wildwomanswimming

One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

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.

Starfish!

Starfish!

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.

Cave...

Cave…

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…

http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/11316989.Open_water_swimming_group_s_safety_warning_for_the_River_Ouse/

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.

 

Hartland Quay

Hartland Quay

Hartland Quay

The plan today was to swim from Hope Cove to Thurlestone, only with a pesky southerly blowing we thought it might be a tad frisky. So we went instead to Hartland Quay where we found the usual crashing and foaming around the rocks; it’s almost always wild around here.

Andrew, Plum and I got in fairly easily off the sheltered slipway and began to bounce in glowing, aquamarine sea. Earlier we’d been on the more reckless side of a Facebook debate on the dangers of being struck by lightning while swimming, so of course we were interrupted by a crashing rumble that I initially took to be a big wave dumping on pebbles; obviously it was thunder. We laughed in its face and continued with our swim, reasoning that there are plenty of high rocks and cliffs around here to attract strikes and we’re barely breaking the surface. Anyway, nothing short of death was going to get us out of this slightly nippy lushness.

Andrew Leaps

Andrew Leaps

The geology here always takes my breath away. Reefs like crashed wafer biscuits point out to sea, overwhelmed by cliffs layered and snapped into jagged points like petrified storm waves. We swam over, then back to the big rock from where Andrew climbed and jumped while Plum and I bobbed, pulled this way and that by the crazy currents from waves surging through and around rocks.

After around three quarters of an hour we walked back up the slipway and sniggered at the potential irony of being struck by lightning before we got to the pub, but survived to order a pint of Tribute each. Inside in a dark corner slouched a young couple watching movies on an iPad. Two hours later they were still there, Skyping their friends about the lovely weather. Really.

With thanks to Plum for the photos.

Stunned by Geological Marvels

Stunned by Geological Marvels

Black Tor Dell

The First Sneaky Peek of Black Tor Dell

The First Sneaky Peek of Black Tor Dell

Today’s dip stems from a sudden whim to visit the little dell below Black Tor where we haven’t been for some time. I have no towel or swimsuit so it’s a skinny dip, clinging to mossed rocks like hairy pectorals in the surge below the falls, in a howling gale, just before the storm hits.

Afterwards I stand spreadeagled on the bank while the wind whirls and chills still more. Flicking the drops of water from my skin with both hands, I turn and slowly dry. As I dress slinky grey stripes of rain advance from Burrator.  Water runs from my hair and down my face, and my sandalled feet are frozen from squelching through sucking boggy tussocks. Honey has the wind up her tail, cavorts like an excited camel, then eats some perfectly-matured vintage horse poo which means a choice between warming my soaking feet with the van heater and fainting with the pong, or winding the window down and breathing fresh, cold, Dartmoor air…you can guess which option I choose.

The Dell

The Dell

 

Bel Pool with Panda and Woody

Somewhat Nippy

Somewhat Nippy

We have visitors today; Panda and Woody from Deepest Dorset. It’s a beautiful morning, and we can still smell bluebells although they’re past their best. The Dart is middling-high after the rain, and the colour of a pub ceiling before the smoking ban. As we change at the lower end of Bel Pool a foam berg floats past, revolving gently in the current. It’s fairly easy to swim upstream on the island side, then suddenly I’m whipped by a speeding eddy to the cascade. Floating backwards the cappuccino foam splats spurts and spumes in a crazy dance, sending us over to the rocks. Woody and I both climb up and leap in, it’s invigorating to say the least. The sun hasn’t quite reached the pool, but I feel the warmth as I contemplate the fresh oak leaves overhead. The juddering after drop shows the water is as cold as it felt.

Clambering In

Clambering In

Strip in the Lyd

Waterfall

Waterfall

Continued downpours have left our little river the colour of Jail Ale and with a foaming head. Helen and I were intending to skinny dip, only there’s a couple just downstream setting up camp for the night and a lone walker on the far bank heading our way. So we wimp out and don our cozzies.  We’re still chatting about Helen’s trip to Russia and are properly iced by the swirly wind before we get in.

Helen Pre-Strip

Helen Pre-Strip

We duck, swim to the waterfall and explore for a time till I notice Helen is mid strip. So I join her and we toss our swimsuits over to the rocks. Although we’re almost naked, Helen is wearing goggles and I a pair of neoprene boots. How very English. So we whip those off too and lob them to the shallows. The surge beneath the big rock resembles ghostly frogspawn and I imagine ranks of frogs squatting in the depths, bums aloft.

We take turns to swim breast stroke against the flow. So many sensations, and far more subtle than a jacuzzi: the cold; currents that push and pummel howling like gales, or waft gently past like summer breezes; effervescence like birds’ wings brushing on skin, fizzing louder than the roar of the cascade. Each bubble oscillates and atomises on our faces. Our eyes are level with the surface so we see tiny spheres meld and grow before scatting across the pool in the wind. There’s nothing to beat skinny dipping in this exposed place.

Honey's Downward Dog

Honey’s Downward Dog

The wind whips around and chills wet hair so we dive back under to warm up. I open my eyes and float through beer that turns gold like scrumpy. We begin another chat, rolling and wallowing with the water but cold sidles around and we’re suddenly numbed to the core. After we leave, reluctantly, I can’t feel my towel nor whether I’m wet or dry. A current of ice runs along my spine and radiates like the sun.

The Bubble Uprush

Frogspawn Bubble Uprush

 

Supernatural Force

After Jackie's Rescue

Before Jackie’s Dunking

We meandered up to the little falls for a dip. This is one of the tamer jacuzzis on the Double Dart, perfect for a sparkling pick me up with minimal effort. Jackie floated across ready to wallow, and disappeared suddenly under the bubbles, to be rescued from the deep by Carole. We shot downstream in shadow on the far side in a heavy current, returning via the central eddy. The water was distinctly nippy and black.

Back at the jacuzzi I worked my way in, bouldering in the water around the mossy hand holds on the rocks. As I neared the falls a judo black belt of a current whipped my legs away to the side. I reattached from the right and struggled to move my feet and legs along, fighting an underwater flume. Then my feet flew upwards like a meteor as the force reversed. I managed to cling to the rock and wedged myself precariously half in, near to the surface. Rachel noticed the river is shallower downstream, and we guessed that the January spates must have scoured and bulldozed the underwater boulders and somehow channeled the current into this scary entity. The force is completely out of proportion to the size of the falls, which is around three feet. From the rocks we were able to see the downward draft to the left, and then the surge up a couple of feet down and to the right. One to explore when the water’s really low, which we hope will happen this summer.

Crazy Falls

Crazy Falls

Secret Ten Tors

Honey Swims

Honey – First In as Usual

A lovely day and a little jaunt involving a prolonged route march in order to explore a particular river on the high moor, which must for now remain a secret as it’s going to feature in Sophie and Matt’s latest wild swimming book due out next year.

Lou and Baa in the Falls

Lou and Baa in the Falls

There is no more spectacular place than this. We swim in a long pool up a narrow chasm to a tallish waterfall, and shoot back down overlooked by vertiginous tors. The spectacle overhead almost removes the pain of collisions with one of the invisible rocks lurking near to  the surface. Next we wander downstream to a smaller pool and play in an ornamental waterfall. Monster-leg-hair moss gives hand and foot holds on granite boulders, while slick green algae is like greased lightning on others.  My sore muscles are pummelled into submission. We head back through sucking bog, and an exhausted Honey swims yet another pool to play with a rather handsome collie named Badger. Finally we arrive at the Royal Standard in Mary Tavy for a lovely pint of Dartmoor IPA and rather gorgeous meal some six hours after setting off. Sophie later names the adventure Ten Tors.

Rachel Thinks About Getting In

Rachel Thinks About Getting In

Honey Takes a Break

Honey Has a Cat Nap

 

Sunrise at Wonwell

Sunrise at Wonwell: Honey & WWS. Photo Karen Lubbe.

Sunrise at Wonwell: Honey & WWS. Photo Karen Lubbe.

I’m never at my best in the morning, and today I’ve only had a couple of hours kip in TrannyVan after a housewarming party. It’s 0530. Wonwell is a small, isolated beach at the mouth of the river Erme, more or less opposite Mothecombe. The tide’s out and it’s almost light as we walk down and dump our stuff. There’s a delay before anyone gets changed; I always feel cold when tired, and there’s a chilly wind. Finally we trot down to the sea which feels considerably warmer than the air, and wade in through long, low waves that break on the sand bar as the tide begins to flood. I can’t swim fast because of my back and I’m really noticing the lack of exercise-generated heat.

There’s a grey-green-blue coolness to the water, then it starts to transform as the sun peeps over the hill. I’m floating with Honey maybe a hundred yards out and there’s a moment when warmth begins to suffuse me that must be purely psychological.  A peachy tinge ripples then dissolves through the surface and the water beneath becomes bluer. I swim back to shore with Honey who is swamped by a couple of waves. By the time we return to the rocks I’m shivering, and the sea is a good hundred yards closer than it was when we arrived. Joh’s crutch meanwhile has been swallowed by the incoming tide, and will no doubt intrigue the person who finds it washed up one day.

We set up our camping stoves and cook tomatoes, eggs, bacon and eggy bread for breakfast. I’m ravenous. Steph, being German, eats a sacrilegious combination of crumpets fried in olive oil with jam. We threaten to call UKIP. Carole has made bacon and egg cup-cakes, including some with veggie bacon for me. We light a fire and warm and smoke ourselves. I give Honey her ball, which somehow ends up in the fire. Luckily someone notices and kicks the ball out shortly after Honey has attempted to extricate it with her paws. Then I see her lying on the beach breathing smoke like a dragon; she’s holding the hot ball in her mouth. I grab it and cool it in the stream, but she doesn’t seem to have suffered at all…

This was the inaugural swim of our new wild swimming group into the fish dimension... which has an artistic and environmental ethos. The swim was organised by our friend Carole Whelan. Thanks Carole!

 

 

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