We finally arrange a Mewstone circumnavigation on a day when the weather and sea conditions are relatively good. There’s a bit of an onshore breeze, a two to three-foot swell and good visibility. I had planned the swim based on advice from Dave Curno, a yachtsman with an encyclopaedic knowledge of tides and currents around the area who had given us a tide talk a few weeks back. He suggested we should swim anticlockwise at high tide plus three hours, when the apparently random currents should be at their most accommodating. It’s a serious swim out to sea, to an island which sits out in the channel tidal stream in deep water. This picture is complicated by the funnelling effect of the Plymouth Breakwater, the Yealm estuary current, and the shallow narrows between the Mewstone and Wembury Point.
We set out for the famous island accompanied by four kayaks. It’s a hard swim into the breeze and the chop and there is a strange illusion by which the Mewstone appears to get further away like a ship dragging its anchor, before suddenly growing closer and becoming touchable. Jess and I arrive shortly after Queenie and Jo, while Max and Marisa the two racing eels are already heading around the back. We spot a huge cave and swim over but it’s not accessible at this water level, though it looks ripe for exploration on a higher tide.
Cormorants pose with beaks to the sky, jagging the silhouette of the cliff while gulls wheel overhead. We head up the western side of the island which is striped in horizontal waves of nut brown, black and grey-green, topped by a crenelated and tussocked hillock. It looks like the body of a cuddly jellyfish, not at all what I was expecting.
Approaching the seaward side we are hit by some sizeable swell. From our low-level view we see the tops of sails leaning into the wind, and then a jet black shard of rock like a shark’s fin thrusting from the sea at an angle of forty-five degrees. Waves splat and rush up the flat surface, foaming back down. The sea is petrol blue and turbulent, and we feel nervous without a kayak in view. We press on because the current between the Mewstone and Wembury Point from whence we came is fast and flowing out to sea.
We are buffeted and bounced, and our view ranges from water only, to the crews and decks of the nearby yachts, to the tops of their sails. In the other direction is the rest of the sinister, shattered rock slab which from here looks like a Gothic cathedral plummeting to hell. Waves crash and boom. I catch an occasional distant glimpse of white water which marks the position of the reef to the Yealm side. These lethal rocks are named The Slimers and we want to avoid them. I’ve seen the gully between them and the island on Google Earth and Dave has told us there should be two metres of water there at this time. He’s right and we swim over weed and rocks with plenty of water to spare. I’m panting with the effort of swimming so hard; it’s too strong a sea in which to relax.
Here a ridge rises steeply at an angle like the spine of a stegosaurus, and secreted in the hollow towards its base is a small stone building incorporating a roundhouse. The spine and the cottage are washed on their seaward side with yellowy-green lichen. This must have been the home of the infamous prisoner of the Mewstone, who chose banishment here in preference to deportation to Australia in the nineteenth century. I wonder how this hasn’t been sold by Stag’s as an ideal second home renovation project for an Investment Banker like pretty much every other vernacular Devon building.
We exit the gully and are momentarily confused. I spot Wembury Church in the far distance and realise we were about to head for Plymouth. Then Lindsay and Claire materialise on the horizon in their kayaks like bedraggled sea angels to escort us back in.
The waves are mostly with us, and we should be able to swim easily but it’s a struggle. I’ve lost my rhythm, am very tired, and am starting to get cramp in one calf and the other hamstring. Consciously relaxing, I manage to shake it out. It’s impossible to glide because of the buffeting so I have to grit my teeth and go for it. My mouth and throat are raw with salt water, and my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I dream of my bottle of water back on the shore and swim harder. Breathing to the left, I realise the Yealm current has pushed me over towards the Point so have to swim at an angle into it to get round the rocks to the beach.
Finally I see pale sand and surf in on two tiny waves. I’m greeted by cheers from some of our friends who’ve come for a little swim and waited for us. The adventure has taken the faster pair around one hour and forty minutes, but we’ve been nearer two and a half. I have just enough energy left to do a little dance on the beach.
There’s some wonderful historical information on this blog: http://matteringsofmind.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/mewstone-and-starfish/