The last day of winter

Summer is coming, but to be honest though it is the equinox and first day of spring in these parts tomorrow you could be forgiven for thinking this is still mid-winter.  We don’t get much snow in South-West England, well not in recent years anyway and it is possibly as much as 40 years since there has been snow on this scale locally.  Then twice in 2 weeks, but I am not complaining.

I have long harboured a whimsical notion of swimming at Sharrah Pool on the moorland section of the River Dart when there is snow on the ground.  The problem has been not only a lack of snow but, as 3 years ago when there has been snow, by the time my pathetic car will tackle the roads the warmth in the river has seen off the snow in the valley.  These conditions are however perfect for whilst there is 12 inches of snow in a “deep and crisp and even” layer across my garden it didn’t properly settled on the roads and I get to the New Bridge car park without difficulty.  Nevertheless as I rush along the riverside track as fast as possible given the abundant photo opportunities and following a solitary set of footprints all around there is a steady drip, drip of thawing winter.

wild swimming
wild swimming

Turning from the track onto the side path I have that joy of making the first footsteps in virgin snow and I know I’m grinning like an idiot and I’m photographing every twist and turn of a path that I have taken 100s of times in the past as if it was my very first outing.

Yes!  The footprints I rejoined on the track have got to Sharrah but then for some inexplicable (but much appreciated) reason gone off through the trees.  The river bank is pristine.  And the day is improving second by second as the holes in the clouds over head coalesce into gaps, into rents and then it is blue sky all the way, just dotted with the fluffiest white clouds.  I’m photographing everything with 2 cameras just in case.

wild swimming
wild swimming

Careful not to make tracks I dunk the thermometer into the river as I get changed.  It nudges up from an air temperature of -1.7°C to 3.7°C in the water, this is going to be a full on polar bear swim.  A few selfies on the big diving rock whilst trying not to slip off, which would hurt a lot, and then I wade into the water.  There is clearly something very wrong with anyone who wades into water this cold and thinks ‘oh, that’s not so bad’.

I am now using camera number 3, taking advantage of the wide angle perspective and I tread water repeatedly as I swim up the pool to the swoosh.  The river is moderately high and the swoosh is swooshier than usual.  I feel for the rock I know is there under the churning bubbles, pause, click, click, click, and then I launch myself into the flow.

It is a well known fact that people have just about neutral buoyancy in fresh water, but when a substantial part of the water has been replaced by bubbles that no longer applies.  I vanish under the ‘surface’ (it’s hard to be exactly sure where the water filled with bubbles becomes air filled with splashed water) and of course lifting my arm holding the camera up high to get a record of this madness only serves to lower me further under the water.  With my free arm I push myself around the corner, not wanting to get caught beneath the overhang, and then I am shot down the pool and back to where I started, not so much swimming as ‘floating with style’.  I ‘float’ on down to the shallows, click, click, click and then swim back to the diving rock (not today).  I dash through the snow, switch cameras and I’m back in the water to do the whole thing over again.

Now I stumble from the water.  The chill has caught up with me but only in my left hand which is as painful as a very painful thing indeed.  I’m grinding my teeth as I strip and dry (ankle deep in the snow) and then begin to fight my way damply into layers of clothes.  My left hand is as good as useless, why did I wear a shirt with buttons?  The hell with the buttons!  Layers, put on more layers: fleece, scarf and hat.  Well that’s the top end covered up and I’m sure anyone watching would find that very amusing.

Finally, but my hands are refusing to cooperate and tying the laces of my boots takes 3 attempts for each foot, which is frustrating when I know what I need to be doing is getting going and warming up.  But even when I’m finally ready to go I can’t help myself and progress is again punctuated: click, click, click.

I don’t actually notice when the shivering stops but I am exactly half way back to the car when all of a sudden my hands warm up, a moment that is almost but not quite the best part of the whole outing.  And tomorrow it’s spring.  Hmm, we shall see.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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Elberry sunshine after the storm

wild swimming
wild swimming

Two organized mass beach cleans and no doubt countless 2 minute beach cleans have almost cleared Elberry Beach of the wreckage from the destroyed kiosk at Shoalstone Pool and the devastated conservatory of the Breakwater Bistro.  And now the large piles of bin bags and general waste are being hauled away bit by bit, day by day.  That leaves just a remodeled beach, several piles of scrap wood and a couple of tree trunks, and I have intentions towards some of that, which is in part why I am back.

Today the beach is also sheltered form the wicked chill breeze, well mostly, it is in the far corner where I am getting changed anyway and I’m in the sunshine too.  I swam here yesterday and the sea was quite calm but there was nowhere out of the breeze and no sunshine either.  No surprise then that I am here to take full advantage of the change of fortunes.

In the way that it happens my eyes begin to tune in to the glass fragments amongst the pebbles as I am changing and the broken bucket I picked up starts to fill: clink, clink, clink.  The more you look the more you see in green, brown and ‘clear’, some frosted, some fresh faced with sharp edges.  I have picked up sea glass here before but this is madness and I begin to wonder what storm process brought so much to the surface of the beach.  I also wonder how soon it will be before I tread on a sharp bit.

I am glad then to be buoyed up by the aquamarine water, but it feels considerably colder than yesterday despite the sunshine or maybe that’s it, the contrast with the warm beach simply makes the water feel colder.  I have gone no more than ½ way along the beach than the first walker stops to stare.

wild swimming
wild swimming

I zig-zag back and forth along the beach twice, it takes a little over 20 minutes to cover about 700m with progress slowed by the photo opportunities offered by such a perfect setting.  Yesterday I swam further out and did 500m but at a substantially faster rate.  Today though I now have 2 fan clubs, one gathered on and around the bench on the headland, the other sat on the pebbles.

I stagger back up the beach with the small rounded stones digging painfully into my numbed feet.  I’m also cold and strip off disregarding the fan club.  I’m the same pink shade as a boiled lobster and shivering like a leaf, it’s not a pretty sight but both times I shoot a glance at my fan club the woman is watching me right back.  God knows why, it cannot be a pretty sight as I fight my damp clammy skin into clingy clothes.  But then I’m done.

I hoist a length of wood onto one shoulder and grab the bucket with it’s collection of glass and general litter in the other and stamp my warming way back to the car.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

St Mary’s Bay

St Mary’s is a gem of a beach.

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.

wild swimming
wild swimming

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.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

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.

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Swimming with Dolphins

By comparison to yesterday’s sunrise swim you could be forgiven for thinking this is a different season or country and as I walk down through the woods to Watcombe Beach the horizon is aglow with sunlight.  I’m gazing out to sea when my eye catches a distant movement, surely it can’t be but it is and a moment later the dorsal fins of 2 dolphins once more arc above the surface of the flat calm sea.

wild swimming
wild swimming

The last time I had a close encounter with dolphins in Torbay was way back in summer 1995 when a whole group swam by me as I watched from the shore at Long Quarry Point.  Had I been quicker I could have been in the water with them but as it was I had the perfect vantage point and several of them swam by almost in arm’s reach.  These are a long way out of arm’s reach.

The 2 arcing fins cross the bay and are hidden by the point.  Ever the optimist I keep an eye out to sea as I change but it is only as I’m adjusting my swim hat and stood knee deep in the water is it that I see more fins.  There are 2 here and 3 there and possibly some in between but still a long way off.  There have been reports of a group of about 30 up and down the coast maybe this is them, but, they are a long way off.

I’m out of the bay and in open water, the horizon is ablaze with sunrise and way off to my right is a group of 3 paddleboarders, but I’m looking up the coast and there are dorsal fins arcing above the water, a lot of dorsal fins, it has to be worth a try and I swim like a lunatic straight out on what I hope will be a closing course.

I’m too slow.  The dolphins pass between me and the paddleboarders, closer to them than me but there is no more than 100m separating us.  Standing on their boards they must have a perfect vantage point.  I’m treading water and on the one hand watching the dolphins sweep into Babbacombe Bay, whilst on the other casting my eyes up the coast in the hope there may be more.  And then no more than 10m away 2 fins arc up, the backs of the dolphins glistening in the sunshine which is almost blinding as I stare into it.  They surface again but are moving away fast.  The paddleboarders are turning after them leaving me out here by myself.  And I am a long way out here.

wild swimming
wild swimming

I check my watch and swim briskly in but it takes me almost 15 minutes which at that pace puts the distance at least 500m and I am frozen when I get back to the beach.  To tell the truth though I don’t care, but I do hope it won’t be another 20 years for a repeat performance.  And in summer would be nice.

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