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?


Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall


The Dubious Merits of Cold Water Swimming.

Is cold water swimming good for you? I don’t know. Better than doing what by comparison?

My throat cough has now turned into a nose cold and sitting indoors this morning watching the rain cascading off the shed roof was not doing anything for me. So as soon as it looked like there was going to be a break in the weather I obviously jumped in the camper van and set off to go swimming. Under the same circumstances I would not have gone for a run so clearly swimming is better for me than running. Stand back the blue touch paper has been lit.

I chose a great spot under the sea wall out of the wind but in the sunshine which was as well because I then got cornered by someone who wanted to ask where else I swam, how far, how often and I was stood there about 10 minutes in my swimwear and didn’t freeze to death. I then swam the 600m round trip to the rock whilst watching the stunning light show provided by sun and clouds, bouncing up and down a fair bit in the waves once clear of the headland and resigning myself to the fact that though I had stuffed all my clothes in my waterproof bag the towel was pushed in at the top and I had not rolled the top down and it was now raining rather a lot. 600m is not so much but hit the spot perfectly.

Since my swim I have not been coughing and spluttering anything like as much as I was this morning. However the paperwork I was supposed to be doing on my extra day off work has not done itself in my absence. So in that respect going swimming was not good for me.

On balance though I think I am up significantly on the day.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

What Risk?

There is risk associated with any activity and most individuals, whether they realise it or not, judge risk based on their experience.  However bystanders are often quick to adversely judge those involved in activity often negatively on the basis of what they have been told, or more precisely, what they think they have been told.

Objectively the risk of an activity is fixed and would traditionally be assessed by means of a matrix that sets ‘likelihood’ against ‘severity’.  A personal perception of risk and how much risk you deem acceptable given the possible impact on your life in general are somewhat different things.

For example, irrespective of how experienced you are you could still slip on a rock whilst walking and break a leg. The likelihood is nevertheless ‘very low’ (it happens but rarely), the severity though if you were alone could be high as the outcome could possibly death (blood loss, shock, cold, darkness, can’t be found, landing in water). Any instance where severity is potentially death (or life altering outcomes) needs ‘mitigation’.

In this case likelihood may further diminish because from experience you recognise that wet rocks covered in moss are inherently slippery, but that is personal and to properly assess risk you need to assume no prior experience. The severity will diminish if you have means to send for help be that a mobile or someone else, but those are ‘mitigating actions’ and other mitigating factors may be applied. Generally then walking alone on, for example, Dartmoor with adequate mitigating measures lowers to risk to ‘acceptable’.

The problem with a swimming incident is that the progress from incident to outcome is likely to be minutes and mitigation is therefore difficult. Take as a related example the kayak incident on the Dart recently. Many people kayak the Dart, fatal incidents do occur (2 in 5 years for sure), but should an incident occur often the time to death is so short that even in a group the chance that someone will be able to stop and come to aid or do anything in a river in spate is negligible. This has also been my experience of swimming deaths, in that the only 3 that I have a personal connection with have all been people who were swimming with others, but before anyone noticed it was too late

I am however constantly surprised that people who go swimming do such a poor job of risk management. Will the tide be in or out, will it be sunshine or rain seems to be about the limit in most cases. But with all the resources available on-line it is no problem to apply even a little common sense to work out that after 2 days of rain it may be sunny now but the river is still probably ‘high’ or that with the wind blowing from that direction one side of the headland will be sheltered the other may have a big surf.

Personally I think about the risk every time I go swimming and I may consider the weather forecast (including wind direction), tide times and heights and flow direction and current strength, web cams (lots of those), the environment agency river levels page, etc, and I think about how I feel, good for a long swim or short? And even on arrival I have been known to go ‘you know what? Not today’ and go home again. And then there is the question of being visible in the water. Because essentially alone or with others once you are in the water there is potential for a fatal outcome.

Once you are in the water therefore risk and outcome become pretty meaningless. Mitigating the risk BEFORE you get in the water is therefore the thing in my opinion.

There is a further consideration and that is well-being. I will die eventually, that is a given. If I go swimming I keep myself fit which contributes to my well-being and ability to do other things and the alternative might be ‘couch potato’ which is possibly going to move me along to being dead sooner than the chance from a swimming related incident. And along the way I have seen some wonderful things and met lovely people. When you die the sum of your life is still zero (you cannot take anything with you) no matter how you lived it, but in the meantime?

The whole notion of ‘herd mentality’ is one that I have had many arguments over. The problem is that one person determines the risk for themselves at a specific time and in light of their ability and often in hindsight thinking more about the experience they had than how it might have gone differently. And their risk assessment may be rubbish anyway.  Nevertheless they broadcast that swimming at such and such a spot is ‘lovely and completely safe’.  The next person coming along goes ‘well it was OK for them it will be OK for me’.

Outdoor swimmers often counter negative comments with the ‘you are more likely to die whilst driving to work’ argument, but it is patently not a fair comparison. Looked at simply, how many people die in vehicle accidents per year and what is the cumulative time spent by the whole population in vehicles. Compare that to number of swimming fatalities and the cumulative time swimming. Swimming fatalities per hour of activity time I would guess far exceed vehicle deaths.

Do not therefore be put off by the comments of the uninformed or horror stories that may have no truth in them, nor become blasé to the risks.  Instead make a judgement each time you swim and if you have to walk away, then walk away.  After all whilst you want to live life you do only get one go at it and you are along time dead.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Bag in Winter

As a seagull did something less than appropriate on my swimming bag when I left it on the beach earlier it needed a wash so I tipped the contents out.  Of course what an individual carries in their swim bag is personal to each of us, some carry more, whereas I try to travel light.  It is however now decidedly chilly both in and out of the water so I am stepping up to the challenge of a mile a day by carrying a little extra:

Fleece hat, neck buff and gloves,
Foam changing mat,
Bags for wet swimwear,
Swimwear, back-up swimwear, extra back-up swimwear,
Karabiner and hair bands
Hoody sweatshirt,
Goggles, noseclip, ear plugs,
No more tears (for anti-misting goggles),
Tiger balm.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall


Hats, Boots and Gloves

I read a post by someone the other day that said something to the effect of ‘it’s a really rough beach, all pebbles, and footwear is essential’.  Which is odd, as I swim at that same beach a lot and whilst it is pebbles they are all smooth.  When it comes to what is seen as necessary kit then some of it is highly personal and is about boosting self-confidence.

Thoughts at this time of year with the temperature falling turn inevitably to winter essentials.  I have never felt the need for any sort of footwear irrespective of temperature, duration or conditions underfoot (though on that score I have cut my feet so many times I think they are now mostly past it).

I do sometimes wear gloves but that’s not about temperature it is because of a long standing problem from broken bones in my hand which from time to time comes back to haunt me and means something like picking up a coffee cup is quite painful (I keep straws handy just in case) and the repeated push of water on my hand can be very painful, the gloves just give support, though actually, as today, strapping my thumb to my forefinger with a hair band does just as well if not better.

I will swim on as the temperature drops, managing about 30 minutes at 7-8°C before reaching for the wetsuit, but around our bit of coast that is about where the temperature bottoms out.  And I will continue to swim shorter times, much shorter times, without the wetsuit in the river which can get down to zero C.

Nevertheless it is personal preference but if you feel footwear and/or gloves and/or woolly hat and/or anything works for you then it works for you there is no universal right or wrong.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Cold Water Swimming

A good Article on Hypothermia appeared in my reading list recently.  The single most important point in this article is that hypothermia takes time a message I have been pushing for years.  However, time and again alarmist and misleading information is put about by reputable organizations up to and including the RNLI that suggests hypothermia can set in or kill you in just a few minutes.

As the article explains there is a gasp reflex (cold shock reflex) from sudden immersion in cold water (walk into a cold shower if you want to try this) and clearly if your face is underwater that can be almost instantly fatal.

Hypothermia takes time, though the exact time will vary with water temperature, alcohol consumption, natural body insulation, and simply how warm you are to start with.  Nevertheless as the article points out, long before full hypothermia sets in ability becomes impaired so that you may well be unable to make even a short swim back to safety.

Perhaps the most relevant part for cold water swimmers concerns the description of the ‘recovery’ stage.  It is all very well to say “wrap up, do not move, get warm”, but that is a luxury swimmers do not have.  Arriving back on river bank or beach the imperative is to get warm as quickly as possible because the immediate problem is ‘afterdrop’.

After the exertion of swimming for a few moments all seems well, but removed from the water the response of the body is to once more circulate blood from the core back to the extremities that have been experiencing reduced blood flow in order to retain heat in the core.  Now of course cold blood is circulating back into the core and the shivering and discomfort of afterdrop sets in.  There is perhaps barely time from exiting the water until shivering becomes so severe that it becomes a challenge to tie shoe laces.

This is the point at which following the advice in the article one would sit still, drink warm tea and wait the shivers out.  Some people do indeed go in for wrapping up in a swimming robe and/or hugging a hot water bottle or get in their car with the heater going.  My problem with the latter is that all the layers just put on are as effective at keeping warmth out as warmth in.  Besides recovering from the shivers can take an hour and who has that long to sit and warm up?  Whilst driving with the shivers would I imagine be as dangerous as driving whilst drunk.

Therefore there is little choice left in the matter; if sitting still is not an option then getting moving is not a choice it is the only option.  It is my preferred option.  I am not suggesting attempting a half marathon, not wearing all those clothes anyway, but a good stomp certainly gets the warming up process started.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

For local swimmers here in Devon this is a timely discussion.  The temperature of the river water is down almost 5°C on just two weeks ago; 8.5°C yesterday afternoon in the sunshine but only 7.5°C this morning after the frost.  The sea temperature has also started to drop, though it has stayed unseasonably ‘warm’ through October it is now sliding down past 15°C and will probably reach 5-6°C by mid-February.  Meanwhile the river can get to minus figures.  People will keep on swimming though so it is important to separate fact from fiction and focus on the real dangers and not hypothermia which is simply a word most people recognize but few seem to understand.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming



Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall