“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’s hard enough to get to that most people simply do not bother, even in summer with 2 huge holiday camps within a 20 minute walk people simply do not bother. On the other hand it’s not that hard to get to and I can be here in about 15 minutes from work. Park at the top and run down the steps, though as they are nearly vertical that is probably enough to put a lot of people off.
The beach changes. Sometimes it is a wide sweep of sand, though there are always more pebbles at the Brixham end. The pebbles come in pure frosted white quartz, or patterned with green or red. Others are grey-green and often show fossils. Some are rust red with iron minerals and others are dove grey and can be whole fossil corals. On some tides though the sand vanishes leaving sweeping fluted bedrock or jumbled rocks with hidden treasure if you know where to look; one lunchtime I picked up about 40 coins from old pennies through sixpences, a thrupence and on to recent decimal coins.
One of the principal qualities are the high cliffs that box it in on three sides so that on most days when the sea elsewhere may be getting kicked into a fierce chop by the wind, one end or other of St Mary’s will be nearly calm.
Today is a day of sand which moulds softly to the print of my feet and is slightly warm in the late winter sunshine. There is only a slight breeze at beach level and the water is flat calm.
I wade out until the water is to the top of my thighs and then launch into the blue sea. Cold water acclimatization I believe is 50% mental preparation and I tell myself the sea is not cold. It is a blatant lie.
I swim lazily out to Mussel Rock and swing around the seaward side giving it a wide berth as I know there are some sharply barnacled rocks in places and the water is not clear enough to see them clearly. This is only a quick dip though and I swim back in until I am amongst the wavelets and my feet brush the sand with each kick.
A quick dash up the beach, dress and rinse the sand from my toes in the little stream and I can be back at work before anyone notices I’ve been out for lunch.
The gannets that were so much a feature of the bay through January have moved on. That is possibly not a surprise as there can only be just so many fish in the sea and the assault from the air was relentless. However as I set off from St Mary’s Beach there were 2 or 3 far out in the open water.
The first 50m out from the beach always seems hardest, obviously there is a surf and as a consequence the water always carries a lot of stirred up sand making it opaque so that progress seems slow and there is always the lurking fear of a surprise seal attack. The divide between sandy and clear water is often almost as sharp as if it has been scratched out with a knife as it appears today.
‘Out here’ the sea in the sunshine holds the deepest shade of greeny-blue and the sun takes the edge off the cold. It is however much bumpier than it appeared from the beach and I am getting bounced up and down more than I am going forward. It doesn’t matter I am only in it for the fun of it today.
I’m not really paying attention and nor it seems is the razorbill. I’ve got just so close several times before but the bird has a sly way of turning away so it is always looking over its shoulder with a clear line of escape. Today though it surfaces almost within grasp and I finally get a clear look at the sturdy beak that gives it the name. With a startled fluster of feathers the bird dives and I don’t see it again.
I swim off in the direction of Mussel Rock but out of the shelter of the headland the sea gets dramatically rougher in no time at all. But out here is where the gannets are and one comes in low in a majestic sweep that turns up and without a wing beat carries the bird high and far out to sea, looping its way out past Sharkham Point.
However, I’m tired of being thrown about so it’s time to pull my goggles time and head back in and surprisingly it has been almost 30 minutes swimming.
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.
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.
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.
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 stood in the kitchen sipping coffee and watching the sunrise this morning it slowly dawned on me that I should have headed to the river on the way in to work. Instead I had fixed it in my head yesterday that I’d go the full distance around St Mary’s Bay in the sunshine at lunchtime.
Sunshine there was and it was warm and there was plenty of it with only a light if wickedly chill breeze exactly as forecast, a perfect swim day. The sea however had other ideas.
It should have been quite calm under the headland but instead it was a washing machine, not on full maximum spin, but on more of a ‘synthetics’ setting. However, after 20 minutes, which should have got me the full 1/2 mile out to the rock when in fact I had covered only half that distance, it was quite clear that this was not the day I had planned.
And after another 20 minutes spent getting back to the surf line I definitely knew I’d had a good workout even if I’d got nowhere.
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.