There’s a point at which wild swimming becomes dangerous, and as a swimmer who loves the exhilaration and challenge of wild water it’s vital to understand where that point is. Our risk-averse culture is anathema to me, and I can’t think of anything worse than a life half-lived through fear and avoidance of perceived dangers especially when statistically the most risky think that most of us do is to travel by car.
The swell today is forecast to be between eight and fourteen feet, and despite this a small gang of us want to swim round Burgh Island while the others dip or explore the Mermaid Pool. Although the circumnavigation looks doable from the shore, you can never sense the scale of the sea till you’re out in it.
There’s a squall as we change and charcoal slashes of rain belt from bruised clouds. JJ and Ninja have swum early and we’re looking out for them but there’s no sign. Then they materialise and tell us they turned back because they were wiped out and rolled head over heels by a pair of massive opposing waves, well away from any breaks. JJ, always on the crazy side of sensible, says it would be ‘reckless’ to try the swim which makes all but Hugo and me decide against it.
Swimming out to have a look won’t be a problem – after all we’ve done this in far stronger winds and big seas before – so Hugo and I head out anticlockwise on the low spring tide. We know that the swell is from the south-west, and if we get that far we can use that energy on the home strait. This is the kind of adventure I love, the abrasive cold of the sea, the smell of stormy water with the whip of the wind on my skin, and the feeling of being on the edge of control. We’re bounced and buffeted and dropped from the backs of the waves. Stopping to chat, we’re feeling good so decide to swim on for a few more minutes before reassessing. I film my swim for a minute, and decide definitely not to go all the way round. Hugo’s way ahead of me though, so I carry on hoping to catch him up. I’m still pretty comfortable.
There’s an instant where it changes. I’m teetering fifteen feet up, and the roller-coaster thrill of the descent is punched from me by a side-on psycho wave. I’m lifted again at once and I peer over towards where I last saw Hugo; on the pinnacle of the next swell there’s a brief flash of his blue hat circled by a halo of spray and he’s vanished into the Himalayan sea. My shouts are whipped away and buried beneath the avalanche roar of water meeting rocks and the distant shore. Now I’m lost, afraid and unsure, but know I should stay with Hugo. I swim towards him for a few strokes but my breathing rhythm has gone and with it my stroke. I feel close to hyperventilating and know with utter certainty I have to turn back now.
A wave sweeps me up from behind and begins to break while a flood of adrenaline washes through my body. I force myself to breathe steadily and stare at the back of the wave racing away, glinting steel and with spray flying from the top. The friendly green-blue light has been sucked from the wavelets, and I’m struggling in a sinister, pewter darkness. Sandwiched between opaque sea and heavy slate sky, in my head I’m sinking. My legs are jelly fish as I try to swim breast stroke, but I’m wearing my wetsuit for the first time since August and am unused to the buoyancy which pushes my head under while my legs fly up behind. The reef is almost within reach to my right; I could get over there but that thought shatters with the slow-motion crash of sea into rock. Struggling away from land my fear tries to propel me back; I stop, bob for a bit and turn onto my back while I grapple with my breathing and pull myself together. I know I won’t sink, but my left brain is saying otherwise. I float and think.
It’s a waste of time doing breast stroke, I’m only trying because I want to see what’s coming at me but that’s making me turn my head and stiffen up. I need to swim in front crawl towards the shore and trust myself. An apparition of Kari the mermaid muse tells me I don’t need to look at the sea, I need to feel it so I hold my glide, blowing a steady stream of bubbles underwater and waiting for gaps in the waves to inhale. I feel weightless and unmoving in the current as the water from the shore breakers sucks back out, as though in a disturbing dream where you want to wake but can’t. There’s a gap between the surf dashing towards the beach and the maelstrom around the island reefs. I head for it.
Suddenly it’s over; the sea is smaller and lighter, and I can see the warm, golden sand of the neck. I keep going till I feel my hands brush the bottom, then stand and wade backwards while spent breakers tug at my legs. After a couple of worrying minutes I spot Hugo ploughing towards me. As we trot across the beach he tells me about a mountaineer scaling Annapurna who dropped his gloves and had to watch them slide away, resulting in the loss of his fingers; Hugo says he too has had an ‘Annapurna moment’ today. We should have stayed with the others of course. But there’s a danger in a close escape beyond that of not making it back alive, and ten minutes later I’m too high still to drink mulled cider or even to eat cake.
Video of the bit before the big scare here: