapes are twisted and not rounded.  I step up onto another soft twisted mass and then down onto sand.  I am clambering over the roots and stumps of the fossil trees.  It is only a shame that though the water is only knee deep, thigh deep, knee deep, bum deep, it is so churned up that nothing is visible.

Then I am off and swimming for the point with my back to the beach.  As I turn across the bay I can see two figures by my bag doing the ‘swimsuit dance of modesty’ and I figure I have company after all.  As they begin to walk down the beach I begin to swim in, meeting them where the water is neck deep.  We bob steady out into deeper water talking about weather, Portuguese man of’ War, the last time we swam together which must be 3 years and swimming in foreign lands where the water was a sight warmer than it is here today.

We swim on taking a zig-zag course that eventually leads back to the beach where I swim on rather than wade through the shallows until I finally run aground in not quite knee deep water.

Unfortunately now that looks like the end of the road for at least a few days.  More heavy rain is forecast and the river this morning looked unswimable.  With the  heavy rain comes also a weekend of gale force winds so any attempt at a long sea swim is also doomed.  I guess autumn has finally caught up.


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

Portuguese Man o’ War, Finally (and current best advice should you get stung).


Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

A few of these were first reported off the coast of South-West England a month ago, but much further south on beaches in the far west of Cornwall.  Over the intervening weeks the prevailing winds have slowly moved them eastwards along the coast and last week they were being washed ashore in numbers just west of Rame Head with a few as far north as Teignmouth, but I had not yet seen one.  I have been fascinated by them for as long as I can remember and did briefly consider driving down to Arymer Cove yesterday morning but it couldn’t really be justified on the off chance.  Besides, the southerly winds of Hurricane Ophelia would surely push them into Torbay.

The fore-runners of Ophelia arrived this morning, low clouds masking a blood red sun and all morning the clouds had an eerie orange glow due to a combination of Saharan dust and smoke from the wildfires raging across Portugal carried aloft.  But at lunchtime the wind picked up from almost nothing to gusts of 40knots and the sky cleared to cloudless blue.

The only place then that would be worthwhile swimming was St Mary’s Bay and there would be a slight chance of flotsam being washed ashore.  And finally there on the beach was a stranded and battered Portuguese Man o’ War exhibiting the brilliant blue and pink colours that had always seemed to bright to be true.  Another lay a few meters away and another much smaller but that was all.

These are not jellyfish which are fully integrated multicellular animals but colonial cell colonies of the order Siphonophora where the cells (zooids) group together assuming individual functions such that they cannot survive in isolation.  They carry powerful stinging nematocyst cells on the tentacles which may trail for 10m or more in the sea and can cause anything from an extremely painful sting, to blistering, to long term muscle and nerve damage right through to death.  Fortunately though and despite the many sightings I have not heard of anyone getting stung.  Current best treatment guidance in that event is to soak the area in ordinary vinegar and then immerse in hot water or apply a hot gel pack for as long as possible.  This research does however run contrary to generally accepted best practice, but I’d rather trust real science any day of the week.

There are however only 3 and they are all at the windward end of the beach so a swim is in order at the other end of the beach, though swim in this case is more of a short bounce in the waves.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

As the day goes on more and more are reported along the coast.  Plague of beasties and blood red sun, no wonder the internet is alive with those forecasting the apocalypse.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall