For and Against

As I walk down the path to Hope’s Nose I can see dimly across to Berry Head in the half light of a failed dawn.  The sea is cut with ranks of waves and from below me on the exposed beach I can hear the crash of surf.  I have however chosen my destination with care and the bulk of Hope’s Nose screens the bay on the north side where the water is oily flat calm with not even the slightest wave breaking on the grey low tide pebbles.

Part of the reason for the rough sea in the bay is that the wind from the south is running counter to the tidal flow from the north.  I will meet the current but as I swim away from the beach into the clear aqua-green water there is no hint of it.  Ahead of me the surface is without a ripple, but glancing over my shoulder I can see I am leaving a wake that stretches back out of sight from my low vantage point.  Not for the first time I wonder what a watcher from the high cliff above would see?

It is a fraction over a mile across the two bays to Long Quarry Point and it is out in the middle of the first bay that I begin to notice the current; I am pushing forward quite hard but moving only slowly against the shore.  Nevertheless the dark basalt mass of Black Head with the bright red weathered sand and Bishop’s Rock high above is slowly coming closer.  I pass two lobster pot buoys directly off the point as Redgate Beach and Anstey’s Cove are slowly revealed in front of me so I am at least going forward though for a moment I was beginning to wonder.  I am half way but I can feel I am going more and more slowly and I begin to think that actually reaching Long Quarry is a pipedream, except that I have swum this before.

The pillar of Long Quarry Point remains obstinately far off.  The headland was quarry away for ‘Torquay Marble’ actually an ancient coral reef full of fossils and coloured bands which makes it an attractive decorative stone.  The pillar at the end, as with Durl Rock, was no doubt left as a marker for shipping especially the barges that moored up and carried the stone certainly as far as Cardiff where the town hall façade is made of it.  On a recent visit to Belfast I happened to go to The Crown Bar, a rather eccentric pub owned by the National Trust and if I were laying bets I would say the two pillars that make the portico were also Torbay Marble.

The last 50m nearly defeats me but finally I slap my hand on the barnacle and mussel covered limestone that I have swum off so many times before.  It has taken me almost 50 minutes to cover a mile, a distance that should have taken no more than 40.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The light is still dull and gloomy but I take a few photos anyway as much as anything to say ‘I was ‘ere’.  Now, I should go a little faster.  Immediately I can feel the push of the current and a quick glance over my shoulder shows Long Quarry rapidly receding.  I fly by Black Point in the blink of an eye.  There is a little more swell now or maybe it is just because I am now swimming into it and a little more breeze on the water, but Hope’s Nose is getting closer and closer.

I step down onto the grey pebbles and do a double take at my watch: 50 minutes there, 30 minutes back, which, yes, averages to about 35 minutes to the mile.

And the best thing is that I do not feel in the least bit chilled.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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Double Dip Tuesday

As I load my bag into the car Venus is shining brightly in an eastern sky that is just beginning to lighten and high above me the baleful red eye of Betelgeuse still shines brightly.  The thermometer on the dash of the car beeps for the first time in maybe six months to tell me the temperature is 3.5C.  The air is perfectly still.

A few miles later as I unload my bag Betelgeuse has winked out whilst Venus is fading as the sky brightens bluer and yet the woods seem even darker than yesterday morning.  An owl hoots far off in the trees to my right to be answered by the keening of a buzzard directly above me.  I am not however alone in this dawn madness and one of the regular dog walkers passes me.  “You’re not going swimming?”  “Of course.”  “You’re mad.”  He may have a point.  Meanwhile far off at the turn of the path a will-o-the-wisp light from a jogger’s headtorch flicks amongst the trees and is lost.

The river is indistinguishable from yesterday, flowing fast, flecked with whirling streaks of bubbles and just covering the top ‘step’.  I am double swimsuited (again) and once more though the water (11.9C I find out later) needles at my exposed arms and legs there is a distinct warmth across my chest and stomach.  “But is this just reinventing the wetsuit?” someone posted as a reply to my comments on social media yesterday.  Well yes, sort of, except I can put on 2 swimsuits under my clothes to drive down and 2 wet swimsuits are easier to pack up and dry later than a wetsuit.  Otherwise, yes I have reinvented the wetsuit.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It’s effective though and 40 minutes later having swum through a sunrise that no longer graces the river’s surface with any direct sunlight in stark contrast to just 2 weeks ago I climb out feeling reasonably warm with only very minor shivers to follow, but icy blocks for feet.  Having said a brief ‘Hi’ to the other regular morning dipper I stamp off through the sun dappled woods in an effort to pound some warmth back into frozen toes.  Distantly the church clock chimes for eight.

I have fully recovered by lunchtime and have a window of opportunity which takes me to St Mary’s Bay.  Conditions are near perfect with the outward swim to Durl Head in the sheltered lee of the cliffs but then wind and current will carry us across the bay to Sharkham and then in past Mussel Rock.  ‘Us’, for I am not alone.  I have been joined by Dave who swims locally but has not previously had the opportunity to swim out to Durl Head and Anthony who is on a bit of a holiday, is a relative newcomer to outdoor swimming and is tackling this as his first full on sea swim.. For a first outing it is a bold move being 1.5 miles around with little opportunity to exit early.  There are plenty of experienced sea swimmers who would think carefully about this swim and so they should, I have, matching wind, tides and currents for optimum safety.

50m out from the beach and we leave behind the sand filled water and as sharply as if it were a line drawn in the sand pass into the bright clear greeny-blue water of the open bay.  We take it gently out to Durl Head and whilst I may have done this a dozen times before it is a gorgeous sun filled day in calm water and to be enjoyed as if it were the first time.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Dave is not keen to swim the full circuit.  I personally have no issues with swimming by myself and respect Dave’s judgment that he is quite happy to take it slowly and swim back in to the beach in the sheltered water by himself.  Anthony and I strike out for Sharkham Point.  It is only the 3rd of October but the 5 knot buoy has been taken in on the deadline with the coming of autumn sometime between Thursday and today.  As we leave the lee of the land the sea becomes splashier but from behind us and not in our faces.  We also pick up the current and from half way across the pace towards the headland accelerates appreciably.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Where the current meets the headland the water is in part turned in towards the beach and all the while the wind is slackening as we move into the lee of the land again.  Treading water just outside Mussel Rock to grab a few snaps of Anthony I line up the end of the rock with a marker on the far cliff.  A wave lifts me up a few inches and sweeps me in towards the beach, and again, and again and it is evident that I am moving at quite a pace with no effort.  No effort however means no warmth and as I get into the still water I go flat out for the final few 100 meters so that Dave and I arrive almost simultaneously back at our start point.

We are ready to head back to the cars when the seal pops his head up.  I have mixed feelings about seals and possibly as this could be the one who once took a hefty ‘nip’ at my ankle on this same beach the feeling is not entirely filled with love.  As we walk down the beach he follows us no more than 10m out from the tide line, but he does seem to have a 6th sense for when Anthony has his camera ready and manages to roll and duck out of shot every time bar the last.

We part in the car park in gloriously warm sunshine, but there was a nip in the water today and the 5 knot buoys are taken in for a reason, there will not be many more opportunities to make this circuit this year.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall