One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the category “Burgh Island”

Molten Sun at Burgh

Burgh Sunset

Burgh Sunset through a Wave

Underwater GoPro still from Video


Sunset, high tide, pretty flat. We set off and split into a fast and a dawdler group the latter of which is somewhat delayed by the time Helen sorts her goggles; absolutely no chatting involved. The sea is beautiful, warm and welcoming. As we approach Death Valley from a clockwise direction we’re assailed by crazy rebounding seas which always fascinate me; water somehow peaks and points and twirls here, and mirrors the portcullis of dark rocks pointing skywards.



Queenie who has swum across from Bantham, decides to go through the maelstrom reef on the final bend. Helen and Baa and I follow, but after a foaming, sucking, rising and falling and dumping and churning minute or so I wimp out and turn back. Still missing a bit of my derring do… Nonetheless it’s exhilarating. As we swim round to meet Queenie,  the cliffs and our faces glow orange; we’re pushed up by the swell in petrol blue metallic seas and the sunset is smelted through the tips of the waves in a stunning deep red splurge, before forming briefly into a molten ball on the horizon.

These shots are all video stills from my new GoPro Hero3 Silver Edition which was mounted on my forehead while we swam. I’m in the early stages of working out how to maximise its potential.

Choppy Seas

Choppy Seas

More Friskiness

More Friskiness

Burgh Bogeyman Banishment

Happy WWS, photo Aquatic Ape

Happy WWS (photo Aquatic Ape)

Just before Christmas, Hugo and I had a rather large scare in the stormy seas off Burgh Island (https://wildwomanswimming.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/a-cautionary-tale-peaks-and-troughs-off-burgh/). A week later I wimped out of attempting another circumnavigation in perfectly swimmable if rather large seas. Since then, when Burgh came up I’ve been otherwise engaged, or it’s been cancelled. Then JJ, a safe, super-fit and adventurous wing man on some of our more exciting swims, died in the sea, close to the shore, while on an otherwise unremarkable swim; a considerable chunk of my derring-do immediately vanished beneath the waves. Consequently the whole Burgh thing has become a bit of a bogeyman for me. Aquatic Ape picked this up after our extended chat yesterday, and suggested we should swim around Burgh this morning on the middle of the ebb tide. 

Beautiful Burgh

Beautiful Burgh (photo Aquatic Ape)

It’s a stunning and breezy day of sunshine and a bit of a Burgh swell from the south west. As we set off the sea warms and we clear the easterly reef safely. I feel strangely distant and misty and almost short of breath as my body expresses the previously subconscious psychological whirlpool in my head. I had only met AA virtually before yesterday, on account of our blogging relationship. But wild swimmers somehow become instantaneous friends and I could not have wished for a better companion. He’s a faster and fitter swimmer than I am, and he stops and waits for me now and again, chats, takes a few photos, and is just there, without being too close. He says if either of us were to get into trouble, there’s not a lot the other could do in any case!

Walking around Burgh After the Swim

Walking Around Burgh Post-Swim (photo Aquatic Ape)

We reach the entrance to what AA calmly calls ‘the channel’ which we locals more dramatically refer to as ‘Death Valley’. It’s quite churny and I begin to feel the old Burgh magic as we forge through, adjusting for the direction of the swell, lost buoyancy and rocks. Then we’re specks below the cliffs, sheltered from the waves and swimming in slow motion above and below the surface, seeing red and pink and green weeds wave in the submarine breeze.

We stop as we leave the channel, where the reef is scattered with pointed rocks. These appear and partly disappear as the waves crash into them. I try to suggest we should swim out away from the rocks, but AA is having none of it, so through the reef we go. I feel short of breath and internally shaky again, but am soon swimming with full concentration and watching ahead and beneath for the skin graters, until we are spat out into the swell. We bob for a bit, then work our way back in. I feel amazing.

Thank you Aquatic Ape.

And thanks too for the photos; my formerly trusty and well-battered underwater camera has sprung a leak.

Swimming Through the Swell (photo Aquatic Ape)

Swimming Through the Swell (photo Aquatic Ape)


Bigbury Blethering

Honey Surfs

Honey Surfs

Bigbury on Sea, Bank Holiday Monday; blue skies and wisps of cirrus, a bank of fog over the horizon, and the usual cheeky gale. It’s low tide and light glints from the sand beneath the shallows and illuminates the sea so that it glows turquoise.  We set up on the sand and chat while a few of our friends swim round Burgh Island, some for the first time. I’m hugely envious, but unable to join in owing to my shoulder injury.

Light Splinters

Light Splinters

Blowing Bubbles

Blowing Bubbles

We go to meet the first swimmers, but they take off up the stream towards the Lifeguard hut like Triathletes. Then we discover the gang think they might have lost one of our newbies – but the Lifeguards know exactly where he is, and sure enough he appears in the distance having become over-excited and taken the long route round the easterly reef.

Finally it feels warm enough for a bob – although I’m acclimatised, being unable to swim properly means the cold grips fast. We run in and there is no pain at all for the first time in ages. The actual water temperature is around 10-11ºc, practically boiling point by recent standards. I mess around and play with Honey. Tiny waves break and splinter the light around us. It’s like being on a cloud.

Afterwards we continue to blether, wrapped in the smoke from barbecues and washed by the hubbub of people at play. IMGP4687

WWS's Bare Naked Foot Returns

WWS’s Bare Naked Foot Returns

Christmas Eve Bubbles at Burgh


SurfWe return to Burgh for a Christmas Eve swim in the hope of getting round the island this time. The swell is less, but it’s much windier than forecast. I feel dull and spaced out having had just three hour’s sleep after a run of night shifts. We boing in through the surf, and are whipped and bashed and smashed in the face by spray. My spirits lift with the swell and I realise that my teeth are chilled because I’m smiling under the water.Post-Storm

Bouncing Some MoreBouncing along we chat and laugh. The sea’s slightly mucky from the recent deluges, but is altogether friendlier than last week with far less weight behind it. We round the side, and are walloped by waves refracting from the reef and the island.

We decide against going round so play for a while then swim and body surf back in. I wallow in the natural bubble bath where opposing surf collides over the sand neck, then trot up to the car park where Teri hands me a glass of mulled cider and Honey picks up a handsome black labrador and runs off to play ball with him and his family. Bubbly sea, wild weather, fabulous wild friends and a warming drink. A perfect afternoon.Bubbly

Beached Honey

A Cautionary Tale: Peaks and Troughs off Burgh

The Splash is Hugo

Getting RoughThere’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.In the Swell

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:

Wading In

Wizardry at Burgh Island

I’ve never swum Burgh Island in an easterly gale before, but I see from the cliffs that it’s doable. It’s the day after the OSS Dart 10k so we have about thirty swimmers from around the country excited at the prospect of an iconic Devon wild swim. We walk down past the sea tractor and into warm, pale turquoise sea.

The water’s miraculously clear and I can see the cheese grater rock that scrapes a piece from my thigh. I’m exhilarated by the wild energy of the storm and the towering cliffs and wonder whether we’ll get into Death Valley.  The entrance looks spookily calm; I watch for a bit before deciding it’s safe to enter.

My companion and I swim in, and are quickly joined by several others who’d been hovering to see whether we would survive. We swim through the outer reef towards the shelter of the cliffs.

Suddenly I’m in a cauldron of pointed wavelets about a foot high, spiralling like upside down tornados. Spray flies from their tops. There’s an invisible wizard somewhere, casting spells over the sea.

Every few yards the surface of the water transmogrifies: here are sharp waves that echo the shapes of the jagged rocks above; there tiny ruffles shiver across rounded swells; a splatter of rain pocks wavelets; white horses rear with manes of spindrift. It’s still somehow clear below the surface, and we dive down through waving weeds.

We play our way through the rocks to  where the sand bar is gradually revealed by the receding tide. The gale hits us full-force, flinging abrasive water as it rips through. There’s no big swell, just a wallop of wavelets that makes swimming hard. I’m battered from side to side to front to back and keep my head down. As we leave the water I freeze instantly; not from wizardry, but from the chill of the east wind.

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