wildwomanswimming

One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

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WWS Book Review: Open Water Swimming Manual


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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.

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Polar Bear Sharrah

Geddin!

Geddin!

Polar Bear Roar

Polar Bear Roar

We haven’t swum here for ages thanks to the storms and constant rain. There are exposed roots in Sharrah glade like nerves in a flailed body and the track resembles a dry riverbed. The river is surging and elephant rock barely raises its head above the surface.

Sprinting Between Currents

Sprinting To Elephant Rock

Today is not a positive embrace-the-chill sort of day for me.  We dawdle before taking the plunge and when we do it’s like being savaged by a colony of frozen ants. We all struggle to get upstream and are pushed into the rocks. To the right is a gently curvaceous surge, which turns out to be more forceful still than the choppy stream by the bank. There is a mere smattering of natural foam; usually when the river rages we swim through a beery head at least a foot high. By now I’ve contorted into a frog pose and my stroke is more of a judder.  By kicking off an underwater boulder and sprinting between the two currents I make it to the rock.

Squatting on Elephant Rock

Squatting on Elephant Rock

The rapid is spectacular like the tangible roar of a polar bear. We sink a fair way down before popping up with the dissipating bubbles. The water is greenish as though tinted with absinthe and sets off our scarlet cold water tans rather nicely. Six degrees of wonderful.

Negative Buoyancy - Allan Sinks

Negative Buoyancy – Allan Sinks

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Carole is King!

Whitsand Bay

Whitsand Bay

Whitsand Bay

It’s a real shock this – a sunny day! Sadly our plans to swim at Tregantle are foiled thanks to Second World War beach defence ironmongery that’s been uncovered by the recent weeks of extreme storms. So Stef and I pootle down to the middle of the bay and descend the cliffs with the dogs. It’s low tide and we’re concerned about the recent doggy deaths from eating boulders of palm oil washed up on local beaches, particularly since both of our dogs have the word ‘labrador’ in the title. Luckily there doesn’t appear to be any here. Instead, there’s a gingery heap of ripped kelp, alive with flies, and a hail of plastic scattered across the sands. Mist veils the rocky reefs and razor shells lie smashed like little car crashes, spilling pale sausage shaped bodies the colour and texture of clotted cream. And there’s the sound of the sea, soothing and enticing…

By the time we wade in the sun is glaring at a winter angle. The water here pulls and swirls in several directions between the outcrops, and there is a diagonal wave and a nice big rip feeding out from the near reef.  As I pop up from a wipeout I see white puffs of cloud on the horizon that echo the foaming white water perfectly. It’s beautiful, exhilarating, invigorating. We chat about Stef’s daughter and her travels in Cambodia while the cold seeps and slaps and sand churns. The waves dump from eight feet, silky walls of water that rise and curl suddenly before crashing down. Sometimes three or four catch up and we’re in a sea of bubbles. Small fountains erupt from the surface like the ghostly fingers of wrecked sailors.

Afterwards we change slowly, soaked in the warmth of the winter sun; or perhaps the heat is generated by the young couple canoodling in the cave entrance behind us…We have lunch and tea in TrannyVan on the cliff top. Today, instead of running the heater on full we sit with the side and barn doors open. This allows Honey and Boswell to revolve through playing and looking for tennis balls and doggy snacks. Stef’s treat pocket is slick with dog flob.

Honey and Boswell Seek Balls

Honey and Boswell Seek Balls

Foaming Clouds

Foaming Clouds

Tinside Chill

Tinside

Tinside

I hadn’t been in the sea for a while, so when someone suggested a swim at Tinside this lunchtime I was there in a flash. The sea has chilled rapidly and is now around 10ºc, enough to give us full-on ice cream head. There was barely a ripple in the water, and it had that metallic sheen that forms with a bit of cloud cover and a low winter sun on the horizon.

Lovely...photo Rosie Barnfield

Lovely…photo Rosie Barnfield

We chatted as we swam, and discussed the psychology of the missing yellow buoys which used to form a kind of boundary; now there’s no reason to stop swimming, nor to swim between points. Strangely liberating.

We changed and jigged around with after drop. Then we sat at the Terrace Cafe and looked out towards the breakwater with hot drinks and hot water bottles. Below us a cormorant fished close to the beach, a shadowy streak under the gin-clear sea who popped up and gobbled her catch just a couple of feet from the shore. Civilisation has its benefits…and its down side. Poor Rosie was caught like the hapless fish by two Great White traffic wardens and got a parking ticket.

Warming Up on the Tinside Terrace

Warming Up on the Tinside Terrace

Shilley Willy

Flying Entry

Flying Entry

Honey and I accompany Matt and Aaron on an exploratory trip to Shilley Pool. We wade and scramble pool-wards over sodden ground dotted with clitter and clumps of rusted bracken. Matt drops knee deep into a bog.  Blackaton Brook is a tiny tributary of the upper Teign and looks like nothing with the colours of the open moorland  leeched by mizzle and the rumbling water secreted beneath dark undergrowth.

Suddenly all is revealed; a series of smooth rocks curve gently down into the near-circular pool which is dammed by boulders at the lower end. It starts to rain heavily as we arrive, and we slide in from the top to slow boiling water. It’s like swimming in a mixture of Guinness, Jail Ale and ice in a pub drip tray at the end of a busy night. The infinity pool effect looking downstream is gorgeous. We reckon the river temperature to be around 6-7ºc, chillier still than the Teign where we swam earlier. It’s strange how your brain interprets this level of cold: the burn of my body could be from heat, while my hands feel painfully freezing.

Infinity Drip Tray

Infinity Drip Tray

 

Champagne Dart

Jacuzzi

Jacuzzi

Rachel

Rachel

A quick early evening dip with Honey and Rachel; we go to one of the little pools just above the bridge today. The water is wonderfully refreshing and filled with fish – trout we think. There are two small jacuzzis here – one is hard to reach with the force of water but I manage to stay in for a good minute by clambering over submerged mossy rocks then standing on one horizontally with my head and body upstream in the fizzing bit. The other is narrower with much less water coming through and there’s a handy curved nook in which to wedge.  We wallow and watch the bubbles burst like Tinkerbells. I feel the tickle of the water and the amplified echoes of the falls in my underwater ears. Rachel says it’s like bathing in champagne.

Wedged In

Wedged In

Big Bubbles

Big Bubbles

 

Unwinding at Bovisand

Underwater Zombies

Underwater Zombies

Having been coiled to the point of snapping by a certain tennis match, Honey and I are relieved to be able to cool off and unwind in the sea. It’s heaving on Bovisand despite us not arriving till 7pm, since it’s high tide and everyone’s crammed into the few yards of remaining beach. We stride out into water that looks like mercury and wallow out to the buoy before spending some time engaged in underwater antics and buoy-mounting.

Happy!

Happy!

Aquatic Antics

Aquatic Antics

I swim back in front crawl and my shoulder is, remarkably, still fine. Honey is on the lead as she’s obsessed with balls and intent on crashing every game of cricket or dog-playing session on the beach. As we eat our picnic, she takes off with me attached, causing my plate of pasta salad and lettuce to fly skywards before crashing into the sand.

I retrieve Honey from the sea, and tie her lead to her coiled metal spike that’s screwed into the beach. She takes off again, complete with spike, in pursuit of a labrador chasing a stick and once again has to be retrieved from the sea. The spike is lying on a rock, and luckily has failed to impale anyone.

As the sun drops behind the headland the sky melds into the sea in pastel shades of pinky blue so that distant boats appear to float through the sky. I feel I could join them. Well done Andy Murray!

Setting Off

Setting Off

Boats in the Sky

Boats in the Sky

Summery Salter’s

Floating

Floating

Four of us meet on the Double Dart for a morning swim in bright sunshine. Most of the pools in this steep-sided wooded valley are in shadow at this time of day, although the sun is creeping over the far bank and beginning to illuminate the water. It’s beautifully cool and we finish our swim with a wild jacuzzi in Horseshoe Falls. The water is low, but there’s plenty of bubble action to spritz our spirits to bursting point and I have a proper massage under the flume. We climb out onto the flat rock and warm our chilled bodies in a patch of sunlight before swimming back across to our rock, which is now crawling with happy teenagers out to enjoy this magical place on a golden day.

Wild Jacuzzi and Massage Parlour

Wild Jacuzzi and Massage Parlour

Norfolk: Burnham Overy Staithe

Burnham Overy Staithe

Burnham Overy Staithe

Honey, TrannyVan and I are on our travels thanks to the 60th birthday party of my old mucker Les, who lives in far eastern parts. Since JJ’s funeral is on Friday in Ashburton, and Les’s party on Saturday lunchtime near Neatishead, we set off on Friday evening and finish the long journey on Saturday morning, punctuated by a few hours attempting to sleep in a layby on the A14 being buffeted by speeding traffic, and awash with the scent of stale wee.

Shelduck Art

Shelduck Art

The party is a lovely, chatty, scoffy, alcoholic affair, as I catch up with my old RAF friends of over 20 years ago. Honey and I spend the night in the local bowling club’s field. Wild flowers scent the air, and there’s no traffic other than the resident pigeons dancing tangos on TrannyVan’s roof.  We spend Sunday engaged in more talking, the eating of leftovers and recovery from the hangover. Finally, we set off for the North Norfolk coast in the sultry late afternoon.

Coast Path

Coast Path

I have a gallery of beautiful pictures of Holkham in my head, left over from my days based at RAF West Raynham in the mid-1980s.  I’m shattered and in need of peace, isolation and wild water after two weeks of emotional upset and too much alcohol. The current reality is so far from my memories that I think I must have dreamed it. There are several hundred cars and a constant stream of sun-burned people heading back from the beach. The final decision not to stop here is made by the most extortionate parking charges I’ve ever seen. Of course the place is stunning, but we execute a hasty departure and head along the coast road in search of somewhere more peaceful and affordable.

Eternity of Beach

Eternity of Beach

We turn down to the harbour of Burnham Overy Staithe, a place I don’t remember at all. There are a few people wandering along a creek littered with small boats, and a clinking like alpine cow bells as lanyards rattle against masts. The parking is free, and a sign points to Burnham Overy Beach (1 1/2 miles) and Holkham (3 1/2 miles) via the coast path, a raised walkway of red chalk atop banks of waving grasses and wild flowers weaving across the salt marshes and estuarine mud flats like a giant rag worm. It’s close to low tide, and the sun is beginning to drop as Honey and I set off.

Over the Dunes

Over the Dunes

The plants that bedizen the path include hemlock, poppies of red and mauve, wild thyme, barley and several succulents I don’t recognise. Oyster Catchers, my favourite comedy birds, wander around and fly overhead which excites Honey owing to the resemblance of their calls to squeaky dog toys, one of her obsessions. I hear a skylark over the marshes. A gaggle of Shelducks gobble their evening meal from the mud, leaving a series of dashed meandering lines like Aboriginal art. A Redshank flies off as we approach and a very vocal pair of Curlews shoots past. There is a smell of estuary mud and salty water and a tang of fish.

Watery Remains on Wrinkled Sand

Watery Remains on Wrinkled Sand

I remove my sandals as we climb the dunes, super-fine, pale golden sand crunches and sifts between my toes and the North Sea glints in the distance as we crest between clumps of marram grass. It’s cooler here, and the wind blows strong and steady along the beach which stretches for miles. Honey and I run down and trot across the high tide mark that’s littered with razor shells like a self-harmer’s convention. There are shallow pools and strips of water. We walk across wrinkled damp sand.

Skinny Dip Sundown

Skinny Dip Sundown

Finally we reach the sea. The only sounds are sea birds and the whistling gale and the constant white noise of roughened water.  There is no swell, and no swell in the sound,  which contributes to a  sense of eternal suspense. Everything is infinite.

Sea

Sea Impression

I strip off, and run naked into brownish-grey water that I’m expecting will be cold, only it’s the warmest I’ve swum in this year. The touch of the sea and the wind that blows straight and constant and the widescreen view leave me floating in a perfect suspension of time and place. The closest landscape to this I can think of is the Atlantic coast of North Devon, but this place is emptier, wilder, more exposed. There are no protruding headlands to divert the gale or the sea, no snuggled coves. I feel excoriated, sloughed.

Sun Down

Sun Down over the Burn Estuary

We dry off in the wind as the sun drops lower, gleaming from sand exposed by the ebbed tide.

Returning to our creek, we sit on the floor in the back of the van with the doors open and eat, before retiring for a peaceful night of whistling wind, lapping water and dinghy mast tinkling.

Wildly Wonderful: JJ

JJ Shocks a Kayker, Dec 11

JJ Shocks the Paddlers, Sharrah Pool, Dec 11

Deflowered by the Thurlestone

Deflowered by the Thurlestone

I don’t want to write about JJ with a sad heart. He was pure joy; effervescent as a Double Dart cascade or a stormy sea; wild and wonderful and kind and clever and affectionate, and always up for anything. He was my friend and I adored him, a universal sentiment among our ever-expanding group of wild swimmers. JJ made us all feel special, he had time and hugs for everyone, always.

In Stormy Seas at Wembury

In Stormy Seas at Wembury

This is a series of fleeting impressions from an Atlantic Ocean of memories. Thinking of JJ I hear his laughter echoing from the walls of a sea cave, I feel zings of adrenaline and the whoosh of a wave as we career through a sea arch having egged each other on, I see a blurred, ghostly form in a tiny tent as he shivers after an hour in Crazy Well Pool during his acclimatisation for a Channel relay. I see him bobbing and photographing Shags and Cormorants around the back of Thatcher Rock. I see his silly, yak-chewed hat and crazy jacuzzi hair, corkscrewing and tipped with mini-dreads from constant immersion in wild water. I see the sun shining and glinting off the sea as he smiles. I watch him with his beloved boys, tactile and funny and deeply interested.

Swimming near to the Mewstone

Swimming near to the Mewstone

JJ had a hand-knitted hippy heart veined with high-tech neoprene through which digital technology pulsed. We were the Japanese Tourists, obsessively snapping each other and everyone else with our underwater cameras. He was warmth in wind-whipped winter water, and love, and amber depths in a moorland river.  He was a ‘sinker’ – a muscled and super-fit type who couldn’t bear to carry the extra couple of kilos of blubber he needed in order for his legs to float; he was an amazing swimmer who flew through wild water like an eel with a jet engine. How we laughed at his expensive buoyancy shorts that added extra buns and quads onto his already legendary body. He took it all with good grace.

Claiming Thatcher Rock for DWS

Claiming Thatcher Rock for DWS

Walking alongside me on dry land, chatting as we climbed back up a cliff, or along the track through Holne Woods, JJ was quietly-spoken and  thoughtful, or playful and funny, or challenging, and always interesting. He’d move among the group, spending time with everyone, head bent forward in concentration, discussing advanced swim training methods, or interactive smart phone apps for kids with diabetes, or telling a funny story, or explaining an idea for a swim, or this week’s twist to his famous gin-soaked lemon drizzle cake recipe. Honey also loved JJ and his cakes, having stolen several hunks thanks to his habit of leaving them on the ground.

The Famous Physique

The Famous Physique

Standing next to him in my swimsuit at Burgh Island as he pulled his wetsuit on (the one with the gold sleeves that he so loved) I laughingly called JJ a wimp. He hesitated. Queenie piped up from behind; ‘She’s got bigger balls than you have!’ He removed the suit and swam in trunks. He once signed up for an extreme endurance swim after I joked to him on Facebook that he ought to be able to do it since he had a whole 5 days to recover from the 10k he was entered for; I added a winking face, but as he pointed out, I should have known he’d have to go for it.

Dwarfed by the Cliffs, London Bridge

Dwarfed by the Cliffs, London Bridge

I haven’t swum since JJ died one endless week ago, and when I do I know I’ll glimpse him  just over the next wave, camera dangling from his belt, attempting to smile through frozen lips. He’ll shoot past like a meteorite in Sharrah Pool, and I’ll hear his voice in the cascade. JJ thank you for sharing so many adventures, and thank you for being a part of my life for the two years or so that I had the honour to know you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPK5fwBUTxE

Jonathan Joyce, wild swimmer and bloody wonderful bloke, 1971-2013

Sharrah Cascade

Sharrah Cascade

Don't Ask!

Don’t Ask!

Japanese Tourist Shot

Japanese Tourist Shot

JJ and Me, Thurlestone

JJ and Me, Thurlestone

Extreme Banging the Nail into the Log, Kate's 40th

Extreme Banging the Nail into the Log, Kate’s 40th

East Dart with Honey

East Dart with Honey

With Queenie, Channel Good Luck Party

With Queenie, Channel Good Luck Party

Soar Mill Cove

Soar Mill Cove

The Famous Buoyancy Shorts

The Famous Buoyancy Shorts

Red Balloon, Burgh Island

Red Balloon, Burgh Island

Crazy Well Pool

Swimming With Dogs, Crazy Well Pool

Photography-Induced Wipeout, Blackpool Snads

Photography-Induced Wipe-Out, Blackpool Sands

Wetsuit Shananigans

Wetsuit Shananigans

Bobbing

Bobbing

Sea Caves

In the Sea Caves

Photographing Shags

Photographing Shags

Chatting With Cake

Chatting With Cake

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