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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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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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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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.

 

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Stalker

I have not swum from Petit Tor Beach for probably 18 months.  Whilst it is a lovely little beach of white limestone pebbles it is quite a way to walk and something of an effort down the very slippery path.  The additional appeal for me it that it collects driftwood.  I have stowed my bow saw and I am not disappointed by the 10m long branchless, slender tree trunk that has been wedged between the rocks at the high water mark.

The major downside to the beach is that it attracts naturists and as I step out on the beach there is a man in the altogether having a swim.  That in itself is not a problem and in itself the fact that he then stands there full frontal watching me for the entire time it takes me to get changed and then pick my way down over the stones and get out past the breaking waves is also not a problem.  So long as he keeps his distance.  It is only as I turn and look back from the water that I realize I have another watcher.

In the usual way I have dumped my bag, towel, boots and clothes on the beach.  I work on the principal that if people can see the contents of your bag they are unlikely to walk off with it on the off chance.  Where I have gone wrong today is that my car key is not hidden away under a rock or behind a clump of grass but is still in my bag.  If the bag goes then I have a problem.  It is too late now.  Psychologically though I have the feeling that if two people see a bag that clearly belongs to a 3rd person then either would have to be pretty bold to simply walk over, pick it up and walk off with it.  Whereas in a crowd no-one knows whose is what and that security blanket is ripped away.  In this case there is no safety in numbers.  Ah well, worse things happen at sea.  But I am at sea!

The sun is shining strongly and it is a very warm autumn day, but then the high headland cuts out the sunshine as I swim around to the Gentlemen’s Bathing Place and by the time I clear the headland a band of thin cloud is beginning to pass hazily in front of the sun.  I swim out further but the cloud is creeping forward faster and I am not going to regain the sunshine and now it is becoming chilly.  From way out here though I can see that ‘Watcher No2’ is now leaving the beach and he walks straight by my bag.  Disconcertingly that leaves ‘Watcher No1’ who is also dressing but slowly and is also clearly watching me.  He walks slowly across the beach stopping every ten paces or so to watch me.  I am getting a bit pissed off actually.  Do I swim in and tell him to ‘go away’ or do I string it out and hope he just goes away?

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

He is not going but stands and watches me swim in and pick my way over the pebbles back to my towel.  Eventually, and I do mean eventually, he turns his back and walks off.  I do appreciate I bring this sort of thing on myself, long hair, women’s swimsuit, people make assumptions and people do take a second glance, but this is so far beyond that.  In addition today after the insanity that was last night’s Vegas evening, where in one sketch I was a bride and in the next Lola the showgirl from the song Copacabana, I have bright red painted fingernails and toenails.  Not that those should be visible from a distance.  Why at no point did it occur to me that if I was buying nail polish then remover would be a good idea as maybe there would be none in the house?  Sometimes the hamster falls asleep on the wheel.

It is true though that you can feel when you are being watched and if it is a sixth sense then mine is well tuned.  I turn my head on the pretext of drying my hair and he is still there.  He’s not easy to spot, but there he is just at the point where the footpath starts under the trees, slightly obscured by bushes, but still there and still staring at me.  Has he really not figured yet that he is not going to get a flash of breasts, or is he looking out for something different?  Does he not get that if I were a woman I would certainly never go to this beach by myself right from the get go?  This is creepy and it has spoilt my afternoon.  I turn and stare back and like someone with a guilty conscience he immediately turns and leaves.

Am I still feeling paranoid?  Yes I am.  However, making any sort of sudden approach across these stones is not going to happen and it would take me only a second to grab the saw from my bag and having accidentally nicked myself with it any number of times I suspect it would appear an effective deterrent.

In the meantime I shall cut a length off the tree trunk and give my stalker plenty of time to be somewhere else.

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Sidmouth

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.

 

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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.

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