The run along the seafront turned from a jog to a sprint as the grey-black wall of cloud rose higher above the hillside, blotting out the blue sky. I reached the van with seconds to spare. The wind hit first rocking the van, snapping back the branches on the tree and sending clouds of leaves whirling along the road. Then the rain hit and the rear windows blurred with water and in moments streams cascaded down the windscreen. Hmm, this needs rethinking, but already blue sky was chasing the trailing edge of the cloud.
10 minutes later and a different roadside and there’s more blue sky and a watery sun behind suffused cloud, whilst meanwhile across the bay the sea is a dark shade of green crested with breaking waves and the black clouds continue to throw down rain in grey sheets that blot out the horizon. The beach here is in the shelter of the cliff and as I kick off my shoes the sunshine lights the small waves breaking amongst the seaweed matted rocks. Another wave swirls in and the sunlight pulses brighter in synchronicity to the ebb and flow. But the sun is already sliding behind the hill and the line of light ends abruptly where the waves break.
Insert the name of your chosen deity here! that’s cold! I think I am the only swimmer on social media who is not doing a Dip a Day December, not doing the Polar Bear Challenge and not doing the 12kms of Christmas, so why am I doing this? Ahhh, because of things like that, a full rainbow climbs across the sky and then the leading seaward end dives down to the horizon, all of it bright lit against the dark cloud.
I have stopped paying attention to the cold, but as the display fades I become acutely aware that I am now quite a long way from my towel and properly cold.
And it’s another 2 months until the sea temperature reaches its annual minimum.
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.
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.
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.
As a seagull did something less than appropriate on my swimming bag when I left it on the beach earlier it needed a wash so I tipped the contents out. Of course what an individual carries in their swim bag is personal to each of us, some carry more, whereas I try to travel light. It is however now decidedly chilly both in and out of the water so I am stepping up to the challenge of a mile a day by carrying a little extra:
Fleece hat, neck buff and gloves,
Foam changing mat,
Bags for wet swimwear,
Swimwear, back-up swimwear, extra back-up swimwear,
Karabiner and hair bands
Goggles, noseclip, ear plugs,
No more tears (for anti-misting goggles),
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.
I read a post by someone the other day that said something to the effect of ‘it’s a really rough beach, all pebbles, and footwear is essential’. Which is odd, as I swim at that same beach a lot and whilst it is pebbles they are all smooth. When it comes to what is seen as necessary kit then some of it is highly personal and is about boosting self-confidence.
Thoughts at this time of year with the temperature falling turn inevitably to winter essentials. I have never felt the need for any sort of footwear irrespective of temperature, duration or conditions underfoot (though on that score I have cut my feet so many times I think they are now mostly past it).
I do sometimes wear gloves but that’s not about temperature it is because of a long standing problem from broken bones in my hand which from time to time comes back to haunt me and means something like picking up a coffee cup is quite painful (I keep straws handy just in case) and the repeated push of water on my hand can be very painful, the gloves just give support, though actually, as today, strapping my thumb to my forefinger with a hair band does just as well if not better.
I will swim on as the temperature drops, managing about 30 minutes at 7-8°C before reaching for the wetsuit, but around our bit of coast that is about where the temperature bottoms out. And I will continue to swim shorter times, much shorter times, without the wetsuit in the river which can get down to zero C.
Nevertheless it is personal preference but if you feel footwear and/or gloves and/or woolly hat and/or anything works for you then it works for you there is no universal right or wrong.
For reasons that are not entirely clear to me I decided it would be a top idea to swim out to Thatcher Rock this morning. It was a top idea, but with every kind of weather from full on sunshine to pelting rain and howling wind and a full rainbow. By the time I’d circled the bay, been to the rock and got back I’d done nearly a mile.
I always, always take my goggles sea swimming (well unless it is just a little dip) because any number of times I have set off in flat calm water only to get where there is more current or wind or chop and trying to swim on with every wave filling my eyes with sea water is very wearing. Whilst I try to look after my goggles it is inevitable that many hours and many miles of being in use will wear the newness off, most especially the anti-fog coating. Trying to swim whilst not being able to see through fog or dazzling sunlight may if anything be worse than having salt water in the eyes. No, actually on reflection it’s not.
The anti-fog coating will wear off no matter how carefully the goggles are cared for, but that does not then mean they are written off.
The solution of last minute desperation is to spit on the goggles then rinse, but generally spit is not in the least bit bacteria free and as a rule you probably wouldn’t spit in your eye. It really is the last resort.
Now, you can buy, at a relatively huge cost, sprays which restore the anti-fog, but only for a single swim.
There is however a cheap and 100% effective alternative: baby shampoo. One brand is Johnson’s No More Tears which is worth mentioning by name simply because it does exactly what it says on the label (or doesn’t do? I’m confused, but it does not me cry anyway). Just wipe the tiniest smear over the inside of the goggles with a fingertip and that’s it. Don’t rinse, there is no need, the clue is in the name!
The principal is simple. Scratches in the goggles allow tiny beads of water to ‘nucleate’ and so the goggles mist up. The shampoo coats the imperfections and any water vapour dissolves into the soap leaving a perfect and most crucially, see through film.
After swimming, wash, dry and re-apply. A branded spray may be as much as £5 / 20ml and is gone in no time. Baby shampoo is £0.80 / 200ml and a single bottle will last a lifetime. Unless of course you also use it to wash your hair (guilty as charged) but that is never going to work with anti-fog spray.