Seasonal Variations: Easterly Breeze.

It is something of a case of clouds and silver linings depending on where you stand.  For the most part the South-West of England receives wind off the North Atlantic that keeps us a lot warmer than we should be at this latitude all year around.  Torbay is doubly blessed and both sea and weather temperature generally are several degrees warmer than other places as little as 10 miles away.  It has to be said then that whilst others attempting the Polar Bear Challenge have been braving water temperatures as low as 1 or 2°C, the sea here is still 7 or 8°C.  But then in February we usually get a run of colder easterly winds.

The cloud side of that is that the wind is colder than expected and blows onshore and this last week the sea has been unswimable in any meaningful sense.  Paddle and bounce about like you are in a washing machine maybe, but a proper swim has been out of the question.  The silver lining side for a beachcombing obsessive like me is that there are unusual finds amongst the litter.  On Tuesday it was a lemon, absolutely nothing wrong with it so it probably had not come far but nonetheless.  On Friday it was Lego bricks, plural, finding a single brick around here is almost unheard of, but 2 on one tide!

A few years ago the easterlies were strong and went on almost solidly for a month and the beaches were strewn with driftwood, another great find.  This year however it seems to be a day or three here and there. 

Today once again there is not a breath of wind and at dawn there is not a cloud in the sky so I am up and off to Watcombe once again.  It’s low tide at the beach, the sun is a finger width above the horizon and the water is flat.  Even when people say the sea is flat calm there is often an underlying swell but not today it has been pressed so that even the creases have been ironed out.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I swim full tilt straight out from the beach.  The solitary cloud that spattered me with icy drops as I changed has drifted out to sea and covered up the sun giving an eerie light that only adds further to the unsettlingly flat sea.  This cannot be right.

I’m 15 minutes out from the beach which is worth about 600m.  A solitary gannet flies overhead, the colony of 100+ birds that were a daily feature 2 weeks ago seems to have dispersed.  I stop swimming; this has finally got to me.  The sea is flat.  Of course lakes and reservoirs are flat too but that’s expected, this is not.  There is genuinely not even the slightest swell and the ripples made by my swimming and those by the slight breeze criss-cross.  It looks like the sea has been tiled.

The water however has a stunning aquamarine tint that I associate with Watcombe as with nowhere else.  Flipping on my back I turn and kick shore wards throwing up great gouts of water against the sun.  It is however a little too chilly to spend too long messing about I’m a long way from the beach.  Far, far away on the beach a solitary figure muffled against the chill is leaning on the railing watching their dog on the sand and very possibly me.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Enclosed by the bay once more I swim in to the beach and try to get to my feet.  The sand is shifting where I step and I have no feeling in my feet at all, the rest of me is fine, but not my feet and I stagger and lurch in the shallows and weave drunkenly up the beach. And now the partner of the cloud that rained on me earlier is back and spattering me with icy drops again.

Hmmm, no where’s the silver lining in that?

 

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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.

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Inspiration

I heard this quote attributed to David Bowie on the radio this morning

“Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Polar Bear Challenge ½ Way House

The challenge is to swim 200m at least twice a month, in just swimwear, in open water at a temperature of less than 10°C, from November to March inclusive.  Of the 150 participants the vast majority have now notched up qualifying swims: 6 out of 10, but clearly experiences have been very different and February is ahead of us when the sea locally reaches its coolest.

The sea though is unseasonably warm and the temperature wavers between 8 and 11°C so it looks as though it is unlikely to hit the typical annual 6°C low in Torbay.  Elsewhere across the country temperatures as low as 4°C have been recorded and when it comes to fresh water there have even been instances of having to break through thin rimes of ice.  Even so temperatures close to 10°C have been challenging enough for some to judge from the chat group comments.

Distance too has evidently been a challenge and though 100m is only the length of a football pitch for some people this seems to be an unimaginable distance.

Distance was not something I anticipated as a problem as even in the lead up to the challenge as I was still frequently setting off for a mile or mile and half around the like s of St Mary’s Bay or Broadsands.  Cold was what I anticipated bringing me up short, I quickly become painfully cold.  I certainly would not have anticipated being one of the more committed polar bear swimmers, but that seems to be the way things have fallen out and I’m at it again today.

The sun comes and goes behind banks of clouds at St Mary’s Bay but the water is quite calm in the lee shelter of Berry Head.  It is a little after high tide and the current pushing up against Berry Head divides and in part circles under the cliff and counterclockwise along the beach creating a massive gyre marked out by sand laden water with a sharp divide to the stiller water in the centre of the swirl.  Maybe then I’ll swim down to Mussel Rock and see how things are going as that’s about 300m and this water is probably about 9°C, if I need to I can always head in to the beach and walk back on the sand.

Almost without thinking I circle Mussel Rock admiring the cormorants with their wings hung out to dry, the oyster catchers with their red bills and piping cries and a few impassive gulls.  The sun sweeps across the red cliffs on the far side of the bay, well I could swim part of the way and then back to the beach and my towel.  But somehow that is not going to happen.  The sun on my back is warm(ish) and the sea is clear(ish) and far out by Durl Head a few gannets are again diving on fish.  The far side of the bay stops being the far side and becomes the near side, so I may as well go on as back, that’s another 500m.

However, there is now only going back and that’s another 400m and somehow then I’ve covered over 1200m and if I had the time I’d have happily done more.  It’s strange the way things turn out.

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Skinny Dipping

I have not been as active with the blog as I could have been for 2 months.  The swimming has not stopped but there has been a lack of motivation to go home and write about it.  I hope however to cheer things up a bit.

Today however was a perfect swim day if you could find a sheltered corner and Elberry Cove fitted the bill exactly.  At high tide the sea covered the smooth, rounded, white pebbles and as it deepened beyond a few feet the water took an aquamarine glow, deepening and darkening beyond the rocks.  And at the same time with barely a hint of breeze the surface was almost mirror like, half in the sunshine, half in the shade of the hillside.

I wasn’t really sure how far I wanted to swim though.  One option was to head out beyond Silver Cove, to the rocky point that hides Brixham, but it’s ¾ of a mile there and back and once you’re committed you are committed.  Instead it was a simple case of swim up and down under the beach and the watchful eyes of walkers who react like they have never seen anyone swimming before, and just out of range of those who throw balls for dogs (sometimes I throw the balls back).

The first crossing involved quite a lot of huffing and puffing against the 9°C chill but once I was settled in the third and fourth crossings were a doddle.  Each crossing is 160m give or take so 6 makes a long ½ mile and swimming briskly was keeping me warm, so much so that for the next 2 all my clothes fell off.  I’m not big on skinny dipping but every now and then.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

And the reason I’m not so big on skinny dipping was walking down the beach to sit on the rock as I turned at the far end of the beach to swim back; 2 people walking their labrador.  And of course the rock was where my swimstuff was.  Move along please, nothing to see here.  They didn’t, oh well, as they were probably still trying to come to terms with someone swimming in January, how much worse could things get?

That in the end was a long ¾ mile with hardly a shiver afterwards, but just as well to swim now as tomorrow it rains!

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Seals: swim or avoid?

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.

St Marys Bay seal
St Marys Bay seal bite

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?

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall