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

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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

A Week in October

Monday.  The sea was almost flat calm with just a slight offshore breeze at Broadsands.  The really big difference in the last 10 days is that all the beach huts have been lifted into the car park for winter storage and the café has shut for the duration.  I am about ½ way through my swim taking a direct route from the headland at the right of the bay towards Armchair Rock when I spot the small fishing boat heading my way.  It’s a long way off there is plenty of room.  The boat comes on directly at me.  I angle away towards shore,  The boat turns too and comes straight at me.  ‘Scary Too’ is the name of the boat and she passes close by sending up a big wash.  Very clearly the boat can and could see me.  Maybe I was being paranoid but back on shore 4 people come up to me and confirm the boat did turn towards me and they were a lot further off than the boat and could see me clearly.  I report it as a near miss to the Brixham Harbour Master.  Opinion on Facebook is that I was in the wrong fro swimming without a tow float and the boat was quite within its rights to not keep a watch and/or run me down.  A few more people have just dropped off my Christmas card list.

Tuesday.  The wind is freshening and still westerly.  I do not fancy Broadsands but the sea in the lee of Victoria Breakwater at Brixham will be sheltered.  There is a hint of drizzle in the air and people wrapped in winter coats watch me head to the water.  It is 16°C both in and out of the sea.  The sea is smooth but there is an uneven swell which periodically slops in my face, but I am soon turning at the end of the ½ mile to the end of the breakwater and whilst I divert into more open water the swell is behind me now.  A cormorant with a fish surfaces close to me.  The bird has clearly never heard the phrase ‘never eat anything bigger than your own head’; it cannot possibly get the fish (a whiting I think) down.  At the 3rd or 4th attempt the fish is sufficiently subdued and at the right angle and it vanishes into the bird.  I am still 10 minutes out from the beach I swim on.

Wednesday.  A bit of everything today.  A mile swim to the end of the breakwater and back, taking full advantage of the flat calm in the lee shelter of the wall when everywhere else is white horses (proper planning that is).  I collect one lost sea fishing float on the way out, but do not collect one dead sea bird.  Collect a second float and one of those crab fishing lines on the way back (very useful for string and stuff in the shed).  Whilst collecting the crab line a turnstone walked within a foot of me like it just didn’t care.  Then gently float to within 4 feet of a white heron.  Best of all, get dry, dressed and plonk into the seat of the car just as the torrential rain hit.  That is perfect timing!

Thursday part1.  It is very dark at 6:30 this morning under the trees and through the woods to the river.  Sunrise is not for another hour yet in sharp contrast to just a few weeks ago when I was racing here to catch it over the river.  The highlight of my 30 minute swim: 3 times up and back, is that the dippers have returned.  At one moment there are 5 all chasing each other up and down the river zipping by me close enough that I can hear their wing beats and chirrups as they play follow the leader with barely a few inches between leader and tail.  Surprisingly though the water is only 12°C I don’t have much by way of a shiver going as I stump back to the car.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Part2.  They say it takes 1 month to establish a daily habit.  I have been cramming in 30 to 60 minute swims nearly every day for 2 months.  Habit has strayed into the territory of addiction.  By mid-morning I am again looking at the weather, tide times and beach webcams.  I am back in the water, the sea at Broadsands this time, by 12:30.  Only a short one, just 9/10ths of a mile.  I really, really, really fancy going around again, but I do not have the time.

Friday.  Sarah is already sat with her feet hanging over the sea wall waiting for me when I get to Broadsands.  The wind is still quite brisk but it is noticeably warmer then earlier in the week and blowing off the land has flattened out the surf to nothing more than a ripple.  We swim a triangle around the bay in about 30 minutes over high tide.  Whilst Sarah says she will not be swimming fast she has swum the channel and is a far more proficient swimmer than I am, as I found out when we swam practice sessions for the Dart 10k a few years ago, so I expect to be miles behind her as I am only swimming breaststroke.  She swims slowly and lets me keep up, but it is faster than I swam it by myself yesterday and even the cold shower doesn’t feel so cold. 

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

“Why? It’s September!”

The prospect did not to be honest look too great as we pulled up in the lee of the sea wall at Seaton.  Beyond the wall the pebbles were raised in two steep waves down to grey choppy sea.  50m out to sea a yellow buoy bobbed and tossed whilst away to the left another with a flag atop lurched and waved against the fading sky.  The wind blew smartly south-westerly up the beach.

After the carnival float was set up and as much time as could be spent had been on looking at the other floats of which there were disappointingly few there was the inevitable lull.

The pebbles scrunched as I walked to the sea.  The waves ran at a slight oblique angle right to left sweeping along the beach creating a slight but irrelevant current to one side.  I weighed my towel down on top my bag with a large stone, which I regard as a universal sign ‘this bag has not been forgotten, someone is out there swimming however unlikely that seems’, and waded into the clear grey-green water.

Compared to the 13.1C temperature of the river at 8 this morning this was almost tropical.  15C is a tipping point in my life both for running and swimming, below that it is cool, above and I begin to overheat, especially when running.  There does not seem to be much chance of overheating this evening but it is still luxuriously warm.

25m off the beach I swim against the chop parallel to the seafront to the row of beach huts.  The floats along the sea wall light the scene and create a cacophony of conflicting musics each calling ‘pick me, pick me’ to the judges.

It was always my intention to swim out to the sea tossed buoy but from here I can swim parallel to the chop of the waves rather than face on into them.  Mad, but not stupid.  The buoy is quickly reached and out here the current is stronger.  I don’t want to get too close as there is always a danger of trailing debris caught around the chain and having to be rescued might provide entertainment for those on shore but let’s not shall we.  The current however is pushing me onto it so I swim wide out and around.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Now I have the waves trailing me, lifting me up and pushing me in to the beach and I am fairly rocketing along whilst wondering how deep it is.  I am soon close back in to the beach, under 10m out.  Pulling my goggles down I upend into the silence of the water.  For a moment the waves pull at my ankles but then all is still.

It is 4 or maybe 5 metres deep and I have dived on the divide between beach and seabed.  To my right the pebbles tumble down steeply in a landslide of flints.  The biggest form a barrier between pebbles and sand, a sharp divide.  To my left the pale sand undulates in shallow ripples out of sight into the green sea.  Here and there odd stones lie on the sand and I suspect these have been thrown from the shore as otherwise the sand is uniformly clear.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Jumping back over the sea wall that seems to have filled the lull in the proceedings perfectly and provided a talking point for the landlubbers.

“Why were you swimming?  It’s September!”

There is little to offer besides “Because”.

But as Hig Hurtenflurst would have it, “Hey, that’s neat”.

 

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Forty Foot Pool

There are a number of locations that appear repeatedly in lists of ‘Best Open Water Swims’ and the Forty Foot Pool at Sandycove just south of Dublin is one of them.

Our visit was timed perfectly on a holiday Monday to coincide with a hugely popular 10km running event and we were detoured around in circles before we finally found a small side road and a place to park.  It was the perfect morning for the run, bright, some sunshine, some wispy and some more substantial clouds with a light breeze.  Perfect for swimming too.

I had a preconceived idea that the pool was somehow more enclosed and more isolated however it nestles in a shallow cove below the James Joyce Tower and is overlooked by houses.  The pale yellow granite has been smoothed and rounded by the sea and built upon to create a sheltered avenue to the sea with a high wall southwards and double sided, canopied changing spaces opposite.  At the water’s edge several sets of steps have been made, also much worn by the sea, with handrails that are also showing the effect of time and tides.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Being a public holiday and with the sun out it was busy whilst not actually at capacity, people coming and going, many taking just a 5 minute plunge, others clearly intent on a longer swim, but the number of people probably held consistently at about 50.

The water was clear as we have come to expect over the last week with sufficiently good visibility that the rocks beneath the water can be clearly seen, those close to the surface scoured clean whilst those that are deeper are wreathed in kelp.  It is perhaps no surprise then that beneath notices saying it is dangerous to dive in swimmers of various ages are doing just that.  The clear water certainly invites it and though it has a slightly chill bite the sunshine more than compensates.

Heading to the left I can see back into the bay and here the water has a quite a swell sloshing up over the rocks then surging back and creating clouds of bubbles whilst the kelp fronds flap only lazily safe in the depths.  Then, circling wide I head into the stiller water and around the towering isolated rock though here the water is shallow and I keep bumping into submerged rocks so I suspect at low tide this is all part of the beach.  The sea bed is however cut by several deeper gashes each walled with kelp and a shoal of sands eels scatters for cover as I get too close.

Afterwards we sit in a sunny spot sheltered from the wicked chill breeze that has got up and eat chocolate brownies as if there was any way the swim could otherwise be improved upon.

Murlough Bay

The single track road clings precipitously to the steep incline of the stacked cliffs.  Below the sea is azure blue whilst waves break in white spray on the black stones delineating the margin between land and sea.  Over it all lush green trees stand sentinel under the black cliffs.  As if the picture postcard view were not complete a single storey whitewashed fisherman’s cottage nestles on a level platform cut into the hillside just above the high tide line.  A path twists between huge blocks of tumbled stone from the cottage to the beach.

The beach is of fine, white sand and sheltered from the onshore breeze so that here the waves wash idly over the gently shelving sand causing the loose fronds of kelp in the shallows to flap and wave.

Close in to the beach the water sparkles with fine sand grains but out beyond the waves the water is crystal clear revealing the ripples in the sand on the sea bed 10m down.  A few people are paddling in the shallows but I am alone as I head off exploring amongst the rocks out to the island.

The volcanic nature of the scenery is revealed in detail by the island, where the black basalt is vertically jointed in a poor imitation of the nearby Giant’s Causeway.  Just beneath the water’s surface enormous brown digitate fronds of kelp wave, the exposed rocks however are washed bare; black except for small patches of barnacles that cling in the sheltered nooks and above that a crust of vivid yellow lichens.

Diving down beside the wall of kelp the light changes from clearest blue to copper green above a ledge where a field of kelp heads stretches out of sight.  Tucked between the rocks is a finger of sand which cups a lobster pot but it is too deep down to see if there is anything in it.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Back closer to the beach it looks as though the sandy sea bed might be within reach.  However attempting to swim down it the sea bed remains curiously out of reach, I have impaired distance perception in this unfamiliar clear water. The water pressure is pressing against my head and this is certainly the deepest ‘freedive’ I have ever made, but finally I reach with a hand and at a full stretch 2 fingertips dig into the sand flicking up a little puff of shinny grains.  Then I am kicking for the surface which seems as impossibly far away as the sea bed was below.

This coast apparently has some of the best examples of kelp beds in Europe and I can believe it.  The fronds are twice the size and more of anything I see back home even in the most sheltered bays.  Whilst those at home can be quite impressive the visibility does not do them justice but here it is kelp forest almost all the way back to the beach and I hope to see some more before we are done.

 

Ballintoy Harbour

It has been a day of what we have come to regard as weather typical of Northern Ireland, one minute sunshine, the next showers.  The local people are indeed even more pessimistic about the weather than we are back home where living on the edge of Dartmoor everything comes our way often in just a few hours.  However, what we have come to appreciate is the roads, they are well maintained and it is wonderfully easy to get around, take any journey distance in England and halve the time it will take to make in Northern Ireland.

A diversion from our most direct route ‘home’ is not therefore regarded as an issue.  Signposting however is patchy and we fly past the tiny turning and even tinier sign and have to make an about turn in the main street and head back to Ballintoy Harbour.

Picturesque does not cover it.  The harbour nestles under a cliff of white chalk whilst a headland of Giant’s Causeway like basalt points out to sea.  However, the bays either side of the headland are encircled by other islands of basalt creating two almost perfectly sheltered lagoons.  One bay has the quays that make up the harbour the other a sweep of fine white sand.  The whole is finished off with a bright blue sky streaked with trailing clouds through which the sun occasionally peaks to send silver trails glittering over the sea.  It is stunning, no other description will suffice.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The sand gives softly under my feet and there is barely a noticeable divide between sand and water so much so that the ripples I create wading in are bigger then the waves lapping the shore.

The seabed shelves so slightly that I set off swimming in just a few feet of depth of water, but here beyond the action of any waves the sand is whirled into a mosaic landscape of worm casts, fading down into the depths until they are replaced by current rippled sand amongst blocks of rock.  As well as palmate fronds of kelp the rocks have been colonised by dead men’s bootlace seaweed which grows in strands that reach to the surface where they lie together in mandala patterns of intertwined coils and spirals.  It is not easy to swim through as it wraps around arms, neck and legs.

Above the water line the black basalt rocks also twist in fractured coils capped with yellow lichen if they are above the reach of waves.  Beyond the shelter of these encircling rocks is a different sea.  A deep swell rides waves up onto the rocks.  In places the water finds a gap and fountains into the shelter of the lagoon, but elsewhere it slides up the black rock, foaming as it climbs and then cascades back in an avalanche of spray and bubbles.

Returning to the beach I paddle on my back to take in the changing patterns of the setting sun and then, as I am towelling off, the sky lights up with a display of crepuscular rays that lance into the blue sky or sweep like searchlights across the water.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Two days later we stop briefly but there is a gale howling in off the sea, the shore is lined with foul smelling tatters of seaweed and a seal bobs in the water.  Given my bite-hate relationship with seals I decide not to swim.