Between Cold Water, Algae and the Jellyfish

Even in quite big floods there are ‘safe’ places to swim in the river but it is little fun having to fight against currents and cooler water.  So, as a consequence of recent weather conditions the river has been off limits and sea swimming has begun to feature again.

The sea around here is at its coldest in the middle of February when temperatures can dip to 5 or 6 Celsius. The temperature then trends upwards to 19 or 20 Celsius in mid-September where after it dips sharply towards the New Year.  The most pleasant swimming is to be had therefore between now, early June and September.

There are however 2 factors that stand in the way of a long happy summer at sea and the first is already upon us: the jellyfish are here early this year.  They can be wonderful to watch, the huge ‘barrels’ and the transparent ‘crystals’, but it is the compass that come in greatest numbers.

The compass are undoubtedly pretty but they can leave a rash a little like a nettle and they can trail tentacles with sting cells (nematocysts) for up to 2m.  They are also very quick in the water, they don’t just waft on the current and they can ‘see’.  Often if you are able to swim close to them and throw a shadow on them they will in a matter of moments be heading downwards out of harm’s way.

One compass, two compasses, they are most often seen few and far between but when the currents are just right they can mark out the boundary between apparently indistinct bodies of water.  On one such evening last year off Meadfoot Beach the boundary stretched nearly a kilometre and as a ready reckoner I estimated the number at over 5000.  I was very glad to be on the paddleboard at the time.

The other is the algae.  That has been awful the last few years and out of nowhere the shore waters look like they are filled with mulched tissue paper, except it is reddish-brown and it stinks of prawns beyond their best before date.  Some bays and beaches fill completely and in other places it can form a coastal swathe 100m out to sea.  Swimming in it is vile and it stays with you for a day or two no matter what.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

So between cold water, algae and jellyfish there is a window of opportunity and that would seem to be right here, right now.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall


The Towel Two Step

Scabbacombe is unofficially a naturist beach, though what The National Trust who own it might think about that I’m not sure.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Now, if you want to go and take your clothes off and lie in the sun then fair enough Scabbacombe is quite discrete as beaches go.

The key word in that sentence is ‘discrete’.

This is a public beach, people take the kids there and whilst nudity is the natural state there is a subtle difference between ‘lie in the sun’ and ‘sprawl in the sun’.  And, discrete to display to flaunt to flashing is a continuum that means different things to different people under different circumstances.

I am however aware that I am to some degree in residence in a glass house here.  I cannot be doing with the towel two step let alone dry robes, adopting instead the ‘get changed, do it swiftly and discretely and don’t look at the person standing next to you’ method.

Now, if I stood and stared at one of the naturists I am fairly sure I’d get a slap.  Why then should one of them feel it appropriate to stare at me (wearing my swimming leggings, a sure indicator that I’m not one of the flashing community) and then come up to me to discuss the merits of waterproof cameras whilst hanging in the breeze?

By all means do your own thing, but please do it over there.

I have nothing against naturists.

And I would like to keep it that way.

But all that said, it is only for a few weeks in the year; September to May I have the place to myself.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Intergalactic Towel Day

The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy has much to say on the subject of towels.

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

Clearly anyone who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where their towel is, is clearly a person to be reckoned with.

The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.

Towel Day
Intergalactic Towel Day

My towel was given to me when the galaxy was still young, small furry animals from Alpha Centuri were real small furry animals from Alpha Centuri and the Hitch-Hikers trilogy was as yet a radio show in two series.  It did not however come from the Salisbury branch of Marks and Spencer.


Recycling Beach Finds

One thing I have found to do with some of the pot buoys salvaged from the beach (and it doesn’t matter if they have a puncture or a split) is turn them into unusual garden lanterns.

Splice (it’s fun to learn and here’s a stepwise instruction, but tie it on otherwise) a bit of beach found rope to the eye of the buoy.  Remove the valve stopper with a screwdriver and drill out (6mm should do) the valve just wide enough to slide an old piece of electrical appliance flex into the buoy; vacuum cleaner flexes are good as they are nice and long and usually have a moulded on plug too.

Wild Swimming Recycling
Wild Swimming Recycling
Turn the buoy eye down and mark 3/4 of the way around a circular object placed on the buoy; a 1 litre paint tin works for me.  Now cut a 3/4 semicircle (I know but you get the idea) in the other end of the buoy to create a flap just enough to get your hand in.  The plastic is quite easy to cut with a fresh ‘Stanley’ knife blade but look out for your fingers.

Pull the wire through, strip 2 inches (50mm) of the sheath from the flex and 1/4 inch (5mm) off the ends of both the blue and brown wires (cut away the green and yellow earth wire to the sheath of the flex).  Wire on a pendant light fitting (unscrew the 2 parts of the pendant, thread the wires through the ‘cup’ part, fix one to each terminal of the bulb holder part (it doesn’t matter which way round) and hook the wires under the lugs on the bulb holder before screwing the two parts back together).   In an ideal world there will be no wire showing from the pendant only the sheath of the flex, but it’s often a matter of practice to get the wires exactly the right length.  Attach a cable tie to the flex 2 inches (50mm) or so above the light fitting to stop the flex pulling out of the buoy or the wires getting strained and fit a low energy bulb.
Wild Swimming Recycling
Wild Swimming Recycling
Draw the flex back and cable tie the electrical flex to the rope. Change the fuse in the plug to 3amp.

Now hang the buoy up and use silicone sealant to seal around the flex where it enters the valve of the buoy making sure you get the sealant right down around the flex.  Leave it unmoved and allow 24 hours for it to cure and ta da!

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming
Obviously if you are unsure about wiring the lamp holder yourself get some help it really requires only a low level of competence, though a qualified electrician will probably not want to put their name to the project.  And even more obviously and this is only common sense, if you are going to use these outside put a circuit breaker between socket and plug and don’t let (rain) water get to the electrical connections.  I have had these outside all through winter in all weather and they have been just fine so I know if the job is done thoroughly it will be just fine.


In our ‘connected’ multi-media world we are constantly having images of far flung places shoved in front of us; mostly it has to be said by those who would benefit financially from us going off to visit such places, and the temptation is always to speculate how nice it would be to go there.  But surely it must be the case that people in those far flung places would like to be here.

Now, to be fair I would love to see an exploding volcano but whilst it may look great in the travel brochure I’m fairly sure anyone living within lava flow distance of Mt. Etna right now has a different take on the situation.  Similarly, I like pictures of clear tropical seas beneath waving palm trees, paradise day in and day out, but there is something to be said for living somewhere you don’t know quite what you’ll get from one day to the next.  Take this week for example.

Thursday morning there was frost on the shed roof, Saturday was sunny like mid-summer, this morning there was thick fog that blanked out and obscured aforementioned shed.  We had decided yesterday evening to take the van off to Slapton and I was reasonably sure the fog would lift and the beach would be clear.  However, driving down through Totnes and on to Halwell it was impossible to see more than 20m in any direction until we climbed up to the top of the hill and burst through into sunshine.

As beaches go Slapton is on the one hand not much of anything, just a long curve of fine pebbles and sand, mile after mile lapped by clear sun dappled sea throwing up a bright line of surf.  On the other hand Slapton is just a long curve of fine pebbles lapped by clear sun dappled sea etc. etc.  I suspect there are a lot of people who would far rather be looking at that view than the one they have currently.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The pebbles slithered and crunched underfoot and in the surf we had no choice but to push forward into the chill water as the waves were quickly undermining our feet anyway.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The seabed shelves off very steeply so there’s no point going out too far, beyond a certain point it is all the same and rather gorgeous it was too.

Fifteen minutes was perfectly enough to have kicked fountains of spray against the sun and dived down for a dose of ice cream head, a little reminded that it is only the second week of April.  Time now for a coffee and a bacon and egg butty.

All I need now is those palm trees.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall


Shifting Seasons

The equinox and solstice are of course astronomical events that whilst marking a very precise moment in the orbit of the Earth about the Sun (Eppur si muove as they say) are somewhat variable in their timing in relation to an Earth bound calendar.  This year the vernal equinox was yesterday at 10:29 in the morning local time.

Nevertheless on that Earth bound calendar the equinoxes and solstices are used as the marker for winter into spring, or spring into summer etc., as was the case yesterday, but it’s completely arbitrary and has little to do with boots on the ground.  If it were otherwise and marked a genuine environmental change then I feel confident that my boots on the ground would not have met frost this morning.  I am looking for something more.

Yesterday could not have been the beginning of spring.  If spring = sunshine then driving cold rain from a leaden sky does not a spring make.  Today though there is sunshine and bright white fluffy clouds against a blue sky and if I hunker down behind the rocks where there is shelter from the scything wind that carries more than just the memory of the frost this morning, then this could just about be the beginning of spring.  Close enough at any rate.  Why exactly I feel the need to mark these totally arbitrary days with a swim is beyond me.  It’s not like there won’t be more swimming.

The sea is calm under the low cliff out of the breeze, but further out cat’s paws turn the sea into a scratching post and further out again white horses rear against the horizon.  The water is crystal clear by local standards and from my vantage point I’m looking down on a fronds of seaweed waving about a submerged rock that I know to be 6 or 7 feet down and beyond that the seabed glows white, with each pebble clearly seen.

Three, two, one ….

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

There are a number of schools of thought about the best way to get into cold water, many centred on what cold water shock can do to you.  Which is make you drown in case you were wondering.  Most advocate the ‘gently ease your way in’ approach, possibly by splashing your face with the water which apparently helps.  My approach remains, just bloody jump in and remember not to breathe when my head is deep under water no matter what my reflexes may be telling me.

Woo hoo! My yelp echoes back from the encircling rocks.  It would be a shame not to go again. And again.  And 4th time for luck?

The rocks here, though probably not unique, are unusual; dissolved or gouged away by current or marine creatures I don’t know, but they have become pocked and fluted into a many faceted landscape.  Though an absolute sod to walk on they appear distorted in the shimmering sunlight as if in a hall of mirrors.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Fifty meters across the water though there is a small sea arch. It dries out at low tide but today it is just and just submerged.  Diving down under it my head is put in an ice-cream head vice until I emerge puffing and blowing into a lagoon of still water, where the sea bed is all bright white pebbles.

Two walkers are looking down on me.

‘Isn’t it a bit cold?’

‘It’s not warm’ is the best reply I can offer.

Actually now they’ve mentioned it, I am starting to feel it and I have the swim back yet.  Predictably I am distracted by the opportunity to swim through another sunlit channel in the rocks and dive down to the shimmering seabed again before I have to face walking over the barnacle encrusted knives to my towel.

I shiver my way back to the car and my teeth chatter on a mug of tea back in the office.

Nevertheless I have captured a moment of spring, propitiated to the spirits of sunshine and evoked the glamour of summer.  Not bad for an hour’s work.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

A 6th Sense.

Either there are more seals or they are less shy than they once were.  Even back 10 years ago I considered it quite a moment to see a dark head silhouetted against the blue water, though usually only at a distance.

I have had some exciting close encounters too, both good and bad.

There was the time a drifted down the tide near Bell Rock and got within yards of what looked like a pup just shedding is baby fur where he was basking on a rock.  Another time I found a lobster pot buoy wedged high and dry on some rocks and having untangled it and the length of rope I towed it back to the beach with an inquisitive seal getting steadily closer and closer.  Then there is always the seal at Churston Cove who thinks it is fun to swim up and bump your feet, then surface a few feet away watching and waiting and as soon as you swim off again she bumps again.  The first couple of times it made me jump, now it is part and parcel and I know the feel of seal to be soft and yielding and a bit like wet chamois leather.

That has been good to know because there have been other times when something has bumped me and I am now able to tell; it’s soft and a bit slippery, it’s a seal.

Some of those encounters have however not gone so well.  In murky water a seal finds out what you are: food, something to be avoided, something to be chased away or something to get, ahem, more friendly with, by biting.  A seal’s head is actually not dissimilar to a dog’s only 4 times the size and several investigative bites have left me with nicks in my wetsuit or dribbling blood.  Some people get a bit worked up by that: seal’s bites are infectious, go and get antibiotics.  For me or the seal?  I have been around long enough, much of the time up to my elbows in it that any seal foolish to bite me probably will need antibiotics, but if it thinks I limping to the vet to help it out it can damn well think again.

All in all though I have been bitten frequently enough to have developed a 6th sense.  I had a feeling there would be one at St Mary’s Bay the other day and there it was, an inquisitive young one who got within 10 feet of where I was wading in the shallows, but I was going no further and sure enough a little further out an altogether larger, darker, more menacing profile rose and submerged.  A second young one bobbed up too.

Seals at Churson, Elberry, St Mary’s and even Newfoundland Cove are almost a case of more often than not.  Mansands, rarely, Long Sands once, Scabbacombe once or twice.

Today it’s a little after low tide, the sand has been stripped from the foreshore leaving the water full of sand and silt and I just know that somewhere out there today, waiting …. I can feel it, just like you know, though it may only have happened a few times in your life, you know when you wake up that there has been snow overnight.  It is as if you can hear that anechoic silence.  Somewhere out there in that flat calm sea, I can feel it.

I wade out scanning the water. Nothing. I swim out to clearer water.  The gulls are nesting on the cliff and start yammering away at me.  One of them swoops down harrying me, skimming the water just a few feet away then rising up at the end of the pass, making a loop and then back it comes.  This is a regular springtime game here and will be kept up until I turn away from the cliff.  Another gull passes higher overhead and tries a more direct approach pattern bombing the water to my right, its aim is rubbish, fortunately.

I have crossed the bay and swum back to the beach and reached the shallows where I can stand.  Scanning along the surf line and I see there, not 20m away, is a dark head.  It ducks down looking guilty and resurfaces, the water can be no more than waist deep.  We stare at each other and again the seal ducks down only to be forced back up immediately by the next wave.  Then with a casual turn that says ‘I was leaving anyway’ it slides under the water again and vanishes.

And this is how things should be, he keeps his distance over there and I’m not bleeding.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall