Elberry sunshine after the storm

wild swimming
wild swimming

Two organized mass beach cleans and no doubt countless 2 minute beach cleans have almost cleared Elberry Beach of the wreckage from the destroyed kiosk at Shoalstone Pool and the devastated conservatory of the Breakwater Bistro.  And now the large piles of bin bags and general waste are being hauled away bit by bit, day by day.  That leaves just a remodeled beach, several piles of scrap wood and a couple of tree trunks, and I have intentions towards some of that, which is in part why I am back.

Today the beach is also sheltered form the wicked chill breeze, well mostly, it is in the far corner where I am getting changed anyway and I’m in the sunshine too.  I swam here yesterday and the sea was quite calm but there was nowhere out of the breeze and no sunshine either.  No surprise then that I am here to take full advantage of the change of fortunes.

In the way that it happens my eyes begin to tune in to the glass fragments amongst the pebbles as I am changing and the broken bucket I picked up starts to fill: clink, clink, clink.  The more you look the more you see in green, brown and ‘clear’, some frosted, some fresh faced with sharp edges.  I have picked up sea glass here before but this is madness and I begin to wonder what storm process brought so much to the surface of the beach.  I also wonder how soon it will be before I tread on a sharp bit.

I am glad then to be buoyed up by the aquamarine water, but it feels considerably colder than yesterday despite the sunshine or maybe that’s it, the contrast with the warm beach simply makes the water feel colder.  I have gone no more than ½ way along the beach than the first walker stops to stare.

wild swimming
wild swimming

I zig-zag back and forth along the beach twice, it takes a little over 20 minutes to cover about 700m with progress slowed by the photo opportunities offered by such a perfect setting.  Yesterday I swam further out and did 500m but at a substantially faster rate.  Today though I now have 2 fan clubs, one gathered on and around the bench on the headland, the other sat on the pebbles.

I stagger back up the beach with the small rounded stones digging painfully into my numbed feet.  I’m also cold and strip off disregarding the fan club.  I’m the same pink shade as a boiled lobster and shivering like a leaf, it’s not a pretty sight but both times I shoot a glance at my fan club the woman is watching me right back.  God knows why, it cannot be a pretty sight as I fight my damp clammy skin into clingy clothes.  But then I’m done.

I hoist a length of wood onto one shoulder and grab the bucket with it’s collection of glass and general litter in the other and stamp my warming way back to the car.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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Swimsecure Dry Bag Tow Float

I have never been entirely convinced about the need for any sort of swimming tow float.  In part that was because I was apprehensive about having something towing along between my legs and partly because I could not imagine what I would so desperately need to take along when swimming.  Other people talk about phones, water bottles or car keys.  Then again my approach to the security of personal possessions is haphazard.  I either spread my stuff out and leave it on the presumption that someone might pick up a bag but they are unlikely to pack it first and will assume there are no valuables or I tuck my car keys into a nook in a wall, behind a bush or even just under a stone.  It is a game of chance however the places I swim are not high crime.

The other aspect of a tow float is of course simply to be seen and that for me is something of a double edged sword.  Again whilst the places I often swim are more ‘obscure’ and therefore exempt from the jet skies and pleasure boats that have become a plague in recent years, that obscurity does mean that any boat that may pass by is unlikely to be keeping a lookout for a swimmer.  However there have been several near misses with jet skis for other swimmers even on ‘swimming’ beaches this year.  Furthermore, as more swimmers use brightly visible floats, those without have become almost invisible.

swim secure dry bag tow float
swim secure dry bag tow float

Enter on the scene the Swimsecure combined dry bag and tow float.  Taking it from the package I had to reach for sunglasses, the pink colour is beyond bright, it is stellar.  No-one could possibly miss it, and the pink colour distinguishes it clearly from the many lobster pot floats, it’s a clear statement ‘Swimmer Over Here!’.    My first impression is also that the material is very high quality and this has been made to do its job in all the conditions a person could reasonably swim in.  In addition the inner can readily be washed clean.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The capacity is 18 litres though that probably reduces to about half with the neck rolled down.  Even so there is room enough for a towel, car keys, phone, a pair of shoes, sunglasses and paperback, should you find you need all these.

Having put items into the bag and rolled and fastened the neck the bag is inflated by blowing into the non-return valves for the independent front and back compartments.  The float is then attached through either carry handle to a short leash and looped onto the waist strap.  A set of D rings fitted beside the clip where the bag top rolls down could also be used to attach the leash using the karabiner provided.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I have now had an opportunity to use the float in calm and rough conditions, still air and strong winds, swimming crawl and breast stroke.  Under all these conditions the float has been all but unnoticeable whilst swimming without catching on arms or legs and offering no drag.  The float rides high in the water and the contents have remained bone dry.

After use to remove the contents and pack away simply remove the non-return valves.

Whilst I cannot promise to use it for every swim the advantages are obvious and having had a couple of boat near misses myself not to use it would be foolish.  However where I am really looking forward to using it will be the ability to jog to a spot swim across a bay and then jog back with dry shoes, I have plans already so roll on summer.

All I can really say in conclusion is ‘why did I not get one sooner?’.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

St Mary’s Bay

St Mary’s is a gem of a beach.

It’s hard enough to get to that most people simply do not bother, even in summer with 2 huge holiday camps within a 20 minute walk people simply do not bother.  On the other hand it’s not that hard to get to and I can be here in about 15 minutes from work.  Park at the top and run down the steps, though as they are nearly vertical that is probably enough to put a lot of people off.

The beach changes.  Sometimes it is a wide sweep of sand, though there are always more pebbles at the Brixham end.  The pebbles come in pure frosted white quartz, or patterned with green or red.  Others are grey-green and often show fossils.  Some are rust red with iron minerals and others are dove grey and can be whole fossil corals.  On some tides though the sand vanishes leaving sweeping fluted bedrock or jumbled rocks with hidden treasure if you know where to look; one lunchtime I picked up about 40 coins from old pennies through sixpences, a thrupence and on to recent decimal coins.

One of the principal qualities are the high cliffs that box it in on three sides so that on most days when the sea elsewhere may be getting kicked into a fierce chop by the wind, one end or other of St Mary’s will be nearly calm.

Today is a day of sand which moulds softly to the print of my feet and is slightly warm in the late winter sunshine.  There is only a slight breeze at beach level and the water is flat calm.

wild swimming
wild swimming

I wade out until the water is to the top of my thighs and then launch into the blue sea.  Cold water acclimatization I believe is 50% mental preparation and I tell myself the sea is not cold.  It is a blatant lie.

I swim lazily out to Mussel Rock and swing around the seaward side giving it a wide berth as I know there are some sharply barnacled rocks in places and the water is not clear enough to see them clearly.  This is only a quick dip though and I swim back in until I am amongst the wavelets and my feet brush the sand with each kick.

A quick dash up the beach, dress and rinse the sand from my toes in the little stream and I can be back at work before anyone notices I’ve been out for lunch.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Big Surf

The easterly breezes have persisted and strengthened and any thoughts of getting to the sea for a swim are no more than flights of fancy.  Bob, bounce or even frolic maybe, but swim, not a chance.  Frustratingly then the skies are clear and blue and the sunshine pleasantly warm.

The westerly facing coasts should however be relatively sheltered and as I have not done much to expand my Wild Swimming Devon & Cornwall map of late so I’m on a road trip to Bude.

It must be 25 years at least since I was last in Bude but little has changed more than superficially.  The tree at the bottom of the high street is taller and the ‘tat’ in the shops is ‘tattier’.  But it’s true.

It’s about high tide at the pool and waves periodically wash over the wall with an occasional larger one flinging over a fountain of spray.  And the changing place on the edge of the pool is almost entirely sheltered from the wind, whilst being in full sunshine.  My plan has clearly paid off.

I slip and slide down the concrete slope until I reach knee depth water and feel sand and pebbles under my toes.  The thermometer said 7°C, well in the sunshine and in the shallows maybe but it is colder than that and chatting with Lizzie one of the local swimmers afterwards she says 5°.  I’m going with 5 as I set off energetically towards the far end of the pool and by the time I reach the end I have hardened to it.

Six lengths and about 500m however are quite enough and I nip out to grab the camera as the waves have got much bigger.  A couple slosh curtains of water into the pool from off the flat top of the wall and then the one I’m waiting for bursts over the wall in a wave of white foam which sizzles across the pool and swamps me.  Bobbing about in the water not swimming has got me chilled.  I get dressed but then continue to faff about taking photos until my hands shake uncontrollably and my fingertips are numb.

It is only a 15 minute drive to Widemouth Bay.  Here the waves are crashing on the beach in long lines of surf with their crests thrown back in streaming veils by the offshore breeze.  There is no shelter here so I change in the van, throw my hoodie over the top and walk barefoot to the tideline.  There are a few surfers but I am the only swimmer.  However, there is no real chance of swimming each wave knocks me off my feet and all I can manage is a half dozen strokes between each wave.  Even ducking under the breaking waves does not move me forward and chilled once more after 15 minutes I retire to the comfort of a fresh dry towel and the relative warmth of the van.

I’ll have to take a look at the map back home and pick out some more north coast swim spots as that has been far too uch fun not to do it again soon.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Razorbill

The gannets that were so much a feature of the bay through January have moved on.  That is possibly not a surprise as there can only be just so many fish in the sea and the assault from the air was relentless.  However as I set off from St Mary’s Beach there were 2 or 3 far out in the open water.

The first 50m out from the beach always seems hardest, obviously there is a surf and as a consequence the water always carries a lot of stirred up sand making it opaque so that progress seems slow and there is always the lurking fear of a surprise seal attack.  The divide between sandy and clear water is often almost as sharp as if it has been scratched out with a knife as it appears today.

‘Out here’ the sea in the sunshine holds the deepest shade of greeny-blue and the sun takes the edge off the cold.  It is however much bumpier than it appeared from the beach and I am getting bounced up and down more than I am going forward.  It doesn’t matter I am only in it for the fun of it today.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I’m not really paying attention and nor it seems is the razorbill.  I’ve got just so close several times before but the bird has a sly way of turning away so it is always looking over its shoulder with a clear line of escape.  Today though it surfaces almost within grasp and I finally get a clear look at the sturdy beak that gives it the name.  With a startled fluster of feathers the bird dives and I don’t see it again.

I swim off in the direction of Mussel Rock but out of the shelter of the headland the sea gets dramatically rougher in no time at all.  But out here is where the gannets are and one comes in low in a majestic sweep that turns up and without a wing beat carries the bird high and far out to sea, looping its way out past Sharkham Point.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

However, I’m tired of being thrown about so it’s time to pull my goggles time and head back in and surprisingly it has been almost 30 minutes swimming.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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?

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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