The Last Polar Bear

I did my second for March and therefore final qualifying swim of the polar bear challenge back in the first week of the month and there have probably been 10 or more since.  However, it has been a poor swim month due to the weather, notwithstanding swimming at Sharrah Pool in the snow, another qualifier.  However I claimed the first official swim of the 2017/18 challenge just after dawn on 1st Nov and figured I’d try to claim the last with a sunset and blue moon swim.  Again the weather had other ideas.

It had been blowing and raining pretty much since Thursday and all the while I’ve had a nasty cold too.  Some people say you shouldn’t swim with a cold, but both running and swimming I qualify that by saying just so long as it’s only a head cold you’ll be fine.  You may feel awful, but you’ll be fine.  I feel awful, but the clouds are clearing a little and awful is not going to stop me.

The beach beneath Hope’s Nose is of course deserted though the fresh boot marks in the mud of the path tell a tale of someone coming and going.  The shore is sheltered from the breeze and the water slides softly on and off the pebbles and rocks.  I’ve walked to the far end of the beach and have begun a pick up of plastic bottles and other trash when I spot the boat fender.  And it’s a nice one, nearly new, in a dark blue jacket with new rope too, someone is wishing they could tie proper knots; this should be worth an exchange for a bottle of wine.

I soon have a bag full of rubbish.  The clouds are obviously not going to clear but the skyline over Torquay is a brightly glowing yellow band which leaves Thatcher Rock as a striking silhouette.  And thankfully the seal that was lazing just off the rocks appears to have gone.

Across the bay and back, that’s the plan, considerably more than the 200m required of the challenge (about 5x more), but if you are going to get wet you may as well get decently wet.  At first the water is dark beneath but once the sea bed falls away the water infuses with a clear green tint and though the wind is in my face I’m soon nearing the far headland.  Two seagulls are perched on a rock and I have decided that when they fly off that’s me done.  The first takes to the air whilst the second shuffles its feet nervously.  I’m looking at the people silhouetted on the next headland I guess with my bright pink Swim Secure tow float they can see me too and then the gull raises its wings, lifts off without a wingbeat and glides past me with an angry squawk.

Instead of just turning around I swim out a little towards Thatcher Rock to see the fading sunset and I spot a bird I don’t immediately recognize.  It lets me swim quite close before diving under the water.  It’s a shag, with a very pronounced crest of feathers, that’s what threw me.  I am mid-way between shore and Thatcher Rock and seriously contemplate swimming out but the light is already fading from the sky.

With the breeze behind me it is a more pleasant swim back and I go a little faster which is just as well because my left hand has got very chilled.  I swim in to the rocks and wade up the inclined slope of one large flat boulder to my clothes.  That was a great way to finish the challenge, roll on November, but not too quickly.

wild swimming
wild swimming

It turns out the fender costs about £45 new and the jacket £25 so even with a little hole in the jacket, the unblemished fender must be worth more than a bottle of wine.  Ebay it is then.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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My Little Piece of the Mediterranean

The last few feet onto the beach are the trickiest down a steep slope of solid packed mud with a veneer of loose gravel flakes poised to slip away from beneath a foot which would send me tumbling into the rocks.  There used to be a much easier way but that bit of hillside slid down to the beach a few years ago.  But I’m there and it is worth it every time.

wild swimming
wild swimming

The beach is small and the warm sand has that sea salt smell whilst a scent of pine drifts down the hillside from above.  It is the dark pines that give this bay its Mediterranean feel and I know of no place else along this coast that matches this distinct appearance.  I strip down to my swimming kit draping my clothes over a sand polished tree trunk whilst squinting out over the blue water to the banks of billowing clouds.

wild swimming
wild swimming

Into the water and I swim out past the headland.  There is more breeze out here and the water whips into my face whilst the swell flings gouts of foaming water into the gaps between the jumbled boulders.  A yacht is sailing into the River Dart estuary, heeling over, slowing righting then being battered down once more by a fresh gust.  That lurching I know from experience is not pleasant sailing.

I swim in the clear green water across to the far side of the bay where two oyster catchers come circling low over the water making their piercing cry before swooping down into a nook between the rocks.  Maybe they have a nest.  That reminds me that I should try and get a look in at the cormorant nest at Elberry, the hen bird was sat on eggs a few weeks ago and I am guessing there should be chicks now.

Drawing my swim out far longer than I actually have time for I zig-zag a course back towards the beach until finally the water becomes cloudy with stirred up sand and the swell lifts be onto my feet and onto the beach.  I grab my shoes and clothes and dry and change on top of a rock where I can dangle my feet into the waves to rinse the sand from between my toes.

Finally I stuff my bag with litter, mostly torn and shredded plastic bottles but with a few chunks of polystyrene too and I’m on my way again.

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The Quickest Possible Dip

On the beach beneath the high cliffs the air is almost completely still and when the sun breaks fitfully through the clouds the temperature rockets and then crashes as the cloud sweeps in again.  The headland shelters the beach, but out there where the rocks poke through the surface an occasional white topping of foam gives a hint that elsewhere there is a bit of a swell.

I find Long Sands a fascinating beach, always changing.  Today it lives up to its name a full sweep of sand except at the far end when the surface is a jumble of flat rock slabs.  But at other times the sand can vanish completely exposing the smoothed bed rock or the beach can become an endless field of hard pebbles.  And the beach level rises and falls.  There is a little crevice in the rock where I have sometimes tucked driftwood or finds when I’ve had too much to carry.  Sometimes it is above head height, other times at knee height.

wild swimming
wild swimming

I wade into the still, clear water over sand that feels spongy beneath my feet and set off towards the rocks at the end of the headland.  As I approach I begin to sense the rise and fall of the swell and I can see into Scabbacombe Beach and the other way up the coast the headland that shelters Mansands.  I head that way and then back in.  It has been little more than a 10 minute dip but sometimes that’s enough and now I can sit in the sunshine and brush the sand from between my toes in complete isolation.

wild swimming
wild swimming

 

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Elberry sunshine after the storm

wild swimming
wild swimming

Two organized mass beach cleans and no doubt countless 2 minute beach cleans have almost cleared Elberry Beach of the wreckage from the destroyed kiosk at Shoalstone Pool and the devastated conservatory of the Breakwater Bistro.  And now the large piles of bin bags and general waste are being hauled away bit by bit, day by day.  That leaves just a remodeled beach, several piles of scrap wood and a couple of tree trunks, and I have intentions towards some of that, which is in part why I am back.

Today the beach is also sheltered form the wicked chill breeze, well mostly, it is in the far corner where I am getting changed anyway and I’m in the sunshine too.  I swam here yesterday and the sea was quite calm but there was nowhere out of the breeze and no sunshine either.  No surprise then that I am here to take full advantage of the change of fortunes.

In the way that it happens my eyes begin to tune in to the glass fragments amongst the pebbles as I am changing and the broken bucket I picked up starts to fill: clink, clink, clink.  The more you look the more you see in green, brown and ‘clear’, some frosted, some fresh faced with sharp edges.  I have picked up sea glass here before but this is madness and I begin to wonder what storm process brought so much to the surface of the beach.  I also wonder how soon it will be before I tread on a sharp bit.

I am glad then to be buoyed up by the aquamarine water, but it feels considerably colder than yesterday despite the sunshine or maybe that’s it, the contrast with the warm beach simply makes the water feel colder.  I have gone no more than ½ way along the beach than the first walker stops to stare.

wild swimming
wild swimming

I zig-zag back and forth along the beach twice, it takes a little over 20 minutes to cover about 700m with progress slowed by the photo opportunities offered by such a perfect setting.  Yesterday I swam further out and did 500m but at a substantially faster rate.  Today though I now have 2 fan clubs, one gathered on and around the bench on the headland, the other sat on the pebbles.

I stagger back up the beach with the small rounded stones digging painfully into my numbed feet.  I’m also cold and strip off disregarding the fan club.  I’m the same pink shade as a boiled lobster and shivering like a leaf, it’s not a pretty sight but both times I shoot a glance at my fan club the woman is watching me right back.  God knows why, it cannot be a pretty sight as I fight my damp clammy skin into clingy clothes.  But then I’m done.

I hoist a length of wood onto one shoulder and grab the bucket with it’s collection of glass and general litter in the other and stamp my warming way back to the car.

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St Mary’s Bay

St Mary’s is a gem of a beach.

It’s hard enough to get to that most people simply do not bother, even in summer with 2 huge holiday camps within a 20 minute walk people simply do not bother.  On the other hand it’s not that hard to get to and I can be here in about 15 minutes from work.  Park at the top and run down the steps, though as they are nearly vertical that is probably enough to put a lot of people off.

The beach changes.  Sometimes it is a wide sweep of sand, though there are always more pebbles at the Brixham end.  The pebbles come in pure frosted white quartz, or patterned with green or red.  Others are grey-green and often show fossils.  Some are rust red with iron minerals and others are dove grey and can be whole fossil corals.  On some tides though the sand vanishes leaving sweeping fluted bedrock or jumbled rocks with hidden treasure if you know where to look; one lunchtime I picked up about 40 coins from old pennies through sixpences, a thrupence and on to recent decimal coins.

One of the principal qualities are the high cliffs that box it in on three sides so that on most days when the sea elsewhere may be getting kicked into a fierce chop by the wind, one end or other of St Mary’s will be nearly calm.

Today is a day of sand which moulds softly to the print of my feet and is slightly warm in the late winter sunshine.  There is only a slight breeze at beach level and the water is flat calm.

wild swimming
wild swimming

I wade out until the water is to the top of my thighs and then launch into the blue sea.  Cold water acclimatization I believe is 50% mental preparation and I tell myself the sea is not cold.  It is a blatant lie.

I swim lazily out to Mussel Rock and swing around the seaward side giving it a wide berth as I know there are some sharply barnacled rocks in places and the water is not clear enough to see them clearly.  This is only a quick dip though and I swim back in until I am amongst the wavelets and my feet brush the sand with each kick.

A quick dash up the beach, dress and rinse the sand from my toes in the little stream and I can be back at work before anyone notices I’ve been out for lunch.

 

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Low, Low Tide

The biggest spring tides are always a few days after the full moon or new moon with those after the new moon being slightly bigger due to the summation of the gravitational effects of sun and moon.  And for reasons not entirely clear to me the spring tides in February are the biggest of the year (answers in a comment please).  Today I have arrived at St Mary’s Bay almost spot on low tide and the magnitude can be gauged by the fact that there is barely a 3m wide strip of water separating the sand from Mussel Rock and the water is little more than a few inches deep at that.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

As I walk off along the surf line razor clams disturbed by my footfalls draw speedily down into the sand sending up jets of water as much as 18 inches high and leave only a shallow depression rapidly filling with wet sand.  Squirt, squirt, squirt squirt squirt; it is mildly amusing to say the least.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The tide however is turning and as I change to swim the sea is creeping wave upon wave further across the sand.  The sea is chill, I’d guess till close to 8°C and having been jogging I’m a little cautious that I may get chilled faster than usual.  Nevertheless I’m soon settled in and tracing a wide triangle out and across the bay.

I am however stalking a bird.  This one, or one similar was here last week and I didn’t get a close enough look to tell which it was and I’m not going to get close enough today either.  It’s an auk of some kind but as I swim along casually in its general direction, pretending I’m not looking, it swims nonchalantly in a spiral in the opposite direction.  It’s all about the beak shape and with the swell of the sea I really can’t see that clearly.  Bird, I know where you live and I will be back.

Meanwhile it’s back to the beach for me.  It’s been lovely in the clear green water and not too chill, but the clouds are sweeping in, there’s a hint of rain about the place and it will be a lot colder on the beach than in the water.  It’s best to quit before I regret staying and anyway that’s been my second polar bear challenge swim for February, and then some.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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St Brighid’s Day

 

The full moon from last night still hangs in the western sky and is sufficiently bright that there is only a false dawn as the sun brightened eastern sky meets the moon half way.  Nevertheless beneath the tight lattice of tree branches darkness temporarily holds the field and I have to tread carefully down the pathway strewn with the slippery remnants of autumn leaves.  There is not a sound, breathless, the trees stand still and cut out any sound from the distant road.  Mine was the only car in the car park whilst the dog walkers remain in their centrally heated havens, but who can blame them as it is bitterly chill and even the birds cannot raise a dawn chorus.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It is high tide at Watcombe and almost imperceptible waves ripple against the base of the sea wall leaving not an inch of sand exposed.  The sky meanwhile resembles an accident in a paint factory with reds, oranges and yellows splashed over blue fading to purple and a few grey clouds.  Sunrise is still 10 minutes away but I hurry into the water and push hard into open water to see the sun at its best.

Even when I can see it the seal’s head is dark against the rocks, it must have been some 6th sense that made me scan the water in its direction.  However after I splash energetically with my arms and legs; a signal that seems to mean ‘I don’t want to play’, it is content to roll on its back exposing a pale mottled belly to watch me swim by.

The clouds across the horizon are now lined with gold and pale rays rise into the sky whilst the softly swelling surface of the aquamarine water is smeared with colours that flow, melt and reform.  Meanwhile the windows of the houses along the cliff top of Babbacombe Bay shine out and are answered by pinpricks of light stretching around the coast past Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton and beyond.

I’ve been pootling about and admiring the view and the current has carried me across the mouth of the bay and now the headland is closing up the view of the beach, I’ll be in Exmouth if I’m not careful.  I am also now coming to realize exactly how cold the water is, about 8°C at a guess and over the past weeks and months my guesses have been pretty much spot on.

It’s a full on 10 minute swim back in and it looks like I have had the best of the day for the time being at least as there’s a bank of thin cloud across the sun turning it hazy.  What’s more it has turned noticeably chillier as I stamp back up the steep slope to the car in the hope of stirring some feeling back into my toes.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I do suffer extreme beach envy when I see photos other people post of white sandy beaches stretching unblemished to a sun bleached horizon under a tropical blue sky, where the sea is crystal clear and packed with aquatic life, but here has its moments too, count that as a great start to February’s polar bear challenge.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall