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.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall


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


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Hats, Boots and Gloves

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.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

All Kinds of Crazy

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming



Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

When the Newness Wears off Goggles

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.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Cold Water Swimming

A good Article on Hypothermia appeared in my reading list recently.  The single most important point in this article is that hypothermia takes time a message I have been pushing for years.  However, time and again alarmist and misleading information is put about by reputable organizations up to and including the RNLI that suggests hypothermia can set in or kill you in just a few minutes.

As the article explains there is a gasp reflex (cold shock reflex) from sudden immersion in cold water (walk into a cold shower if you want to try this) and clearly if your face is underwater that can be almost instantly fatal.

Hypothermia takes time, though the exact time will vary with water temperature, alcohol consumption, natural body insulation, and simply how warm you are to start with.  Nevertheless as the article points out, long before full hypothermia sets in ability becomes impaired so that you may well be unable to make even a short swim back to safety.

Perhaps the most relevant part for cold water swimmers concerns the description of the ‘recovery’ stage.  It is all very well to say “wrap up, do not move, get warm”, but that is a luxury swimmers do not have.  Arriving back on river bank or beach the imperative is to get warm as quickly as possible because the immediate problem is ‘afterdrop’.

After the exertion of swimming for a few moments all seems well, but removed from the water the response of the body is to once more circulate blood from the core back to the extremities that have been experiencing reduced blood flow in order to retain heat in the core.  Now of course cold blood is circulating back into the core and the shivering and discomfort of afterdrop sets in.  There is perhaps barely time from exiting the water until shivering becomes so severe that it becomes a challenge to tie shoe laces.

This is the point at which following the advice in the article one would sit still, drink warm tea and wait the shivers out.  Some people do indeed go in for wrapping up in a swimming robe and/or hugging a hot water bottle or get in their car with the heater going.  My problem with the latter is that all the layers just put on are as effective at keeping warmth out as warmth in.  Besides recovering from the shivers can take an hour and who has that long to sit and warm up?  Whilst driving with the shivers would I imagine be as dangerous as driving whilst drunk.

Therefore there is little choice left in the matter; if sitting still is not an option then getting moving is not a choice it is the only option.  It is my preferred option.  I am not suggesting attempting a half marathon, not wearing all those clothes anyway, but a good stomp certainly gets the warming up process started.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

For local swimmers here in Devon this is a timely discussion.  The temperature of the river water is down almost 5°C on just two weeks ago; 8.5°C yesterday afternoon in the sunshine but only 7.5°C this morning after the frost.  The sea temperature has also started to drop, though it has stayed unseasonably ‘warm’ through October it is now sliding down past 15°C and will probably reach 5-6°C by mid-February.  Meanwhile the river can get to minus figures.  People will keep on swimming though so it is important to separate fact from fiction and focus on the real dangers and not hypothermia which is simply a word most people recognize but few seem to understand.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming



Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Polar Bears

One of the local swimmers I meet with occasionally has a thing for ‘ice miles’.  It is far worse than it sounds.  The goal is to swim 1 mile in open water less than 4°C.  Not content with doing it the once she has now done it three times.  The most I have ever inadvertently managed was about ¾ mile in the sea at the end of November where the water was most probably about 10°C.  After that I was literally a gibbering blob and the concentration required to tie my boot laces was like being back in kindergarten; this loop, where does it go?

Part of the ability to do that sort of swim is physical acclimatization.  Part of it is bloody mindedness.  I sometimes think of the trains in the Rev. Audrey books, “I can do it, I can do it”.  Why I should want to remains an enigma.

Now however I have paid my £5 to do something I was probably going to do anyway so as to get a badge which I won’t have any clear idea what to do with.  It will no doubt end up in the back of the drawer along with an aging collection of running medals.  This is not ingratitude or modesty; I’m quite pleased to have done these things but once done it is in my nature to have quickly moved on to the next crazy venture.  In this case to swim 200m in open water at least twice a month from November to March inclusive:  The Polar Bear Challenge. 

There are of course rules.  Swimwear only (no neoprene, woolly hats, boots or gloves) though a simple swimming cap, goggles and ear plugs are permitted.  As I am still breaststroke fixated the latter are superfluous.  The need for an independent observer has been waived.  Just as well, as no-one I know would be stupid enough to be stood on the river bank at a little after 7am with the air temperature nudging down towards 3°C to watch me swim.

The thermometer has stuck at 8.8°C.  Mist drifts forlornly about the still surface of the river. Sunken leaves rise and fall out of view in the shadowy depths.  Thankfully the clocks have ‘gone back’ and the sun has just risen and whereas this time last week I was blundering about in near darkness and tripping over tree roots now at least I can see, if only in shades of black (utterly black, black as midnight, as black as black can be, pitch black, etc) and grey.

Forget about an observer, why am I doing this?  Though actually as I take the first strokes out around the sunken rocks it does not feel so cold and that is deeply worrying in itself.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I push sideways across the river through the flow that was diverted around the rocks and I am in the slower moving water under the far bank and pushing upstream gaining momentum as I pass under the leafless branches and above the sandy shallows.  It is a short lived advantage and now I am again battling the current, my fingers are tingling, my lips chill instantly every time I get splashed in the face and the soles of my feet are going numb.  Well I imagine that’s what’s happening, they hurt and if that is not down to going numb then they have instead fallen off.

Push, push, push, I can do it, I can do it, why am I doing it?  But now (I have recently decided to embrace the modern trend of using ‘but’ or ‘and’ as acceptable ways in which to begin a sentence.  This is modern language evolving.  However said evolution does not include the use of ‘your’ as a substitute for ‘you’re’ and I will rain down retribution on the next apostrophe ignorant person I see doing so) I am in the part of the river where there is little or no flow due to some quirk of the river bed and I surge forward again. 

For almost 5 meters but then however I reach the top shallows where my knees bump against occasional rounded stones, which constricts my swimming style to more of a thrash than stroke.  The surface of the river jiggles and splashes but I can gain a little advantage by moving towards the middle of the river, not too far just into a Goldilocks zone between patella splitting rocks and the full current that would sweep me back to Square 1. 

I am now puffing like a steam train as well as sounding like one and each breath shoots out a cloud of vapour.  I will do it, I will do it.  Three meters, two meters, one meter, through the cross current and yay into the slack water in the lee of the Dipper Stone.  That is as far as I can go as there is no depth of water only pebbles.

It is probably as well I am unobserved because now I’m stood little more than ankle deep in the middle of the river taking photos whilst my lobster pink skin steams.

Swim on, there’s another 175m yet to go back to my towel and that will be day 1 swim 1 completed.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall