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

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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Portuguese Man o’ War, Finally (and current best advice should you get stung).

 

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

A few of these were first reported off the coast of South-West England a month ago, but much further south on beaches in the far west of Cornwall.  Over the intervening weeks the prevailing winds have slowly moved them eastwards along the coast and last week they were being washed ashore in numbers just west of Rame Head with a few as far north as Teignmouth, but I had not yet seen one.  I have been fascinated by them for as long as I can remember and did briefly consider driving down to Arymer Cove yesterday morning but it couldn’t really be justified on the off chance.  Besides, the southerly winds of Hurricane Ophelia would surely push them into Torbay.

The fore-runners of Ophelia arrived this morning, low clouds masking a blood red sun and all morning the clouds had an eerie orange glow due to a combination of Saharan dust and smoke from the wildfires raging across Portugal carried aloft.  But at lunchtime the wind picked up from almost nothing to gusts of 40knots and the sky cleared to cloudless blue.

The only place then that would be worthwhile swimming was St Mary’s Bay and there would be a slight chance of flotsam being washed ashore.  And finally there on the beach was a stranded and battered Portuguese Man o’ War exhibiting the brilliant blue and pink colours that had always seemed to bright to be true.  Another lay a few meters away and another much smaller but that was all.

These are not jellyfish which are fully integrated multicellular animals but colonial cell colonies of the order Siphonophora where the cells (zooids) group together assuming individual functions such that they cannot survive in isolation.  They carry powerful stinging nematocyst cells on the tentacles which may trail for 10m or more in the sea and can cause anything from an extremely painful sting, to blistering, to long term muscle and nerve damage right through to death.  Fortunately though and despite the many sightings I have not heard of anyone getting stung.  Current best treatment guidance in that event is to soak the area in ordinary vinegar and then immerse in hot water or apply a hot gel pack for as long as possible.  This research does however run contrary to generally accepted best practice, but I’d rather trust real science any day of the week.

There are however only 3 and they are all at the windward end of the beach so a swim is in order at the other end of the beach, though swim in this case is more of a short bounce in the waves.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

As the day goes on more and more are reported along the coast.  Plague of beasties and blood red sun, no wonder the internet is alive with those forecasting the apocalypse.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Hunt for the Portuguese man o’ war

The first reports of these colonial animals washing up on Cornish beaches came in about 2 weeks ago since when they have made slow and steady progress along the coast.  Yesterday there was a photo of one on the beach at Blackpool Sands just 10 miles south of here and this morning in the estuary of the River Dart and that is right on the doorstep.  The downside is the wind has turned northerly so progress in this direction along the coast will likely be severely curtailed.  I would love to see one, but not too up close and personal.

The conditions for a swim around St Mary’s Bay could hardly be better.  From the beach I can swim out to Durl Rock in the shelter of the high cliffs of Berry Head.  From Durl Rock past the 5 knot buoy and across the open water to Sharkham Point I will have the wind behind me and the tidal current will be swinging around behind me too.  The swim in along the beach should then not be a problem.

Despite the sea being nearly flat calm there is an awful lot of sand stirred up along the surf line but 50m out and it has been swept away by the current which is swinging south along the beach.  Ironically that means the current further out is still to the north but it is being turned around in the bay in a huge vortex by the headland.  I can actually feel it as I swim, zipping along in a still patch of water and then 10m later hitting it head on, only for that to be followed by another still patch.  It is actually possible to see it swinging the water about and carrying bubbles hither and thither.  Consequently it takes me 25 minutes to cover the ½ mile to Durl Rock.

Turning south and I’m off like Michael Phelps.  Last week I battered headlong into both wind and current as far as the 5 knot buoy whereas today it looks closer stroke after stroke.  Out here away from beach and rocks the water is beautifully clear; a deep, dark aquamarine, and even the algae that streaked the water beneath the cliff have gone.  I drift past the buoy before turning to swim again and now the headland before me is fairly looming.  The second ½ mile took only 15 minutes, these things even out.

I am headlong into the current again, I can tell because I am now swimming water that is almost white with sand carried off the beach ahead of me.  As I draw level with Mussel Rock I turn towards it, skirting it on the beach side.  The water is a little clearer here which is just as well as I do not want to graze myself on the barnacle covered rocks.  A lone seagull stands sentinel on the high point, first on one leg, then on the other perhaps undecided about the swimmer and whether to stay or go. 

I keep my course parallel to the beach a little way out where there is less swell and little chance of hitting any submerged rocks before finally turning in towards my bag with a last big push to get back in a fraction over an hour.  That was slow, but there was never really any rush.

Should you happen to get stung by one of these or indeed by a jellyfish the current best advice is douse the area in vinegar (it has to be vinegar other acidic washes are not effective) and then apply heat (45C) for up to 45 minutes by immersion in hot water or with a hot gel pack.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall