Portuguese Man o’ War, Finally (and current best advice should you get stung).

 

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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For and Against

As I walk down the path to Hope’s Nose I can see dimly across to Berry Head in the half light of a failed dawn.  The sea is cut with ranks of waves and from below me on the exposed beach I can hear the crash of surf.  I have however chosen my destination with care and the bulk of Hope’s Nose screens the bay on the north side where the water is oily flat calm with not even the slightest wave breaking on the grey low tide pebbles.

Part of the reason for the rough sea in the bay is that the wind from the south is running counter to the tidal flow from the north.  I will meet the current but as I swim away from the beach into the clear aqua-green water there is no hint of it.  Ahead of me the surface is without a ripple, but glancing over my shoulder I can see I am leaving a wake that stretches back out of sight from my low vantage point.  Not for the first time I wonder what a watcher from the high cliff above would see?

It is a fraction over a mile across the two bays to Long Quarry Point and it is out in the middle of the first bay that I begin to notice the current; I am pushing forward quite hard but moving only slowly against the shore.  Nevertheless the dark basalt mass of Black Head with the bright red weathered sand and Bishop’s Rock high above is slowly coming closer.  I pass two lobster pot buoys directly off the point as Redgate Beach and Anstey’s Cove are slowly revealed in front of me so I am at least going forward though for a moment I was beginning to wonder.  I am half way but I can feel I am going more and more slowly and I begin to think that actually reaching Long Quarry is a pipedream, except that I have swum this before.

The pillar of Long Quarry Point remains obstinately far off.  The headland was quarry away for ‘Torquay Marble’ actually an ancient coral reef full of fossils and coloured bands which makes it an attractive decorative stone.  The pillar at the end, as with Durl Rock, was no doubt left as a marker for shipping especially the barges that moored up and carried the stone certainly as far as Cardiff where the town hall façade is made of it.  On a recent visit to Belfast I happened to go to The Crown Bar, a rather eccentric pub owned by the National Trust and if I were laying bets I would say the two pillars that make the portico were also Torbay Marble.

The last 50m nearly defeats me but finally I slap my hand on the barnacle and mussel covered limestone that I have swum off so many times before.  It has taken me almost 50 minutes to cover a mile, a distance that should have taken no more than 40.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The light is still dull and gloomy but I take a few photos anyway as much as anything to say ‘I was ‘ere’.  Now, I should go a little faster.  Immediately I can feel the push of the current and a quick glance over my shoulder shows Long Quarry rapidly receding.  I fly by Black Point in the blink of an eye.  There is a little more swell now or maybe it is just because I am now swimming into it and a little more breeze on the water, but Hope’s Nose is getting closer and closer.

I step down onto the grey pebbles and do a double take at my watch: 50 minutes there, 30 minutes back, which, yes, averages to about 35 minutes to the mile.

And the best thing is that I do not feel in the least bit chilled.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

A Week in October

Monday.  The sea was almost flat calm with just a slight offshore breeze at Broadsands.  The really big difference in the last 10 days is that all the beach huts have been lifted into the car park for winter storage and the café has shut for the duration.  I am about ½ way through my swim taking a direct route from the headland at the right of the bay towards Armchair Rock when I spot the small fishing boat heading my way.  It’s a long way off there is plenty of room.  The boat comes on directly at me.  I angle away towards shore,  The boat turns too and comes straight at me.  ‘Scary Too’ is the name of the boat and she passes close by sending up a big wash.  Very clearly the boat can and could see me.  Maybe I was being paranoid but back on shore 4 people come up to me and confirm the boat did turn towards me and they were a lot further off than the boat and could see me clearly.  I report it as a near miss to the Brixham Harbour Master.  Opinion on Facebook is that I was in the wrong fro swimming without a tow float and the boat was quite within its rights to not keep a watch and/or run me down.  A few more people have just dropped off my Christmas card list.

Tuesday.  The wind is freshening and still westerly.  I do not fancy Broadsands but the sea in the lee of Victoria Breakwater at Brixham will be sheltered.  There is a hint of drizzle in the air and people wrapped in winter coats watch me head to the water.  It is 16°C both in and out of the sea.  The sea is smooth but there is an uneven swell which periodically slops in my face, but I am soon turning at the end of the ½ mile to the end of the breakwater and whilst I divert into more open water the swell is behind me now.  A cormorant with a fish surfaces close to me.  The bird has clearly never heard the phrase ‘never eat anything bigger than your own head’; it cannot possibly get the fish (a whiting I think) down.  At the 3rd or 4th attempt the fish is sufficiently subdued and at the right angle and it vanishes into the bird.  I am still 10 minutes out from the beach I swim on.

Wednesday.  A bit of everything today.  A mile swim to the end of the breakwater and back, taking full advantage of the flat calm in the lee shelter of the wall when everywhere else is white horses (proper planning that is).  I collect one lost sea fishing float on the way out, but do not collect one dead sea bird.  Collect a second float and one of those crab fishing lines on the way back (very useful for string and stuff in the shed).  Whilst collecting the crab line a turnstone walked within a foot of me like it just didn’t care.  Then gently float to within 4 feet of a white heron.  Best of all, get dry, dressed and plonk into the seat of the car just as the torrential rain hit.  That is perfect timing!

Thursday part1.  It is very dark at 6:30 this morning under the trees and through the woods to the river.  Sunrise is not for another hour yet in sharp contrast to just a few weeks ago when I was racing here to catch it over the river.  The highlight of my 30 minute swim: 3 times up and back, is that the dippers have returned.  At one moment there are 5 all chasing each other up and down the river zipping by me close enough that I can hear their wing beats and chirrups as they play follow the leader with barely a few inches between leader and tail.  Surprisingly though the water is only 12°C I don’t have much by way of a shiver going as I stump back to the car.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Part2.  They say it takes 1 month to establish a daily habit.  I have been cramming in 30 to 60 minute swims nearly every day for 2 months.  Habit has strayed into the territory of addiction.  By mid-morning I am again looking at the weather, tide times and beach webcams.  I am back in the water, the sea at Broadsands this time, by 12:30.  Only a short one, just 9/10ths of a mile.  I really, really, really fancy going around again, but I do not have the time.

Friday.  Sarah is already sat with her feet hanging over the sea wall waiting for me when I get to Broadsands.  The wind is still quite brisk but it is noticeably warmer then earlier in the week and blowing off the land has flattened out the surf to nothing more than a ripple.  We swim a triangle around the bay in about 30 minutes over high tide.  Whilst Sarah says she will not be swimming fast she has swum the channel and is a far more proficient swimmer than I am, as I found out when we swam practice sessions for the Dart 10k a few years ago, so I expect to be miles behind her as I am only swimming breaststroke.  She swims slowly and lets me keep up, but it is faster than I swam it by myself yesterday and even the cold shower doesn’t feel so cold. 

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Stalker

I have not swum from Petit Tor Beach for probably 18 months.  Whilst it is a lovely little beach of white limestone pebbles it is quite a way to walk and something of an effort down the very slippery path.  The additional appeal for me it that it collects driftwood.  I have stowed my bow saw and I am not disappointed by the 10m long branchless, slender tree trunk that has been wedged between the rocks at the high water mark.

The major downside to the beach is that it attracts naturists and as I step out on the beach there is a man in the altogether having a swim.  That in itself is not a problem and in itself the fact that he then stands there full frontal watching me for the entire time it takes me to get changed and then pick my way down over the stones and get out past the breaking waves is also not a problem.  So long as he keeps his distance.  It is only as I turn and look back from the water that I realize I have another watcher.

In the usual way I have dumped my bag, towel, boots and clothes on the beach.  I work on the principal that if people can see the contents of your bag they are unlikely to walk off with it on the off chance.  Where I have gone wrong today is that my car key is not hidden away under a rock or behind a clump of grass but is still in my bag.  If the bag goes then I have a problem.  It is too late now.  Psychologically though I have the feeling that if two people see a bag that clearly belongs to a 3rd person then either would have to be pretty bold to simply walk over, pick it up and walk off with it.  Whereas in a crowd no-one knows whose is what and that security blanket is ripped away.  In this case there is no safety in numbers.  Ah well, worse things happen at sea.  But I am at sea!

The sun is shining strongly and it is a very warm autumn day, but then the high headland cuts out the sunshine as I swim around to the Gentlemen’s Bathing Place and by the time I clear the headland a band of thin cloud is beginning to pass hazily in front of the sun.  I swim out further but the cloud is creeping forward faster and I am not going to regain the sunshine and now it is becoming chilly.  From way out here though I can see that ‘Watcher No2’ is now leaving the beach and he walks straight by my bag.  Disconcertingly that leaves ‘Watcher No1’ who is also dressing but slowly and is also clearly watching me.  He walks slowly across the beach stopping every ten paces or so to watch me.  I am getting a bit pissed off actually.  Do I swim in and tell him to ‘go away’ or do I string it out and hope he just goes away?

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

He is not going but stands and watches me swim in and pick my way over the pebbles back to my towel.  Eventually, and I do mean eventually, he turns his back and walks off.  I do appreciate I bring this sort of thing on myself, long hair, women’s swimsuit, people make assumptions and people do take a second glance, but this is so far beyond that.  In addition today after the insanity that was last night’s Vegas evening, where in one sketch I was a bride and in the next Lola the showgirl from the song Copacabana, I have bright red painted fingernails and toenails.  Not that those should be visible from a distance.  Why at no point did it occur to me that if I was buying nail polish then remover would be a good idea as maybe there would be none in the house?  Sometimes the hamster falls asleep on the wheel.

It is true though that you can feel when you are being watched and if it is a sixth sense then mine is well tuned.  I turn my head on the pretext of drying my hair and he is still there.  He’s not easy to spot, but there he is just at the point where the footpath starts under the trees, slightly obscured by bushes, but still there and still staring at me.  Has he really not figured yet that he is not going to get a flash of breasts, or is he looking out for something different?  Does he not get that if I were a woman I would certainly never go to this beach by myself right from the get go?  This is creepy and it has spoilt my afternoon.  I turn and stare back and like someone with a guilty conscience he immediately turns and leaves.

Am I still feeling paranoid?  Yes I am.  However, making any sort of sudden approach across these stones is not going to happen and it would take me only a second to grab the saw from my bag and having accidentally nicked myself with it any number of times I suspect it would appear an effective deterrent.

In the meantime I shall cut a length off the tree trunk and give my stalker plenty of time to be somewhere else.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Lunacy

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

Double Dip Tuesday

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Double or Quit

It is still dark under the trees as I slip and slide through the mud, stumble over tree roots and get slapped in the face by a leafless twig.  I am beginning to wonder if early morning river swims are coming to an end.  At the river the level is a little bit ‘up’ and the water surface swirls and sucks around the stones.  A series of ‘foambergs’ twirl by as I strip off.  Stepping in, the water has a definite autumnal quality, eeek!  I am however on a mission.

I have worn rash vests and long tights as a defence against early autumn chills or late spring cold and they have their place, but today I am trying out something that on the face of it (if it works) will have that ‘how stupid not to have thought of it before’ quality.  I step in further and reach that moment where the water is just at the top of my inner thighs, that moment when I involuntarily lift onto tip toes.

I’m in and the water is chilly, though to be fair it is not as cold as it has been recently.  Even so it bites at my legs, arms and shoulders and an inadvertent mouthful sets my teeth on edge and tightens my lips.  However, the rest of me is not feeling it.  There is a slow drop in temperature against my torso but that plateaus at a ‘not too bad’ level.

How stupid not to have thought of it before.  I am wearing 2 swimsuits.

The under one has a regular racer back with a fully lined front, the top one is one of the new Speedo Hydrasuits I bought a few weeks ago.  With just either on its own I would be puffing and blowing furiously, but together there is evidently a wetsuit effect going on and they are trapping an ever so thin layer or layers of water creating a gradient between the river and me.

That is however only a first impression.  A little over 30 minutes later and I am back on the bank and stripping off.  I feel fine, but always do, look out for the afterdrop.  My boots are on, laces tied, I am chatting with the woman who is having a dip from the opposite bank, on the edge of the tree obscured sunshine that is just breaking through.  My teeth are not chatted, my eyes are not smarting, I do not have those icy fingers down my spine and my hands are not shaking.  My toes are numb however as they should be.

I also only have two swimsuits to wring out and I put those on before I left the house, all so much more manageable than a wetsuit or soggy rash vest and tights.  Minimalist is good.  Maybe I should start a new minimalist swim movement as an antidote to those who insist you have a cart full of ‘essential extras’ before leaving the house.

In all the posts I have read about swimming in colder water, rash vests, wetsuits, booties, gloves, hats and leggings have all featured, but not once have I ever read or heard anyone say ‘double layer 2 swimsuits or quit’.  Altogether now ‘how stupid not to have thought of it before’.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall