“If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.” Sun Tzu.
Or in my case, “If you swim in the sea long enough, your enemy will float by and like as not try and take a bite.”
It’s a gorgeous day down here in Devon and one end of the beach at St Mary’s Bay is sheltered from the wind under the cliffs of Berry Head. I planned to swim out through the waves to the clear water without the stirred up sand, swim along the line of the waves/beach to the other end of the beach and then back in where it is sandy. It was a good plan.
And it was all going so well, too well. I was out beyond the waves and into the clear blue-green water, riding up and down on the big swell with occasional crests of white water when I kicked something soft.
A bit like Douglas Adams’ bowl of petunias my first thought was ‘oh no, not again’ (with the voice inflection of Marvin at his most depressed). This is not my first seal moment and I’m sure it will not be the last.
On the one hand swimming in the clear water with it never more than 10 feet away and seeing it swimming through the wave crests was quite an experience …. for the half dozen people now watching from the beach. On the other hand, my hand that is, seeing it swim beneath me, having it bump my feet and thighs and then having it pop up 3 feet away and snort loudly whilst all the while waiting for it to take a bite or scrape me with its flippers as has happened previously was less than amusing.
It was not the blue sky sunrise of yesterday, but instead bright shafts speared the clouds that beaded the horizon and the grey sea came alive with shimmering yellows and oranges.
I hooked my bag on the railings and trailed the thermometer over the edge of the steps watching it nudge up and stick at 17°C. Not at all bad for mid-September.
I’d done my run so this was just a chill down.
Heading out to the pot buoy I collected a plastic wrapper floating in a tangle of bootlace weed, but something else was amiss. I have developed a 6th sense and was scanning the surface forward and back. And there it was, not a touch, nor a bump exactly, but a press of water against my feet. I am sharing my swim with a seal, I have been here before, it usually ends with me bitten and bleeding. I circled slowly back to the beach scanning the surface, but nothing.
I was towelling off watching the single swimmer when he gave a sudden yelp and a dark head rose to the surface not 10 feet from him, ducking and submerging but not leaving as the chap splashed back into waist deep water. But even as he stood in the shallows the seal was in no hurry to move on.
Yes seals bite, but usually only if the water is murky and they cannot see clearly what you are. My best advice is do not invade their space if they are there first. If one turns up when you are swimming it is probably curious but harmless. If it gets antsy then slapping the water and raising a splash is a ‘go away’ signal, but then swim away breast stroke as they seem to get that message whereas swimming crawl is a great way to get bitten.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was reading a little piece the other day about what to do if you find yourself swimming with a seal. The advice was that they are mostly non-aggressive but as a general rule leave them be. That is not my experience.
In my experience, and I got nudged by one again last week at St Mary’s Bay, you most often do not know they are there until they swim in behind you and bite at your legs or feet, it’s just their way of deciding if you are friend or foe or food. At St Mary’s last week I was in the surf in only waist deep water and the seal swam straight into me from the side.
Most often if you create a lot of splashing with your feet and then swim away breast stroke they figure you are not something they want to get involved with, but it’s not fool proof and often they will shadow you especially if you swim crawl which seems to attract them in.
Other times they simply will not leave you alone and I have been chased out onto the rocks at Elberry Cove by one that not only bit several times at my feet and legs but repeatedly swam in under me coming up to hit me in the stomach and tangling itself in my legs making it almost impossible to swim away.
Wetsuit or swimsuit doesn’t make a difference. Summer or winter, no difference.
To date I have got away fairly lightly with only nicks in my wetsuit or surface cuts to my skin but I have heard of other local swimmers being deeply bitten and needing stitches.
My honest advice is do not swim if you see a seal and get out of the water as quickly as possible if you encounter one. Not all of them turn nasty but would you take the chance?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.