One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Double Weather Bomb Dip


They’re at it again! Weather Bomb Swimming on the West Coast of Scotland.

Originally posted on wildswimmers:

We’ve been keenly anticipating this “Weather Bomb”, forecast widely for the past few days.  Scary looking graphs and diagrams indicated massive waves and terrific squalls of wind.  During the night the wind increased to a howling gale and so, mid morning, the hardy group gathered for our Weather Bomb Dip.  The Polar Bear was the only un-wet-suited swimmer – full marks to him for bravery.  We were lucky to get a superb sunny spell, with white wave tops and spray and deep green water and we spent fully half an hour in a sort of giant washing machine type situation, shrieking and yelling with exhilaration.  Capt. Duggie disappeared almost out into the Sound of Jura, and returned only when the rest of us were back at the house, dressed and half way through a giant box of biscuits won by the Polar Bear at the local Co-Op.  Just before…

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Fire and Icy Water

Gloved Moon

Gloved Moon

A full Cold Moon draws us to Bantham, where we meet to swim in the Aune ria. We build a bonfire and use it to light home-made torches. There is an arterial sound and energy here, of lifeblood whooshing upstream on the flood tide. The scents of salt and woodsmoke meld, and we trail flames as we wade in.

Frigid water glows in orange ripples, while above glares a phosphorus moon, escaped from the glove of a passing cloud. Sparks shoot in the steely edge of the sea wind and hair flies like the flame from my torch. Warm thoughts and wind-burned cheeks tussle with chilled bodies. On the far bank, from a glass-walled house, silhouetted figures watch. We form a circle, shadowing the moon who has lured us and the sea to her.

Moonglow, Torchglow

Moonglow, Torchglow

Flaming Water

Flaming Water


Tara Adds Magic







Quick Whirl Across the Corryvreckan

Misty Isles

Misty Isles…en route to the Corryvreckan with the rib following.

Sandy's Chart

Sandy’s Chart

The third largest whirlpool in the world sounds like a perfect, if rather sporting place for a wild swim. It’s been done before, of course; first off by George Orwell’s one-legged brother-in-law in the 1950s, while Orwell himself came a cropper in the Corryvreckan with his boat, but survived. There are now fairly regular organised trips, but those tend not to be my thing. And so it was that I picked up three “guerrilla swimmers” from Lincolnshire on the Outdoor Swimming Society Facebook page, who were looking for people to share a boat and do the swim in an “organised but not organised” fashion.

The gang, note Stef's expression (2nd left at the back)

The gang: Stef on L behind, WWS and Queenie

Stef and Queenie volunteered to join me, and so, in mid-August after a whole day of travelling, we found ourselves sitting outside a cafe by a lock on the Crinan Canal with the rather glamorous North Norfolk Crawlers, who were wearing matching kit and false eyelashes (Queenie: “Can you tell we’re from Devon?”). The guerrilla swimmers rocked up next, and then a lone wolf from New Zealand via London. We joked around a bit, then made our way to the boat. “Look what you’ve got me into, Roper!” Grumbled Stef, not for the first time. “It’ll be fine, we’ve got 40 minutes!” I replied, breezily, while my innards trembled. Sandy (helped by his young assistant) from Venture West was our fabulously knowledgeable and skilled guide. As we approached the boat, a passing, tall and long-bearded man expressed some concern about us doing the swim, but we assured him we’d be fine. It was blustery, but there was sun, and some puffy clouds. Borderline conditions for the swim said Sandy.

Our boat was rather flash; orange and blue and adventurous-looking with a thrusting prow, Victorian explorer meets Star Wars. We set off at speed, accompanied by a rib crewed by two fit young men, who were there to whip swimmers from the jaws of death if necessary. By the time we’d neared Jura, which had materialised darkly from a misty blue form in the distance, we were all best friends. Stef continued to mutter about what we’d got her into, while the guerrillas plotted a two way swim. I stressed slightly about my shoulder and lack of fitness, and wondered whether I should have brought my wetsuit. The female Crawlers said the sea had been face-freezing on the previous day, so we were expecting anything from 10-14 degrees. The feeling of speeding over water, the smell of the sea and and a brisk salty wind in your face soon puts paid to any real terror, though and I began to feel trepidatiously excited.

Eerily smooth water from tidal roses

Eerily smooth water from tidal roses

Suddenly, in the chop of the grey-blue sea, a glassy-smooth circle of water materialised alongside the boat, widening, reflecting and distorting the sky, like the earth from an approaching space ship. Another appeared just ahead expanding like the ripples from a giant raindrop, then mushrooming up from its centre to a diameter of maybe forty meters. I ducked into the forward area of the boat, to question Sandy. First he showed me the depth on the screen that included charts of the sea bed and the famous basalt pinnacle which is a key part of the topography that causes the pool to whirl. The sea is 190 meters deep on the seaward side of the pinnacle, then rises quickly to where the pinnacle point is 30 meters below the surface. This and the narrow gulf between the islands of Jura and Scarba, and the tidal stream that hits Jura and accelerates along its 20 mile length, causes the kind of force you can’t really imagine, Sandy told me. So our incredible circles of shiny water, and the mushrooms, result from the uprush of water from the deeps. “I’ve heard them called tidal roses doon sooth” said Sandy in a soft, west coast accent that luffed through his ginger seafarer’s beard.

Ready to swim!

Ready to swim!

We were near the end of the ebb tide, and we sat to await the right time to swim. This part is judged by eye and decades of knowledge and experience of these tantrummy waters. As we waited, Sandy pointed out we were doing around 3kts, at rest. The reason he’d refused to take three swimmers in the rib is that this larger, more powerful boat has the ability to outrun the currents. We were all ready to go, then we powered across to Scarba and jumped in from the side on the very end of the ebb. The water was less cold than I’d expected, maybe 13 or 14, enough for a nip but not too bad. We swam to the rocks and touched land, then set off. Almost immediately, another largish boat appeared, driven by Alexei, the man we’d met earlier with the long, pointy beard. We later discovered he’s a local singer, and he’d been so worried about us he phoned Sandy and came out to help.

And we're off! Jumping in to the jaws of the beast...

Jumping in to the jaws of the beast…

We began to swim, and Queenie and I, both non-wetsuited, quickly found ourselves alone. Stef had vanished with the main gang, while some of the crawlers and the guerrillas took off. There was quite a chop and Queenie swam to the seaward side of me. I tried to settle into a rhythm, and gazed through the deep turquoise wondering how far from the bottom we were. Then I saw a large, undulating blob of umber and cream, shadowed with a dark mane of anemone-type tentacles pulsing beneath it. It was bigger than my head. This, of course, was one of the infamous Lion’s Manes jellyfish which often crowd the sea here so that it’s impossible to swim. Then I saw a second one. Both were several meters from me, but I quickly realised I’d been stung on the legs, neck and arm. Beneath the lion’s mane they trail invisible tentacles that can reach tens of feet in length.

Scarba, ready for the off.

Scarba, ready for the off.

We stopped, while Alexei our guardian angel fretted about what we were doing, worried eyes above the Russian fairytale beard. “Just taking some photos” says I, while we had a quick chat then set off again. We stopped once more, then weird things started to happen. I could see the last of the others coming ashore, while the racing eels were already back on the big boat. John the lone wolf was being pulled into the rib. We swam in their direction, but were getting further away. I was buffeted, a feeling not unlike standing on the tube platform while a speeding train passes, but colder. I saw another jelly, right next to me and arched and skulled around it, but this time the current took its tentacles away. Alexei shouted, and I saw Queenie accelerate. He shouted again: “The tide’s runnin’! Swim!” (Bridge to Enterprise, Warp Factor 9!) so I did. Waves picked up and ran diagonally from front right (seaward) to back left, while I felt my body being pushed to the right in what must have been an eddy, since this was the flood hitting us. Buffets walloped by legs and body from underneath; I imagine this is how a worm on top of a washing machine on spin cycle might feel. The rocks, maybe thirty meters away, weren’t getting any closer and I could see and feel kelp. Queenie had turned to landward and was nearing the rocks, so I headed towards her and went flat out (if I giver her any more, Captain, she’ll blow…!) As I grabbed the kelp at the edge, the men in the rib shouted and I turned and forced my way back out towards them.

Queenie mid-swim

Queenie mid-swim

View from the Gulf

View from the Gulf

Then I scrabbled to mount the side of the rib, before something hoiked me over to land with a splat next to Queenie on my back on the fishy-scented bottom, with one leg over the side. “I saw your Mary Jane!” she shouted. “You can’t talk!” said I, watching her flounder, beached and giggling, as the rib took off at speed. We climbed aboard Sandy’s boat, laughed, swapped tall tales, changed and drank bubbly provided by the head guerrilla. One of the Crawlers had lost a nail, and I had some nice jelly stings, but we were otherwise unscathed. We passed a row of seals on a rock, lined up like plump men at a bar. It was only later, as we all met for dinner at the Tayvallich Inn, that the lone wolf told me the swim had been arranged off the back of the springs in order to make it “more challenging”…hence the concern of dear Alexei. So instead of the 40 minutes we’d assumed, we’d actually had a 20-minute window; Queenie and I took rather longer than that. We might not have taken photos had we known…

Vew from the fishy bottom of the rib

Vew from the fishy bottom of the rib

Running away bravely

Running away bravely

Lion's Mane swipe

One of the jelly swipes…

The Anxiety of Dolphins (and the dance of bees)


I don’t know whether I could bear to watch this documentary. Thoughtful and funny blog post from Robin Ince.

Originally posted on Robinince's Blog:

One of the more disturbing, intriguing and enlightening concepts I learnt about from BBC4 this year was the idea that dolphins could kill themselves. I nearly typed ‘commit suicide’, but I have learnt from making Radio 4 documentaries that ‘commit suicide’ links the act of taking your life with the crime it once was, so it is now null and void.
I once read that suicide was only made a crime and a sin in the middle ages by a church and government fearing that a workforce, living in such squalor and surrounded by mourning and hopelessness, would all kill themselves for a quick trip to heaven if given the choice.
And so, it was hastily decreed that such a short cut was not possible, and only natural death by plague, pox, or poorly aimed scythe would get you to heaven. Fashion your own noose, and you’ll end up in…

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Action packed storm-swim boat rescue day!


Fabulous stormy swim blog from my friends in Argyll. Wowsers.

Originally posted on wildswimmers:

Our first autumn storm arrived today!  Things kicked off early with a “pre-storm swim storm swim” by Lottie and Iona.  While having our pre-storm swim cuppa we were able to watch a speedboat break its mooring and head for the beach, where it was intercepted by my intrepid cousin Hans, fully dry-suited, who bravely held the boat’s bow to the wind, while the local farmer whizzed down to the beach on his tractor and the boat was dragged to safety.  Whew!  The next dramatic event unfolded before our eyes, as, still gobbling coffee and tea, we watched the unbelievably intrepid Captain Duggie stride down the jetty, fully doubly wet-suited, and plunge into the foaming waves.  He swam out to his yacht Wild Rose, climbed Tarzan-like up onto the deck and set off into the maelstrom with a handkerchief sized sail up.  As he disappeared from sight we shot…

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Outdoor Swimming on the Horizon for Bristol Harbour?


Great idea from Bristol, resurrecting the British tradition of urban swimming outdoors.

Originally posted on Wild Swimming News:

The Bristol Evening Post reports:

Outdoor Swimming in Bristol

HOW does an early morning swim in hot bubbling heated water at Bristol’s floating harbour sound to you? For years the harbour has been viewed as dangerous, dirty water for swimmers. And after many warnings from police and fire services, it is now illegal to swim there.

But a campaign has been launched, aiming to transform people’s perspective and the law. Swim Bristol, set up by a group of academics, wants to encourage the city’s residents to swim outdoors. And they say there is no better place than the Floating Harbour.

The group claims the water is cleaner than lots of popular beaches. including Weston-super-Mare and Eastborne.

As part of their plans, segregated lanes could be introduced around the top of the Harbour near to the foundations.

Hot water springs under the city could also be used to heat the water.

But the scheme could…

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The First of a Kind – A New Public Swimming Pool for the UK – Kings Cross – London


A fascinating project, and of course it’s in London where there are a fair few outdoor swimming holes. In the poorer parts of our wild-swimming-heaven country, such projects are as rare as Swim Here At Your Own Risk signs. Myth-busting on the real dangers of swimming outdoors, and the real dangers of the spreading of untruths, is a project in which I’m heavily involved.
Please watch Chris Ayriss’ film and read the book – both are excellent, informative and interesting.

Originally posted on Wild Swimming News:

Wild Swimming at Kings Cross London

Is this the real life or is it just fantasy?

Our Sceptered Isles unique culture is standing in the way of the free swimming movement. Across Europe and throughout America, outdoor swimming is a given during the summer months, but not so in good old Blighty.

Outdoor swimmers, wild swimmers, whatever they prefer to be called are increasingly frustrated at the swimming restrictions imposed upon them. True the risk of unsupervised outdoor swimming is greater than swimming under the watchful gaze of lifeguards at an indoor pool, but is it morally right to lock swimmers out of sight even if out of danger?

Surely no one would suggest that cyclists give up the open road in favor of a spin class, even if that meant they could never again have an accident.

No one would insist that marathon runners compete on tread mills rather than training and competing in the…

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Watcombe Beach to Bell Rock

Bell Rock

Bell Rock – Too Slim by Far

You might have noticed the dearth of blogs recently; it’s partly due to being busy and partly to a smorgasbord of injuries that appear to be roaming from joint to joint like a hen night. Anyway, I had my pesky shoulder injury injected with hydrocortisone almost two weeks ago, and since we’re supposed to be taking on the beast that is the Gulf of Corryvreckan on 15th August and I’ve not swum properly for well over 6 months I thought I’d better give the shoulder a try out.

Allan and Carole

Allan and Carole

So off we went to Watcombe Beach.  I lived in Watcombe from age 3 to 7, and have many happy memories of the beach and the steep walk down to it, but I haven’t been there since…1968. It’s a gorgeous little cove surrounded by red sandstone cliffs and woodland. The end chunk of cliff sports a considerable crack down half its length, so it won’t be long till that tumbles down into the sea.

WWS Snapping at Starfish (photo Allan Macfadyen)

WWS Snapping Starfish (photo Allan Macfadyen)

We swam out stroked by kelp on a low spring, in sea that was misted and coloured shades of aquamarine. Constellations of starfish were scattered across sandy patches, and once we reached the caves they multiplied to a veritable milky way.  As ever on this piece of coastline, the colours of rocks and sea zing in a perfect Matisse palette. Although the sea was flat calm, it sucked and soughed through the cave, cooler than outside and stinking of seal breath. Layers of life forms meshed on the rocks to form a collage of mineral, plant and animal, so that it’s hard to see the divide between life and death.



I swam across to Bell Rock, but felt too cold to sidle through the slim gap. I also suspect after months of limited exercise that my capacious arse might have caused me to wedge fast in the narrows where I would probably stay till the next low tide. So Nancy and I headed back, leaving the rest to forage and exclaim. I managed I think around 300m of front crawl, with little in the way of pain. Here’s hoping…By the way, the beach cafe at Watcombe is a top place with fantastic, crispy thin chips. Hardly conducive to shrinking the bum.



Swimming Round the Point

Swimming Round the Point

Swimming Deaths and Risk

Spate in the Tavy - One of WWS's Dipping Spots

Spate in the Tavy – at one of WWW’s favourite dipping spots (though only a fool would enter the river on this day!)

A few months ago I stepped in as acting Outdoor Swimming Society Press Officer, and was immediately embroiled in a controversy involving an attack on our Wild Swim Map by a river ‘safety’ group. This is the resultant OSS piece.

Every summer we see stories in the media prompted by water-related deaths that contain misinformation about swimming and risk. “Undercurrents” drag unfortunate people into “hidden whirlpools”. Open water is icy and defies the laws of physics by never warming up, even on hot summer’s days. (This is especially so in reservoirs, where swimmers – but not kayakers, sailors or windsurfers – also get sucked down by the big pipes by supernatural currents.)

The premise of these stories is often that swimming outdoors is lethal. Misinformation is recycled by journalists, lake wardens and safety ‘experts’, campaigns are launched to ban swimming in certain places and to fence off flooded quarries.

Each death is a tragedy, and I’d argue that every time nonsense goes out obscuring the real story about deaths, we miss the opportunity to prevent more. It is central to the OSS ethos that people be allowed to swim at their own risk, and that through the OSS community people share and develop knowledge that enables them to better assess the risks they face. I know I am not alone among experienced outdoor swimmers in finding the storm surge of nonsense infuriating. So when I was asked to cover as OSS Press Officer I sensed an opportunity to counter these media-conjured bogeymen.

I did not have to wait long. In April a campaign group called Riverside Awareness UK (RUAK) launched an attack on the OSS Wild Swim Map. Their comments can be seen at http://wildswim.com/river-wharfe-at-collingham, and include the dangers of our old pals “undercurrents” and “hidden whirlpools” and “a horse and carriage” vanishing in the river at this beauty spot. “No river is ever safe!!!” was one of the assertions.

The story was picked up by a couple of local newspapers in Wetherby and Harrogate and a scare-mongering, anti-swimming story appeared accusing the OSS of being “totally irresponsible” for “encouraging” people to swim in a river where people have drowned in the past, and for not doing a risk assessment of spots on the map (a basic appreciation of the fact that rivers are fluid and change in their size, strength and risks from day to day appeared to escape both RUAK and the reporter).

OSS members launched a counter-attack on the Harrogate Advertiser’s website, using facts and figures about drowning risks and pointing out the rafts of badly-informed assumptions in the article, and the implied correlation between water related deaths and swimming deaths. For example, in 2012 ninety-nine water related deaths occurred in rivers. Just four of those were swimmers: twelve people were walking or running; four were angling. Others were engaged in a range of water sports or were simply found in the water (figures from National Water Safety Fatal Incident Reports, on which ROSPA base their information). It’s a fallacy to connect all river deaths to swimmers, just as it is to connect water-related deaths to open water. Looking more broadly at that year, there were 371water-related deaths attributed to accidental or natural causes in the UK. Of those, 26 were swimmers, but 10 died in domestic baths.

The Harrogate Advertiser piece was removed owing to some negative comments about the capabilities of the reporter. We did, however, agree with RAUK that the Wild Swim Map should contain a link to the OSS website Safety Advice, and are addressing that.

Then the Wetherby News contacted me for comment after a Police frogman told them a very sad story from the 1960s about two children drowning in the river Wharfe. He advised never swimming there. Again, I countered this with facts and figures and Dan Graham, a swift-water rescue instructor and OSS member, had a look at the spot on Google Earth. There was nothing in the topography to suggest the river is especially dangerous under normal conditions save some deep water and a couple of weirs. However, this is a flashy river (meaning it rises fast after rain), and it’s a beauty spot where people go to picnic. If you can’t swim, or you’ve been drinking, or you’re unused to the cold, or you don’t predict the increase in the speed of water after rain – that water that might have been friendly on your last visit is ferocious now – then of course this can be a dangerous place.

I gave the Wetherby News some safety pointers, which they printed – after a fashion.

Things have been calmer since then. Last week a paper in York contacted the OSS to comment on a river safety campaign in York, following a series of deaths in the town centre. We had the opportunity to provide safety points to them that helped shape the campaign – resulting, we hope, in information getting to more people that may help keep them safe. (These points are listed at the bottom of the article).

Following that BBC Newcastle radio contacted us to talk about a call from one of their local MPs, Sharon Hodgson from Tyne & Wear, for the government to do more to teach safe swimming in schools, and Kate Rew went on air to discuss swimming risks. (Speaking in a debate Mrs Hodgson has called for things such as every child to be taught the basic principles of water safety education and fundamental personal survival skills; an annual public awareness campaign highlighting the drowning risk; and sufficient safe and affordable public swimming facilities.) It’s the first time the OSS has been asked to comment on something so positive in terms of reducing risk.

People are drawn to water, they will usually ignore advice to stay away from it. Scare mongering is ineffective as a way of keeping people safe, and banning swimming because someone, tragically, loses their life is like banning driving because someone has an accident. ‘Danger: No Swimming’ signs have become meaningless to us now; installed so often in popular swimming places where the landowner would like to ban swimming, but has no right, that they’ve lost any power they ever might have had in places where there really are dangers to swimmers, such as weirs. To me ‘Danger: Deep Water’ has always been ludicrous as a warning – deep water is just what swimmers are looking for, the danger is only if you’re a weak or non-swimmer.

To me, risk and whether it’s acceptable to take it, is a decision that will always lie with the individual. It’s an impossibility to cover each specific eventuality of weather, rainfall, tides in the sea, currents, changes to topography after spates, and individual capability and experience.

This is the piece that appeared in The Press (the York newspaper who are running a river safety campaign in the city). Several OSS members have added comments below the article. I’d be interested to hear your views…


Memories of JJ

Sharrah Cascade

JJ in Sharrah Cascade, April 2013

One short year ago yesterday, on 15th June 2013, Jonathan ‘JJ’ Joyce died suddenly. He was loved by many, and he created the OSS Wild Swim Map (wildswim.com) which exemplifies his nature of exploration, discovery and sharing.

JJ was an adventurous wild swimmer and challenge swimmer whose love for people and water was unsurpassed.

In common with many of JJ’s swimming friends, I find he pops into my mind while I’m immersed in wild water. This weekend of sun and watery fun was one he’d have adored and so he spent a lot of time in my head. We swam and later skinny-dipped under the full Honey Moon at Bantham,  wearing floral headdresses, we swooshed up and down the Aune Estuary with the speeding tide, and dipped in a pool and waterfall in the river Tavy on the high moor. JJ’s spirit was there, enjoying the thrills, the social banter and chat, the different types of water and cake, and the unusual cloud formations on Friday at dusk which would have intrigued him. We mentioned him, and memories trickled into conversations.

In the two short years that we knew him, JJ (together with his family Steph, Janus and Finn) became so much a part of our swimming and social lives that the hole resulting from his shocking death appeared like a disused mineshaft, swallowing large chunks of our world with it. Yet he gave so much, touched so many of us in different ways, infected us with his bubbling adventurousness and humour and kindness, that his presence remains tangible. He transformed people, and was instrumental in developing some of our favourite swims and our ideas of what is swimmable – just. I wouldn’t have done a few of the crazy things we did without him there. He reinforced the notion that it’s perfectly normal to run into the sea at dawn wearing 1920s fancy dress, and discovered that gin improves lemon drizzle cake no end.

So, Jonathan the unforgettable, you swim with us in our hearts always. We miss you.


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