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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

A 6th Sense.

Either there are more seals or they are less shy than they once were.  Even back 10 years ago I considered it quite a moment to see a dark head silhouetted against the blue water, though usually only at a distance.

I have had some exciting close encounters too, both good and bad.

There was the time a drifted down the tide near Bell Rock and got within yards of what looked like a pup just shedding is baby fur where he was basking on a rock.  Another time I found a lobster pot buoy wedged high and dry on some rocks and having untangled it and the length of rope I towed it back to the beach with an inquisitive seal getting steadily closer and closer.  Then there is always the seal at Churston Cove who thinks it is fun to swim up and bump your feet, then surface a few feet away watching and waiting and as soon as you swim off again she bumps again.  The first couple of times it made me jump, now it is part and parcel and I know the feel of seal to be soft and yielding and a bit like wet chamois leather.

That has been good to know because there have been other times when something has bumped me and I am now able to tell; it’s soft and a bit slippery, it’s a seal.

Some of those encounters have however not gone so well.  In murky water a seal finds out what you are: food, something to be avoided, something to be chased away or something to get, ahem, more friendly with, by biting.  A seal’s head is actually not dissimilar to a dog’s only 4 times the size and several investigative bites have left me with nicks in my wetsuit or dribbling blood.  Some people get a bit worked up by that: seal’s bites are infectious, go and get antibiotics.  For me or the seal?  I have been around long enough, much of the time up to my elbows in it that any seal foolish to bite me probably will need antibiotics, but if it thinks I limping to the vet to help it out it can damn well think again.

All in all though I have been bitten frequently enough to have developed a 6th sense.  I had a feeling there would be one at St Mary’s Bay the other day and there it was, an inquisitive young one who got within 10 feet of where I was wading in the shallows, but I was going no further and sure enough a little further out an altogether larger, darker, more menacing profile rose and submerged.  A second young one bobbed up too.

Seals at Churson, Elberry, St Mary’s and even Newfoundland Cove are almost a case of more often than not.  Mansands, rarely, Long Sands once, Scabbacombe once or twice.

Today it’s a little after low tide, the sand has been stripped from the foreshore leaving the water full of sand and silt and I just know that somewhere out there today, waiting …. I can feel it, just like you know, though it may only have happened a few times in your life, you know when you wake up that there has been snow overnight.  It is as if you can hear that anechoic silence.  Somewhere out there in that flat calm sea, I can feel it.

I wade out scanning the water. Nothing. I swim out to clearer water.  The gulls are nesting on the cliff and start yammering away at me.  One of them swoops down harrying me, skimming the water just a few feet away then rising up at the end of the pass, making a loop and then back it comes.  This is a regular springtime game here and will be kept up until I turn away from the cliff.  Another gull passes higher overhead and tries a more direct approach pattern bombing the water to my right, its aim is rubbish, fortunately.

I have crossed the bay and swum back to the beach and reached the shallows where I can stand.  Scanning along the surf line and I see there, not 20m away, is a dark head.  It ducks down looking guilty and resurfaces, the water can be no more than waist deep.  We stare at each other and again the seal ducks down only to be forced back up immediately by the next wave.  Then with a casual turn that says ‘I was leaving anyway’ it slides under the water again and vanishes.

And this is how things should be, he keeps his distance over there and I’m not bleeding.

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