One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Foaming Sharrah

Foam Art

Foam Art

Painfully cold water at Sharrah Pool today. The recent heavy rain has left natural foam flecks, marking the meandering flows through the eddies in Australian Aboriginal art. It’s a map of the river; unseen spirit currents materialised in ectoplasm.

I’m forced to stand for a while waist-deep in biting water, till I swim upstream. A man sat on the bank smiles and waves, I manage to gurn back. The others perch on elephant rock, past which the tongue of the cascade roars. We each have a go, swooping in ruffled bubbles before spinning out at the bottom.

Allan has a second dip at Black Rock, but it’s too cold for the rest of us. He shivers hard as he dresses.



Gollum on Elephant Rock

Gollum on Elephant Rock

WWS Book Review: River Suite

Book Review: River Suite by Roselle Angwin, with photos byVikky Minette

Book review: River Suite

As a wild swimmer and writer I find endless inspiration in wild places and wild water. Reading the poetic interpretations of others, however, is a wonderful way of gaining a different perspective that refreshes one’s own imagination. So, I was enormously excited when I found this extended poem about the OSS’s and my favourite river, the Dart.

River Suite is a limited edition book by local poet Roselle Angwin and photographer Vikky Minette. The poem traces the Dart from Cranmere Pool, the common source of five rivers high on Dartmoor

here where the heart of Devon clenches tight
and squeezes out its rivers
like arteries clotted with granite

Roselle’s imagery is magical and varied as befits a writer whose soul is in Celtic myth and legend. Vikky’s photography mirrors the poetry; close ups of the river where water and light and the riverbed meld into fleeting images of living, breathing beasts: a ghostly bird of prey swooping across a cascade in black water; phoenix feathers in golden ripples; reptilian scales in bronze shallows.

The poem evokes the isolation in this wilderness, the insignificance of people, the river spirits and the unique atmosphere that bewitches all who immerse themselves in or wander alongside the Dart.

if you were to shout here
the wind would carry your words away like birds

As the Dart descends from the moors to the cultivated “soft lands” she becomes tidal and her waters slow and spread with Roselle’s words, before the towns and roads

where the cars leave their litter of plastic and dead birds
a pheasant’s rainbow fading or a torn tumble of badger
Thence to the sea where the rhythm builds like wind chop
come down to the shore
come down to the shore
come down to the wild singing sea
oh slip night’s skins
oh shed your fears
oh come and swim with me

A beautiful book; inspirational, watery, feral, mysterious, joyful. Beyond a wild dip in the Dart’s secretive pools, what more could you ask for?

To order this limited edition go to  http://roselleangwin.wordpress.com/books/ and follow the River Suitelink. Click the drop down menu under ‘Buying Books’ at the bottom right of the page and select River Suite.

WWS Book Review: Dip, Wild Swims from the Borderlands

Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands by Andrew Fusek Peters

andy-p1This dream of a book communes with my wild swimmer’s soul. Andrew Fusek Peters is a writer and long-time wild swimmer. Recently, clinical depression left him hospitalised and barely functioning, struggling to find a reason to live. When after six months and the correct medication he began to recover, he undertook a year-long journey dipping around the Borderlands of Shropshire and the Welsh Marches where he lives, and writing about his experiences. This was Peters’ route to understanding and the restoration of his health and connections to family, friends and water.

Peters uses delightful imagery that reveals his warm and observant humour, poetic nature and essential connection to the environment. “Today, the wind whips round the beach like a bossy horse rider, encouraging walkers and waves to go faster”. It’s weather and seasons and wild water that provide the metaphors that frame and excavate Peters from his experience of being engulfed by the fog of depression. This is his description of how he feels immediately after an icy swim:
“And although the day is damp and the cold rain is scribbling zigzags through the air, and grey is not a colour but the appellation of whole months that have been and are still to come, I feel synaptic, almost giddy with stars, my limbic brain coursing with ideas; banks and boundaries breached and flooded with language and life.”

The borderlands he explores meander geographically and metaphysically, between his “beanpole” body and ponds, rivers and waterfalls, and land and sky, England and Wales, life and death, health and sickness. When Peters attends the funeral of an old schoolfriend, Charlie, who “was unable to heal himself”, it’s a watery metaphor that helps Peters to deal with it.

“…the rabbi takes us back for final prayers…And she reminds us that there is a small basin on the way out and that we are welcome, both Jew and Gentile, to wash our hands if we wish. The water is the symbol, and our act a way of marking our transition from departing the place of death to entering that of life once more. Yes, finishes the rabbi, you must grieve, but also you must live”.

The atmospheric black and white photos are taken by Peters and his then teenaged daughter, Roz. Her poignant blog post printed at the end of the book is heartbreaking in its deeply perceptive explanation of her father’s illness.

“It now strikes me that his illness left him stuck at the bottom of a silted lake. We wanted, desperately, to catch him with hooks, suddenly yank him from the depths – dredge him up in an instant. Instead it was an agonising process of waiting for the dark liquid to drain away, drop by drop”.

Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands is as beautiful and uplifting as it is visceral. From shivering conversations with other wild swimmers I know that many of us have struggled with physical or mental illness. Peters magically captures the nebulous intangibles of a fragmented mind, spirit and body, and allows us to experience how wildness and frigid water reform those pieces into a whole human being.

WWS Book Review: Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book

Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book: Everything You Need To Know About Surf, Sand and Rips by Dr Rob Brander ISBN: 978 1 74223 097 9

Purple dye marks a rip current

Purple dye marks a rip current

The rip current is the bogeyman of the sea. The confusion engendered by its behaviour and what to do if you get caught has imbued this beast with a reputation such that swimmers fear its very name. This is partly justified; in both Australia and the USA around 100 people a year drown in rip-related incidents, while between 2006-2011 in the UK, RNLI lifeguards rescued 12,607 people from rips, around 11% of whom were swimmers. The biggest problem however is that people don’t understand rips or what to do when they’re in one. This book by coastal geomorphologist Dr Rob Brander (named ‘Dr Rip’ by Lifeguards in New South Wales for his habit of pouring purple dye into rip currents) is therefore an essential addition to the sea-swimmer’s library.

Dr Rip begins with a fascinating discussion of types of sand and the ways in which different sentiments collect in certain places and form different types of beach. This is important, because the type of beach largely dictates the type and size of waves, which in turn affects the formation of currents such as long-shore drift and rips, and whether these are fixed rips or unpredictable flash rips.

There are several categories of wave which Dr Rip describes in detail, along with specific dangers associated with each. From this section I now know for certain that the wave which wiped me out behind Burgh Island last year in twelve-foot swell and scared the bejesus out of me was a freak reflected wave combined with an incoming one, because there’s a description of how such waves form and a picture of a similar one in the book. You will also learn not to try body-surfing a plunging wave or a surging wave, and what to do when a big wave decides to break on top of you – a frequent occurrence for we year-round sea-swimmers and dippers.

There’s a chapter on currents with an in-depth analysis of rips. A rip current (it is a current, not a tide) is a ‘river’ flowing from the shore through an area of breaking waves. It’s a key way in which water from breaking waves returns to the sea. A rip won’t drag you under, it’s dangerous for a couple of reasons: firstly, they appear to be areas of calm in white water, and therefore attract swimmers; and because people who are not competent swimmers or who are not educated about rips get caught and are pulled out of their depth, or try to swim against them because they don’t know how to get out. So the first important point is how to spot a rip; there are plenty of handy hints and excellent photographs to help you develop this essential skill, along with advice about where, and where not, to swim.

One of the refreshing aspects of the book is that there are no absolute rules. Dr Rip simply discusses the various options which are of course different depending on your ability and fitness. So you learn a couple of ways of swimming out of a rip, or how to attract the attention of a lifeguard. Some rips will run you a mere 50-100m off shore and return you to the shallows after a couple of minutes, while others are monsters; one in New Zealand, for example, took Dr Rip a good 1km off shore, and while they are normally narrow, they may be up to 50m wide and travel at the sprint speed of an Olympic freestyler.

There’s a chapter on tides which, Dr Rip explains, are a type of wave. We also learn that tsunamis are surging waves which accounts for their huge destructive power; there’s a fascinating discussion on the reason the 2004 tsunami caused barely any damage in the Maldives, despite running straight over the islands which are almost entirely at sea level. Other considerations, such as weather, erosion, and the problems associated with thoughtless and poorly-informed shore development are also included.

There’s so much information in this book, all illustrated with wonderful photographs from around the world, that it’s probably necessary to read it two or three times. I grew up (or rather survived my childhood) on the Atlantic coast of Devon, and there is plenty here that I didn’t know. Dr Rip has a life-long fascination with the subject (he collected several hundred jars of sand over his youth which were confiscated by customs when he moved to Australia) and is an expert in the science of beaches and how they work. He writes in an accessible style while also managing to explain some fairly complex processes in an easy and entertaining way. There are some lovely touches of humour. You will even learn how to survive a shark attack (swimming with a friend immediately reduces your chance of attack by 50%!) There’s also information on fossicking on a beach, rock-pooling, and where and how to build a decent sandcastle.

My only criticism is in the sometimes confusing format where summary sections are placed in mid-paragraph rather than at the ends of the relevant chapters, but it’s such a great book it’s well worth overlooking this minor annoyance rather as you would a sand fly bite. By the way, before you warm yourself up on your nippy winter sea swim, did you know that sharks are attracted by the smell of wee?

Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book comes very highly recommended for anyone who swims in the sea.

WWS Book Review: Open Water Swimming Manual

Lynne Cox has had a long career in extreme open water swimming. She broke the English Channel record, for men or women, aged just fifteen. Since then, she has swum the Cape of Good Hope, the Cook Strait in New Zealand and the Bering Strait from Alaska to the Soviet Union to name but three. One of her key achievements is in pioneering endurance swims in very cold water; through her methodical approach and with help from her team she has been instrumental in the science and understanding of the physiology of cold water swimming.

It was the chapter on heat and cold that I found most interesting and useful. There is detailed discussion of the acclimatisation process, and one thing I hadn’t realised is that if you are fully acclimatised to cold you cannot be simultaneously acclimatised to heat, which makes hyperthermia (overheating) a real risk – not something you would expect in an outdoor swimmer. Cox gives sound advice and lists of signs and symptoms to look out for with both hyperthermia and hypothermia.

For me as a wild swimmer who enjoys the spontaneity of swimming outdoors, much of this book is redundant. However, if you’re keen to plan an extreme endurance swim I’d suggest it would be hugely valuable. The essence of Cox is that she clearly loves swimming and part of that comes from her enjoyment of the environment in which she swims. However, she plans all her swims like military operations, a fact borne out by her relationship with the US Navy SEALS with whom she has trained and taken advice, and the book contains comprehensive Risk Assessment and Seal Mission Planning sections. When embarking on a swim across the Bering Strait or around the Cape of Good Hope, I can see the value in this. If you fancy a quick trip up the Dart for a mess around in a waterfall http://wildswim.com/horseshoe-falls, this approach is somewhat excessive.

Cox covers everything here, from swimsuits and chafing to sunscreen, from waves to fog and wildlife. Much of the information is in summary form from her chats with other people, and is not in a great deal of depth. This is, however, a manual and it’s probably the most comprehensive one you could find if you were planning a Channel swim, for example. In this case, there’s some informative advice regarding the importance of finding the right pilot, and how to go about it.

Cox includes discussions on motivation and mental preparation, and also technique and training guidance. There’s a fair amount of information on finding swimming clubs and groups which is only applicable to the USA, and I hope that the publishers might consider the value in updating an edition for the UK or Europe owing to the large potential market here.

Cox’s background is in competitive swimming, and she worked with an Olympic coach for many years. This goes a long way to explaining her approach, which is very much goal and achievement-based. So, if you have a general interest there is a fair bit of overkill here, although you’ll undoubtedly find a range of useful information and for me the chapter on heat and cold alone is worth the cost of the book. If you’re into extreme swims, then it’s an essential addition to your swimming library.

Assault on Frothy Rock


This is what wild swimming’s all about. More from our gorgeous friends in Argyll. Watch the video!

Originally posted on wildswimmers:

Our most exciting and arduous storm swim yet took place a few days ago when we swam out to Frothy Rock, fully wet-suited.  I hadn’t realised how tiring it would be to swim in a wetsuit and was pretty tired out by the time I got there.  With a full Westerly blowing in and big waves breaking, we were keen to get onto the rock; this proved almost impossible!  It took all my energy to swim against the current, but Capt. Duggie advised a sideways approach and I managed it on my sixth attempt.  Clinging on like large black limpets, we enjoyed the sensation of being in a car-wash, with lorry loads of water being dumped on top of us as the waves broke relentlessly.  Ever resourceful, Capt. Duggie had fashioned a little boat to mount his Go-Pro on, which he towed behind him to get some great video.  You…

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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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