A few of these were first reported off the coast of South-West England a month ago, but much further south on beaches in the far west of Cornwall. Over the intervening weeks the prevailing winds have slowly moved them eastwards along the coast and last week they were being washed ashore in numbers just west of Rame Head with a few as far north as Teignmouth, but I had not yet seen one. I have been fascinated by them for as long as I can remember and did briefly consider driving down to Arymer Cove yesterday morning but it couldn’t really be justified on the off chance. Besides, the southerly winds of Hurricane Ophelia would surely push them into Torbay.
The fore-runners of Ophelia arrived this morning, low clouds masking a blood red sun and all morning the clouds had an eerie orange glow due to a combination of Saharan dust and smoke from the wildfires raging across Portugal carried aloft. But at lunchtime the wind picked up from almost nothing to gusts of 40knots and the sky cleared to cloudless blue.
The only place then that would be worthwhile swimming was St Mary’s Bay and there would be a slight chance of flotsam being washed ashore. And finally there on the beach was a stranded and battered Portuguese Man o’ War exhibiting the brilliant blue and pink colours that had always seemed to bright to be true. Another lay a few meters away and another much smaller but that was all.
These are not jellyfish which are fully integrated multicellular animals but colonial cell colonies of the order Siphonophora where the cells (zooids) group together assuming individual functions such that they cannot survive in isolation. They carry powerful stinging nematocyst cells on the tentacles which may trail for 10m or more in the sea and can cause anything from an extremely painful sting, to blistering, to long term muscle and nerve damage right through to death. Fortunately though and despite the many sightings I have not heard of anyone getting stung. Current best treatment guidance in that event is to soak the area in ordinary vinegar and then immerse in hot water or apply a hot gel pack for as long as possible. This research does however run contrary to generally accepted best practice, but I’d rather trust real science any day of the week.
There are however only 3 and they are all at the windward end of the beach so a swim is in order at the other end of the beach, though swim in this case is more of a short bounce in the waves.
As the day goes on more and more are reported along the coast. Plague of beasties and blood red sun, no wonder the internet is alive with those forecasting the apocalypse.
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.
The first reports of these colonial animals washing up on Cornish beaches came in about 2 weeks ago since when they have made slow and steady progress along the coast. Yesterday there was a photo of one on the beach at Blackpool Sands just 10 miles south of here and this morning in the estuary of the River Dart and that is right on the doorstep. The downside is the wind has turned northerly so progress in this direction along the coast will likely be severely curtailed. I would love to see one, but not too up close and personal.
The conditions for a swim around St Mary’s Bay could hardly be better. From the beach I can swim out to Durl Rock in the shelter of the high cliffs of Berry Head. From Durl Rock past the 5 knot buoy and across the open water to Sharkham Point I will have the wind behind me and the tidal current will be swinging around behind me too. The swim in along the beach should then not be a problem.
Despite the sea being nearly flat calm there is an awful lot of sand stirred up along the surf line but 50m out and it has been swept away by the current which is swinging south along the beach. Ironically that means the current further out is still to the north but it is being turned around in the bay in a huge vortex by the headland. I can actually feel it as I swim, zipping along in a still patch of water and then 10m later hitting it head on, only for that to be followed by another still patch. It is actually possible to see it swinging the water about and carrying bubbles hither and thither. Consequently it takes me 25 minutes to cover the ½ mile to Durl Rock.
Turning south and I’m off like Michael Phelps. Last week I battered headlong into both wind and current as far as the 5 knot buoy whereas today it looks closer stroke after stroke. Out here away from beach and rocks the water is beautifully clear; a deep, dark aquamarine, and even the algae that streaked the water beneath the cliff have gone. I drift past the buoy before turning to swim again and now the headland before me is fairly looming. The second ½ mile took only 15 minutes, these things even out.
I am headlong into the current again, I can tell because I am now swimming water that is almost white with sand carried off the beach ahead of me. As I draw level with Mussel Rock I turn towards it, skirting it on the beach side. The water is a little clearer here which is just as well as I do not want to graze myself on the barnacle covered rocks. A lone seagull stands sentinel on the high point, first on one leg, then on the other perhaps undecided about the swimmer and whether to stay or go.
I keep my course parallel to the beach a little way out where there is less swell and little chance of hitting any submerged rocks before finally turning in towards my bag with a last big push to get back in a fraction over an hour. That was slow, but there was never really any rush.
Should you happen to get stung by one of these or indeed by a jellyfish the current best advice is douse the area in vinegar (it has to be vinegar other acidic washes are not effective) and then apply heat (45C) for up to 45 minutes by immersion in hot water or with a hot gel pack.
It seems that every day it gets a little tougher to keep on swimming in the river. The sunrises last week were phenomenal and both yesterday and today I am sure they would have equally spectacular if the fierce red-orange glow stream in my windows at 7am was anything to go by. However, every day the thermometer nudges down and whilst I would like to think I can acclimatize I know I cannot; I have never been a cold weather person. It drifted from 11.8C to 11.5C over just 48 hours and at that rate it would have slipped past 11C this morning. Shivering fit to bust makes me feel distinctly queasy. Consequently both yesterday and today I have taken to the sea.
Whilst not only being (relatively) warmer at about 16C and therefore quite tolerable, the sea also offers up the possibility of longer swims without the up-and-back offered by a 250m long pool in the river. On the flip side there are currents, tides and the wind direction to consider as well as the relative risk of being far from the shore and any sort of help. Proper Pre-Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance, or the 7 Ps, is therefore a key watch phrase.
Yesterday I took myself down to Mansands where the currents in the bay are minimal at any state of the tide which is one hazard crossed from the list. The wind was light and northerly so the sea is sheltered under the high cliffs, item two crossed off. Being far from the shore I will just have to deal with, though actually the shallow dish of the bay means that from point to point it may be 1/2 a mile but from swim to shore is never more than 0.2 miles. Aside from the pure drudgery of the seemingly unending swim back along the rocky coast it was a care free 1.3 miles.
St Mary’s Bay is not the same. For starters the currents are downright perverse and twist and turn around the bay changing from left to right and back again within a few hundred metres. The swim from beach to Durl Head offers no escape to the shore which is vertical cliffs in most places rising straight from the water. Then at the mid point of the crossing from headland to headland you are as much as 0.4 miles from shore. This is an altogether more challenging experience.
I am standing thigh deep in the water just off the beach. The sea is relatively calm but I know that at low tide the current will generally run north to south. If I swim out to Durl Head then I will be head on into it, but if I swim across from Sharkham Point in the open water there will be a lot more of it. The fly in the ointment is the breeze. It is light but contrary to the forecast it is south-easterly and not northerly. Had it been northerly I would have both wind and current at my back for the crossing to Sharkham Point. As it is I will have both wind and the fetch on the waves in my face if I swim south or the current in my face if I swim north. I am more wary of the current.
I am half way from beach to Durl Head when the current kicks in. I am keeping a relatively straight course heading for the nick where the rock is separated by a few metres of water from the land, but it is quite clear that I am swimming in a crabwise fashion with my feet pushed to my right. Of course I could be imagining it except that every now and then a little piece of flotsam crosses my path from left to right at a disturbing pace. That would be disconcerting but for the fact that this is not my first time swimming this course and I am expecting it to be a bit strange. It is 900m (a little over 1/2 a mile) from beach to rock and it is only in the last 100m that the current is shifted by the rock. However, now as I turn south I have both current and wind in my face.
It is 300m from the rock to the 5 Knot buoy and this is the challenging bit with the constant slap-slap of wavelets into my face. My goggles are tucked in my swimwear and I am seriously considering putting them on as I pass the yellow buoy except that ahead of me I can see calmer water. Nevertheless it is another 200m until there is a marked change in the sea and in the distance of 50m the sea flattens even though it is a further 500m to the headland. Just off the headland things are very different and I can see a sharp dark line across the water, glittering above and flecked with white where the full current runs headlong into the fetch of the waves and the water tumbles over and over, I am well out of that.
The final 200m in the lee of the headland and the water surface is like glass. Only now with the surface so even can I look down and appreciate how clear the sea is. Below me are brown kelp covered rocks separated by clear patches of sand and the water has a truly aquamarine tint to it. Along the shore then across the bay again just seaward of Mussel Rock where two ill placed lobster pots have been left high and dry by the tide. In the dead calm water I am able to really put some effort into my stroke, reaching out with long firm pulls of my arms I am fairly hurtling past the rock.
Now however I must keep a course parallel to the beach as there are lots of submerged, barnacle covered, skin lacerating rocks just beneath the surface. I keep on until I am once again directly off shore of my bag and towel before turning in as I know there is a sand filled channel right in to the beach here. The water is no longer clear but full of sand but the temperature jumps noticeably and then I am touching the bottom in little more than knee deep water. In all that was 1.4 miles or 2.3km in a fraction under 50 minutes, which I think was pretty fair going.
Tomorrow the wind changes to southerly and I am already planning to swim at Elberry Cove which will have about the only shelter. The river will have to wait.
Even in quite big floods there are ‘safe’ places to swim in the river but it is little fun having to fight against currents and cooler water. So, as a consequence of recent weather conditions the river has been off limits and sea swimming has begun to feature again.
The sea around here is at its coldest in the middle of February when temperatures can dip to 5 or 6 Celsius. The temperature then trends upwards to 19 or 20 Celsius in mid-September where after it dips sharply towards the New Year. The most pleasant swimming is to be had therefore between now, early June and September.
There are however 2 factors that stand in the way of a long happy summer at sea and the first is already upon us: the jellyfish are here early this year. They can be wonderful to watch, the huge ‘barrels’ and the transparent ‘crystals’, but it is the compass that come in greatest numbers.
The compass are undoubtedly pretty but they can leave a rash a little like a nettle and they can trail tentacles with sting cells (nematocysts) for up to 2m. They are also very quick in the water, they don’t just waft on the current and they can ‘see’. Often if you are able to swim close to them and throw a shadow on them they will in a matter of moments be heading downwards out of harm’s way.
One compass, two compasses, they are most often seen few and far between but when the currents are just right they can mark out the boundary between apparently indistinct bodies of water. On one such evening last year off Meadfoot Beach the boundary stretched nearly a kilometre and as a ready reckoner I estimated the number at over 5000. I was very glad to be on the paddleboard at the time.
The other is the algae. That has been awful the last few years and out of nowhere the shore waters look like they are filled with mulched tissue paper, except it is reddish-brown and it stinks of prawns beyond their best before date. Some bays and beaches fill completely and in other places it can form a coastal swathe 100m out to sea. Swimming in it is vile and it stays with you for a day or two no matter what.
So between cold water, algae and jellyfish there is a window of opportunity and that would seem to be right here, right now.
As I drove out of town the sky brightened showing patches of blue and by the time I reached the small car park there was full on sunshine. Hah! It is for exactly these moments that I carry a set of swimming kit under the back seat of the car at all times.
It is a very low spring tide and Mussel Rock is cut off from the beach by only a narrow band of shallow water. The rock is draped with tresses of kelp around the base whilst the top is barnacle encrusted and gouged into sharp relief. The centre of the rock is actually hollowed out, not that you can tell from here, and the water flows in and out through two narrow tunnels so that every tide for just a short while there is a perfectly serviceable hidden swimming pool.
Another of the local swimmers is on the beach, we chat for a moment remarking on the improvement in the conditions since the weekend as now the sea is flat calm rather than the raging surf it had been.
I swim straight out into the slightly less sandy water where it is almost blue-green though too silt filled for me to see my toes. I turn and swim around the back of the rock listening to the waves slurping in and out of nooks and crevices. The sun makes the kelp glisten and, as always, it puts me in mind of the description of the aliens in The War of the Worlds and, as always, it makes me wonder if the seals are about and are closing in ready to pounce on an unwary foot.
Just to add to the feeling of isolation, low sunshine is so bright off the water that the beach and cliffs in that direction are an indistinct dark blur.
I complete my circumnavigation and run around in the shallows further down the beach towards my towel.
As I dry a woman wearing a black swimsuit walks down the sand and into the water and for a moment it looks like it could be another of the local swimmers. It’s only March for goodness sakes, there are never this many swimmers here, swimming is the thing it seems.
I stop and chat to her as I’m heading off the beach.
‘I saw you from the coast path and you inspired me’, she tells me.
Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever inspired anyone before. Conned, browbeaten, and cajoled by other devious means, but inspired is a first.
‘Well at least you had your swimsuit’. I’m making the assumption that everyone carries spare swim kit at all times like me.
‘Knickers and t-shirt’, she confesses, ‘I haven’t swum in ages’.
Proper inspired then. I feel quite positive about that.