One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Thurlestone Rock with Lumps


Thurlestone Rock, icon of the South Devon coast, sits around five hundred metres off shore at high tide, sturdy legs astride, and just begs to be swum through. It’s near the end of a reef that runs perpendicular to the shore; the reef is legendary for its beautiful underwater garden of seaweeds and aquatic creatures. I’d not swum here before, and the 40 knot south-easterly whipping up the sea promised to make the swim slightly more sporting than we had expected it to be.

As we walked down the short track to the beach, our swim buddy JJ told us that on arrival he’d been immediately accosted by a local, who exclaimed at the perilous state of the sea and informed him that anyone attempting to swim would certainly be drowned and dashed onto the rocks. This was clearly an exaggeration, although we did have a chat before getting in about the best route to take, and decided to stay on the lee of the reef and to swim beyond the rock and around to the far side before deciding on whether to swim through.

Shore Breaker

The steeply-shelving beach means that the surf rolls almost to the shore before breaking directly downwards with great force.  So you have to run in between waves, and hope to be out beyond the breaking zone before one gets you and smashes you onto the shingle like a piece of kelp ripped from a rock. Unfortunately, a couple of our group got caught and found it a bit too heavy to carry on. I followed Pauline in, timing my entrance for the little gap between the breaking of one wave and the arrival of the next, and diving forwards into the approaching breaker so I’d gone through just before it broke.

Once we were heading off-shore it became much easier to swim through the rollers.  You just go with them, breathe when you can, and try to stay in touch with a couple of other swimmers. As we neared the reef, I noticed that the swell had grown and was big enough to intermittently obscure the Thurlestone from view. I found it much harder to swim smoothly, and was rolled almost onto my back a couple of times. I did the usual water-swallowing, but managed not to inhale any for once. I looked up at the rock, and saw regular wild swimmer Maretta and her 12 year-old daughter Bexi, on her first wild swim and looking as though she was born in the sea and sliding through the swell like a little seal.

On the way out

The sea was an opaque greeny-blue through my goggles as I swam, and when I stopped and looked at its surface it was the colour of pewter. The sun was low and partially covered by clouds; it emitted a chill light that glinted off the wavelets ahead. I swam out a little way past the rock, which was sideways on to me then, to take some photos. I tried to work out how high it is. It’s probably only 30 feet or so above the sea, but somehow looks much larger. It’s made up of two rock stacks that lean in towards each other and touch around fifteen feet above the sea. There is a fissure running vertically from the point where the leg stacks meet. The rock is dark and jagged with a texture like bark on an ancient oak, and its outline is broken further by the silhouetted sea birds that cling to its summit – cormorants and gulls with beaks pointing skywards.

I swam back to the other swimmers, and looked over towards the hole which was just visible at an angle. The waves, some around six feet high, were smashing into the stack nearest the shore at an angle, splatting spume across the rough surface like whipped egg-whites. The crazy angles of the sea made the arch look quite menacingly mad. Pauline told me they’d decided it was too dangerous to go through, so everyone began to swim off shore-wards down the side of the reef.

Big Lump, Rock Behind

Sea Birds on the Rock

I watched the waves for a bit, and looked behind to see how quickly they were coming. Some were smaller than others, and I began to wonder whether I could make it through, and, if not, whether I could push off the far side of the arch with my legs and escape a bashing that way. ‘You’re thinking of going through, aren’t you?’  said JJ. Hmmm, yes.

Me De-Flowered and Splatted

There was a quick discussion. We reckoned we could make it between waves. We were now pretty close, being pushed by the swell towards the rock.  ‘We’re already committed, let’s just body-surf through’ said Pauline…so we went for it. I swam towards the nearest, offshore stack of the arch, so that if I was washed off-course I might hit the gap. A wave came through and I put my head down and swam flat out through the hole, shooting out of the other side with a rush of adrenaline to find we’d made it; me, Pauline, JJ and Wee Man Martin, all laughing and shouting with the exhilaration. I looked back, and realised we were still very close to the rock, and that there was a huge wave approaching; it hit the arch and the small rock next to it and surged and broke over the top. The water on this side, made more turbulent by its route through the stone, foamed and churned in sympathy with our little gang of excitable swimmers. We bobbed around for a bit, took a couple of quick snaps, and swam bravely away towards the shore, over the reef.

Wave breaking over the Thurlestone

JJ De-Flowered

I floated face down and tried to see the reef garden, but the turbulent water made visibility poor. I glimpsed through the murky, pale turquoise water some pale grey rocks with swirling seaweed rooted firmly to them, but that was it garden-wise. But who could be disappointed after the fun of the swim and the crazy surf through the Thurlestone?

JJ, Pauline, Martin

I managed to avoid being dumped by the surf at the shoreline, and ran for it over the shingle of small, smooth quartz pebbles to the beach. We were all high as teenagers at a rave. We’ll have to swim it again to see the garden said Kirsty through a mouthful of mint tea and home-made biscuit. The Thurlestone squatted behind her in the distance, surrounded by silver sea.

Fellow Swimmers

Pauline, Jonathan (JJ), Stephanie, Martin, Kirsty, Maretta, Bexi, Joanna, Amanda, Jane, Debbie, James, Marie and a couple of others…

De-Flowered Thurlestone Virgins

Pauline, JJ, Wee Man Martin, Me

Splatted by A Big Wave


Support from the Shore

James, Abby, Thin Boy Finn, Maggie the dog, Assorted Robinsons, Mr Jo.

Eater of Everyone’s Biscuits


Oaty Biscuit Recipe

St Delia


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