The Non-Zero-Sum Game

There was frost on the car windscreen this morning, the first of the season, but otherwise it was a perfect clear sky morning without any breeze.  Honestly though after yesterday when it took several hours for me to warm through after swimming, why am I doing this again?

I must have been especially quiet getting changed on the river bank; where the water flowed by with barely a ripple and steamed with mist (Still Pool living up to its name again), because as I stepped into the water the otter that was sat 10 feet away on the bank obviously got its first hint that I was there. All I saw was the brown shape and sinuous tail sliding quickly into the water and then the trail of bubbles breaking the surface as it swam across the pool: classic!  Like a total amateur though I watched the bubble trail thinking it will have to come up soon, but of course it was swimming well ahead of the bubbles so I didn’t see it again.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Until now my aim has been whenever possible to do three times up and back which, depending on the flow of the river gives a distance of between 175m to 205m each way (402m = ¼ mile).  If the flow is less the distance is further as it is possible to start from the edge of the downstream shallows and get right up into the top end shallows.  However, as the flow increases the shallows flow too fast to swim but though the distance diminishes the effort to swim upstream increases to a tipping point where the river becomes and endless pool and distance is no longer an issue as swim as hard as you like you will go nowhere.

Clearly if the flow is slight and the water is warm (we are talking July) then I could swim up but float back and that would be a zero-sum game where all the added effort put in swimming against the current is wiped out by the free ride back making it equivalent to swimming in still water.  However at the endless pool end of the spectrum it is self evidently a non-zero-sum game as clearly if I go nowhere there is no free ride back to detract from the effort of swimming just to ‘stand’ still.  But then what about the points in between?

What I have determined from longer sea swims is that my pace is consistently 40m to 44m/ minute.  In the endless pool non-zero-sum game scenario in the river the pace is clearly zero meters / minute.  Let’s assume then that in the river I could swim at the same pace as in the open sea equivalent to the average of the above figures ie 42m / minute.  The assumption is however wrong on at least two grounds which are firstly with shallows and eddies it is not possible to get a steady pace as strokes get missed and secondly head on to a current stifles the stroke making it less efficient.  Consequently I will take the 40m / minute figure as my maximum river pace.

In the zero-sum scenario (swim up, float back) it stands to reason that over a given distance my pace should equate to 40m / minute.  Anything less than that moves me further into the non-zero-sum scenario to a maximum value where the pace is zero meters / minute.

Actually though what I have found is that even in summer the pace is around 35m / minute and today when the river flow is somewhere between summer and endless pool my pace is about 28m / minute.  Furthermore I estimate that when the river is flowing at the maximum rate where it is possible to actually swim upstream that pace drops to 25m / minute and I exit the water feeling very worked out.

Why, you are wondering, is there such a big gap between zero and 25m / minute?  It’s a fair point and in a perfect situation it should be a continuum, but the river flows faster and slower along the course depending on shallows or deeper water and where I set off to swim from the current is swiftest and so at all points between zero and 25 I simply cannot start swimming.  What I need is a uniform channel with variable flow, maybe some sort of pool perhaps?

And this is what keeps my mind off the fact that I am swimming in 8°C water at 7:30 in the morning where it feels as though my fingers and toes have fallen off.


Polar Bears

One of the local swimmers I meet with occasionally has a thing for ‘ice miles’.  It is far worse than it sounds.  The goal is to swim 1 mile in open water less than 4°C.  Not content with doing it the once she has now done it three times.  The most I have ever inadvertently managed was about ¾ mile in the sea at the end of November where the water was most probably about 10°C.  After that I was literally a gibbering blob and the concentration required to tie my boot laces was like being back in kindergarten; this loop, where does it go?

Part of the ability to do that sort of swim is physical acclimatization.  Part of it is bloody mindedness.  I sometimes think of the trains in the Rev. Audrey books, “I can do it, I can do it”.  Why I should want to remains an enigma.

Now however I have paid my £5 to do something I was probably going to do anyway so as to get a badge which I won’t have any clear idea what to do with.  It will no doubt end up in the back of the drawer along with an aging collection of running medals.  This is not ingratitude or modesty; I’m quite pleased to have done these things but once done it is in my nature to have quickly moved on to the next crazy venture.  In this case to swim 200m in open water at least twice a month from November to March inclusive:  The Polar Bear Challenge. 

There are of course rules.  Swimwear only (no neoprene, woolly hats, boots or gloves) though a simple swimming cap, goggles and ear plugs are permitted.  As I am still breaststroke fixated the latter are superfluous.  The need for an independent observer has been waived.  Just as well, as no-one I know would be stupid enough to be stood on the river bank at a little after 7am with the air temperature nudging down towards 3°C to watch me swim.

The thermometer has stuck at 8.8°C.  Mist drifts forlornly about the still surface of the river. Sunken leaves rise and fall out of view in the shadowy depths.  Thankfully the clocks have ‘gone back’ and the sun has just risen and whereas this time last week I was blundering about in near darkness and tripping over tree roots now at least I can see, if only in shades of black (utterly black, black as midnight, as black as black can be, pitch black, etc) and grey.

Forget about an observer, why am I doing this?  Though actually as I take the first strokes out around the sunken rocks it does not feel so cold and that is deeply worrying in itself.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I push sideways across the river through the flow that was diverted around the rocks and I am in the slower moving water under the far bank and pushing upstream gaining momentum as I pass under the leafless branches and above the sandy shallows.  It is a short lived advantage and now I am again battling the current, my fingers are tingling, my lips chill instantly every time I get splashed in the face and the soles of my feet are going numb.  Well I imagine that’s what’s happening, they hurt and if that is not down to going numb then they have instead fallen off.

Push, push, push, I can do it, I can do it, why am I doing it?  But now (I have recently decided to embrace the modern trend of using ‘but’ or ‘and’ as acceptable ways in which to begin a sentence.  This is modern language evolving.  However said evolution does not include the use of ‘your’ as a substitute for ‘you’re’ and I will rain down retribution on the next apostrophe ignorant person I see doing so) I am in the part of the river where there is little or no flow due to some quirk of the river bed and I surge forward again. 

For almost 5 meters but then however I reach the top shallows where my knees bump against occasional rounded stones, which constricts my swimming style to more of a thrash than stroke.  The surface of the river jiggles and splashes but I can gain a little advantage by moving towards the middle of the river, not too far just into a Goldilocks zone between patella splitting rocks and the full current that would sweep me back to Square 1. 

I am now puffing like a steam train as well as sounding like one and each breath shoots out a cloud of vapour.  I will do it, I will do it.  Three meters, two meters, one meter, through the cross current and yay into the slack water in the lee of the Dipper Stone.  That is as far as I can go as there is no depth of water only pebbles.

It is probably as well I am unobserved because now I’m stood little more than ankle deep in the middle of the river taking photos whilst my lobster pink skin steams.

Swim on, there’s another 175m yet to go back to my towel and that will be day 1 swim 1 completed.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Silence of the Owls

The silhouettes of the branches are emerging from the darkness against the lightening sky whilst amongst the trees all is darkness so that the multi-hued autumn leaves that form a carpet strewn across the ground are no more than a pixilated mat in shades of grey.  Walking from the clearing under the canopy of trees the silence and darkness envelopes everything.  Away in the woods a pair of owls call and continue to do so until they fade from hearing.  That’s when they are at their most fearsome; when you can no loner hear them stalking you.

Many people I know are afraid to go down to the woods to play and the idea of woods in darkness would terrify them.  Maybe it is those killer owls.  The most dangerous thing in these woods is me and that be good enough reason for others to be terrified.  However the one thing that bothers me is that somewhere here there is a tree root.  That will be it, the one I just stubbed my toes on.  How is it possible that when I knew it was there and wanted to avoid it I was nevertheless drawn to it like an owl to the scent of fear.

The surface of the river is without a ripple except right at the foot of the rocks where the current rolls to the surface leaving a sinuous and every changing corded ripple that trails downstream past the leaf littered jetty until it is ironed flat by the flow of water.  Were it not for that and the fallen leaves channeled into a narrow band flowing by out in midstream there would be little to suggest there was any flow at all.  Even the chatter of the water over the pebbles downstream is subdued.

Retying my pony tail with additional bands to prevent any further leaf entanglement and scissors incidents I step into the water, give a short gasp at the cold and set off upstream pushing a swell ahead of me with my breaststroke.  Emerging from under the tree canopy I see ahead of me upstream for a brief moment the sky overhead flushed orange with an unseen sunrise.  However by the time I have returned on my second circuit the sky colour has faded to ashen grey, though the trees are now at least dull shades of green.

I am still alone in the silence as I set off for my third run.  Up and back takes something like 12 minutes, but as I round the corner into the main pool for the end of my swim Clare is stood on the bank already slipping her sandals back on having changed, dipped, dried and dressed in my period of absence.  We comment on the stillness, the calm before the storm, as rain and high winds are forecast for the afternoon.  It does not seem possible.

But it was and by mid-afternoon the trees outside my office window are bent before the gale and leaves stream in a blizzard down the road that is gushing with water in the leaf choked gutters.  Killer owls!  Yeah, you try and hang on to your perches in that.  Killer owls indeed.

There will be no river swimming tomorrow morning after this lot.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall


It’s 5:45, a.m., I don’t need to get up just yet.  What with the sunrise not now happening until 7:20 (15 minutes a week it changes at this time of year) and the angle changing too, there is no rush to get to the river which will simply be dark (as well as cold).  No, it’s no good, my internal alarm clock has got me up and there is no ‘snooze’ function on this aged model, I stare blankly at the featureless ceiling.

Twenty minutes later and I’m pulling on swimwear when I remember that today there is a conjunction of Venus and Mars and as it is a clear morning they should be visible.  I put the kettle on and duck out to the back of the house to see Venus shining brightly and very close to it the red dot of Mars.  My efforts at photography are futile and my feet are now cold.

Driving through the lane in near pitch black under the trees I pass a woman walking her dog.  I never see anyone at this time in the morning, not once in 3 months down this way.  She is wearing the shortest shorts that can still be shorts and not hotpants (remember hotpants from the ‘70s, well this spell checker doesn’t).  You are a mad woman, it is 3°C and dark (she is not however wearing sunglasses, not carrying a pack of cigarettes).  A mile later and I pass two people running.  Never ever do I see anyone down this lane at this time, but that’s three this morning.  Last night’s full moon has evidently brought the weirdoes out.

Conversely neither of the cars of the regular dog walkers is parked by the entrance to the woods.  They have evidently heard there are weirdoes on the loose and have chosen to stay home.  It is just as well I know my way beneath the trees as I can barely see a thing in the gloom.  The owl from the other morning hoots ‘tu-wit’ and is answered ‘tu-woo’ from far off amongst the otherwise silent trees.

The thermometer nudges up as I drop it in the water: 8°C, 10.3°C but it sticks fast at 11.1°C.  It is strange how cold can feel exactly like burning against skin and 11°C is not properly cold.  For inexplicable reasons I have decided to swim down to single digits, it seems that may happen sometime soon.

The sky is lightening as I reach the dipper stone at the top of my second circuit, the river level has dropped only 3 inches since Tuesday but it makes all the difference to the flow.  There is a quick flutter of wings.  Kingfishers?  Maybe not, it has been weeks since I last saw them and not only them but the ducks, cormorant, dippers and wagtails have all disappeared, so has the heron but that was not really a regular.  Now mostly it is falling leaves except for the robin who has become a regular and the tiny wren that flitted about the bare twigs just above my head last swim.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

As I swim back towards sunrise there is again a blur of motion which looks ‘kingfishery’, but which is heading away downstream.

I’m finishing my third and final loop, heading into the sunrise glow and straight out of the brightest part a dark shadow is speeding up the river towards me, skimming the water by just a few inches.  The sharply pointed beaked shape is on a direct collision course with my face, but at the very last moment it does a Merrie Melodies worthy pause in mid-air (the mental caption “Spedium beakius” hangs there for a moment) before it banks right and flashes by in shades of orange and scintillating blue.

I towel and dress frantically pulling layers on as fast as my numb fingers, shaking hands and wet skin will allow.  It’s not working and I shake and shiver all the way back to the car and afterwards.  Maybe I should instead jog back, but there’s the irony, to warm up I’d have to wear less clothes as I presently look more Mr. Stay Puft than Usain Bolt.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

“Look out for the weirdoes out there.”

“Mister, I am one of the weirdoes.”

Lunacy, absolute lunacy.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Before Dawn

The forecast for yesterday was solid rain, but that did not materialize.  Nevertheless, the river was at least 12 inches higher than might have been expected after a few rain free days so maybe it has been raining up on the moor.  It was however quite swimable, though the dipper’s rock was completely submerged and I could get no closer than 5m to the churning water that marked its unseen presence even though I was swimming flat out against the flow.

This morning the level is back where I would expect it though still running too fast at this point in the year to contemplate a loop down to the shallows before a push to the top of the pool.  The water is far too fast over the shallows for that to be viable.

The swirling surface of the water is wreathed in threads of mist.  There is no apparent sense to it.  In some places it streams up off the surface in sheets which drift imperceptibly into the cover of the trees.  Elsewhere random puffs of mist inexplicably billow up from the surface as if the river has just exhaled.  Each time I exhale I add to the haze.  I dip into the river as the church clock chimes seven.  The sunrise is as yet no more than a dull glow below the tree line downstream.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

It is odd to now swim beneath branches and twigs that were just 12 hours ago trailing in the river.  And unlike last night I am now swimming with each stroke advancing me beneath the tree, whereas before it took me ten or more strokes to advance ten centimeters.  I am past the apples trees, past the sunken log (not a problem last night but now there to snag an uninformed toe), past the Himalayan Balsam which still hints the air with that slightly sickly odour and past the half submerged branch with just a few forlorn leaves nodding rapidly in some form of St Vitus’s Dance.

I am into the still water and bowling along then out into the full flow again.  The Dipper’s rock is there but remains elusive.  The current hurls me back downstream into a morning still dark beneath the mist shrouded trees.

On my second return however the sun finally crests the trees downstream and the pool illuminates in a blaze of fire, the tongues of mist now lick upwards scorching the undersides of the leaves with an orange reflected glow.  It is dazzlingly bright.  I set off back up the pool for the third and final time.

The dawn glory is all over by the time I shoot back down the pool.  The sun has cleared the trees and the fire-orange glow has paled to intense yellow-white against a bleached blue background.  It has been as memorable as my first equinox swim earlier in the week only now it is on time, or at least on the same day.

I furiously towel dry as the shivers set in, each moment will make it harder to tie my boot laces, but I am layering up as fast as possible.  Maybe the trick is to put the boots on first, then get dressed.  Tying laces is hardly a precision job, but it does need doing right, whereas putting a hoodie on can presumably be done shivers or not.

Leave that with me until tomorrow morning.


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

What a Difference a Day Makes.

Today I am filled with optimism.  The weather began to improve yesterday late afternoon and I dashed back to Still Pool for another nifty 40 minute swim as the sun nudged down behind the trees sending random shafts of light lancing through to the river and the sky above, cloudless, faded from pale towards darker shades of blue.  This morning the sky is mostly cloudless and there is barely a hint of breeze moving the tree tops.  The horizon turns from pink to orange to golden and sunlight lances into the kitchen lighting up the steam from my coffee cup.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Golden light filters through the redwood trees, though the mornings no longer have the warmth of mid-June that scented the air with pine resin, and reflects up off the water making the river bank trees glow.  My, my, it must have been raining somewhere, the river is up a clear 10cms on yesterday.

10cms (or 4 inches in Brexit money) does not sound much I grant you, but across 5m of river that is a lot of extra water trying to get somewhere in a hurry.  And it has a slight extra chill edge to it as I wade in to the still water in the lee of the rocks.

The water deepens sharply and in 3 paces I can no longer touch the bottom with outstretched toes, but here the water is almost still.  I swim a few brisk strokes down to the shallows and turn upstream into the line of bubbles that mark the line of the fastest flowing water.  The water is certainly in a hurry to get somewhere.  My shoulders are still a little tired after yesterday and they ache and complain as I push into the flow, with each stroke barely advancing me a head’s length.

My direct route up the pool eventually takes me out of the faster flowing water and into the shallows on the inside of the bend, though even here this morning despite the placid looking surface the water is fairly racing along.  It is only ½ way up the pool that there is a short, still patch of water and I can catch my breath, but not for long.  I am soon in the shallows, the water surface chops and splashes hiding the randomly placed boulder hazards.  I find one of them with my knee but only discover ½ an hour later when I am drying that I found it quite hard and it was quite sharp and I am leaking a red streak all down my shin.  Ah, the joy of cold water.

I am abreast the dipper rock (the dipper is not at home), another fast flowing and choppy patch of water is in front of me, only 1m across but it takes a dozen strokes to clear it to the still water in the lee of the next rock.  Across from me towards the far bank there is a moss covered rock I use as another marker, or there should be, it was there yesterday evening a little green oasis in the flow, but now it is entirely submerged.

I push off and float the first 5m being whooshed along by the flow, the water is too shallow to swim this side without kicking the stones of the river bed.  Where the water calms a little it is deeper and I race back down the centre line of the pool leaning in to the left hand curve past the diving rock and I’m back where I started.  It has taken 13 minutes, same as always, for the round trip, but instead of the usual 8 up and 5 back, this has been more like 10 up, 3 back.

Despite the apparently free ride back I was swimming as fast as I could and am now a little breathless.  Various muscles are also complaining; ‘Shut up, this is good for you!’

One down, two to go.

And the forecast is good for this evening.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Flash Flood

There was tragic news earlier in the week about 9 people killed by a flash flood in Arizona.  They were enjoying a sunny day at a popular swimming hole unaware of the torrential downpour miles upstream.  Apparently the first anyone knew of the changing conditions was a rumble like thunder and then a wall of water came down the river and was on them in seconds.  As is clear from the video in the above link it is not only the water but the debris in the water that causes such tragedies.

People say the River Dart is a ‘flashy’ river though it is not immediately obvious how that can be.  Yes there are relatively big flood waters but normally from looking at data on the Environment Agency River Level Monitoring Site it looks like the levels rise and fall relatively slowly.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Flash floods do happen here: Lynton and Lynmouth in 1952, Boscastle 2004, Coverack last week, but are thankfully uncommon.

As far as the Dart goes yesterday brought what was a borderline flash flood as recorded on the above Env. Agency website.

Wild Swimming Still Pool
Wild Swimming Still Pool

On Thursday evening I swam my usual twice up and down the 300m pool near Dartington.  The river chattered over the stones and was still perhaps an inch or so higher than the typical summer low after Tuesday’s showers and just touched the last of the steps near the swing which hangs 6 feet clear of the placid, clear water of the main pool.  I swam with a girl who had stopped off on her run, 2 boys were messing about with snorkels in the shallows by the sandy beach and the 2 girls were taking turns on the swing.

The forecast was for rain.

When it came it was torrential hammering deafeningly on the tin roof at work.  I had to go and take a look at the river.

Beneath the bridge the shallows and banks of pebbles where the heron had been stalking yesterday had vanished.  However, the water might be just an inch deep, a covering and with no marker there was no knowing.

At the pool though it is obvious the level is up about 4 feet if not more.  Tree branches drag the surface and the steps have gone along with the little step from which I dive and the concrete ledge is being washed over.

Stepping into the water at the edge of the beach it is waist deep where yesterday there were dry stones and I wade out to the trees where dark brown water slooshes around the willows.  The water here is however barely flowing, dammed into a little pool by trees and bank.  Walking back along the bank it is clear that in just a few minutes the level has risen to fill the hollow under the leaning tree trunk and back at the steps the ledge has gone.

The water in the enclosed corner stirs gently, there is less flow than in the mainstream on a normal day and I bob easily in the surprisingly warm water keeping place with just gentle flicks of my hands and feet but with nowhere to go there is no point in staying in longer than to take a few pictures and watch the world quite literally pass by.

Hauling myself out using the small tree it is clear the water is rising fast.  It has now breeched the last of the rock and the oak tree roots are awash leaving just a few inches of the tallest rock poking above the surface and even that get swamped once in a while.  As I dry off I see a tennis ball whisk by and several plastic bottles and a surprising amount of potential firewood.  A long heavy length hitches on some trailing tree branches hauling them down until the log is released and the branches spring back with a crash.  The log broadsides the next branches and sticks creating a dam and a noisy gurgle of water.

The last of the rock is finally covered and at the same moment the water catches the tail of rope at the swing and sets it dodging and rocking, the water pulls one end in, flips it up and the other end is dragged in.  That is a rise of 18 inches in 30 minutes.

What looks like a honeydew melon in terms of colour and size spins past.

I’d like to stay and watch (as it turns out the level will not peak for another hour and the monitoring station upstream shows another 10 inch rise yet to come) but instead I’ll come back in a day or too and look for the tide line of debris on the all but submerged fence beyond the vanished beach on the far bank.

More heavy rain is however forecast.