wildwomanswimming

One woman's wild swimming adventures in the west country

Archive for the tag “Swimming”

East Okement and Taw

Sophie swims the gully, E Okement

Sophie swims the gully, E Okement

Sophie’s walk on a gorgeous but cold day, taking in a few hot swimming spots. We start in the East Okement, being wholly unable to resist the top waterfalls. Clear water with a turquoise tint, and sun-spots the colour of barley sugar. The water’s very, very cold. The dogs are ecstatic, bounding between river and rock and leaf mould, panting, steaming and snuffling.

E Okement Falls

E Okement Falls

Someone finds an eviscerated Tawny Owl, which Rachel slings in a bin liner for later examination. It swings sadly in its makeshift body bag beneath her rucksack as she walks up the cleave towards Nine Maidens. There we play around with some gorse stump foraged by Kari and which resembles labia, rather appropriately for the stone circle that is most probably a paean to a moon goddess, perhaps Artemis or Hecate.

There’s a rather surreal twenty-first century army ambush occurring in the middle of the track where we’re heading, so we’re asked, very politely, to wander elsewhere. As we cross below Belstone Ridge all hell breaks loose, except there’s more smoke from Alex’s e-cigarette than from the grenade below.

Cassiterite

Cassiterite

Taw Marsh is stunning in the spring sunshine, weeds wafting green beneath the surface. We’re all thinking of the pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, and Kari decides to recreate Millais’ version with Linda and some bracken. Linda lies supine in the water playing dead, which at that temperature is no mean feat. As Rachel pushes her off and leaps out of the way for the picture, Lily and Fudge photo bomb before the hair floats downstream. Less Lizzie Siddall than Dartmoor Moses.

As we leave, we realise we’ve left Philippa, Linda’s ancient historian friend, behind… We call her with whistles and she returns, thrilled at the discovery of some black and glittery rock that she’s sure is a type of tin ore called cassiterite. This reminds me, as Anna has just pointed out, why it’s fun to walk and swim with such variegated people who together form a human encyclopaedia.

Dartmoor Ophelia with Dogs

Dartmoor Ophelia with Dogs

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WWS Book Review: Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book

Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book: Everything You Need To Know About Surf, Sand and Rips by Dr Rob Brander ISBN: 978 1 74223 097 9

Purple dye marks a rip current

Purple dye marks a rip current

The rip current is the bogeyman of the sea. The confusion engendered by its behaviour and what to do if you get caught has imbued this beast with a reputation such that swimmers fear its very name. This is partly justified; in both Australia and the USA around 100 people a year drown in rip-related incidents, while between 2006-2011 in the UK, RNLI lifeguards rescued 12,607 people from rips, around 11% of whom were swimmers. The biggest problem however is that people don’t understand rips or what to do when they’re in one. This book by coastal geomorphologist Dr Rob Brander (named ‘Dr Rip’ by Lifeguards in New South Wales for his habit of pouring purple dye into rip currents) is therefore an essential addition to the sea-swimmer’s library.

Dr Rip begins with a fascinating discussion of types of sand and the ways in which different sentiments collect in certain places and form different types of beach. This is important, because the type of beach largely dictates the type and size of waves, which in turn affects the formation of currents such as long-shore drift and rips, and whether these are fixed rips or unpredictable flash rips.

There are several categories of wave which Dr Rip describes in detail, along with specific dangers associated with each. From this section I now know for certain that the wave which wiped me out behind Burgh Island last year in twelve-foot swell and scared the bejesus out of me was a freak reflected wave combined with an incoming one, because there’s a description of how such waves form and a picture of a similar one in the book. You will also learn not to try body-surfing a plunging wave or a surging wave, and what to do when a big wave decides to break on top of you – a frequent occurrence for we year-round sea-swimmers and dippers.

There’s a chapter on currents with an in-depth analysis of rips. A rip current (it is a current, not a tide) is a ‘river’ flowing from the shore through an area of breaking waves. It’s a key way in which water from breaking waves returns to the sea. A rip won’t drag you under, it’s dangerous for a couple of reasons: firstly, they appear to be areas of calm in white water, and therefore attract swimmers; and because people who are not competent swimmers or who are not educated about rips get caught and are pulled out of their depth, or try to swim against them because they don’t know how to get out. So the first important point is how to spot a rip; there are plenty of handy hints and excellent photographs to help you develop this essential skill, along with advice about where, and where not, to swim.

One of the refreshing aspects of the book is that there are no absolute rules. Dr Rip simply discusses the various options which are of course different depending on your ability and fitness. So you learn a couple of ways of swimming out of a rip, or how to attract the attention of a lifeguard. Some rips will run you a mere 50-100m off shore and return you to the shallows after a couple of minutes, while others are monsters; one in New Zealand, for example, took Dr Rip a good 1km off shore, and while they are normally narrow, they may be up to 50m wide and travel at the sprint speed of an Olympic freestyler.

There’s a chapter on tides which, Dr Rip explains, are a type of wave. We also learn that tsunamis are surging waves which accounts for their huge destructive power; there’s a fascinating discussion on the reason the 2004 tsunami caused barely any damage in the Maldives, despite running straight over the islands which are almost entirely at sea level. Other considerations, such as weather, erosion, and the problems associated with thoughtless and poorly-informed shore development are also included.

There’s so much information in this book, all illustrated with wonderful photographs from around the world, that it’s probably necessary to read it two or three times. I grew up (or rather survived my childhood) on the Atlantic coast of Devon, and there is plenty here that I didn’t know. Dr Rip has a life-long fascination with the subject (he collected several hundred jars of sand over his youth which were confiscated by customs when he moved to Australia) and is an expert in the science of beaches and how they work. He writes in an accessible style while also managing to explain some fairly complex processes in an easy and entertaining way. There are some lovely touches of humour. You will even learn how to survive a shark attack (swimming with a friend immediately reduces your chance of attack by 50%!) There’s also information on fossicking on a beach, rock-pooling, and where and how to build a decent sandcastle.

My only criticism is in the sometimes confusing format where summary sections are placed in mid-paragraph rather than at the ends of the relevant chapters, but it’s such a great book it’s well worth overlooking this minor annoyance rather as you would a sand fly bite. By the way, before you warm yourself up on your nippy winter sea swim, did you know that sharks are attracted by the smell of wee?

Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book comes very highly recommended for anyone who swims in the sea.

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.

Fire and Icy Water

Gloved Moon

Gloved Moon

A full Cold Moon draws us to Bantham, where we meet to swim in the Aune ria. We build a bonfire and use it to light home-made torches. There is an arterial sound and energy here, of lifeblood whooshing upstream on the flood tide. The scents of salt and woodsmoke meld, and we trail flames as we wade in.

Frigid water glows in orange ripples, while above glares a phosphorus moon, escaped from the glove of a passing cloud. Sparks shoot in the steely edge of the sea wind and hair flies like the flame from my torch. Warm thoughts and wind-burned cheeks tussle with chilled bodies. On the far bank, from a glass-walled house, silhouetted figures watch. We form a circle, shadowing the moon who has lured us and the sea to her.

Moonglow, Torchglow

Moonglow, Torchglow

Flaming Water

Flaming Water

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Tara Adds Magic

 

Bonfire

Bonfire

 

Wading

Wading

Watcombe Beach to Bell Rock

Bell Rock

Bell Rock – Too Slim by Far

You might have noticed the dearth of blogs recently; it’s partly due to being busy and partly to a smorgasbord of injuries that appear to be roaming from joint to joint like a hen night. Anyway, I had my pesky shoulder injury injected with hydrocortisone almost two weeks ago, and since we’re supposed to be taking on the beast that is the Gulf of Corryvreckan on 15th August and I’ve not swum properly for well over 6 months I thought I’d better give the shoulder a try out.

Allan and Carole

Allan and Carole

So off we went to Watcombe Beach.  I lived in Watcombe from age 3 to 7, and have many happy memories of the beach and the steep walk down to it, but I haven’t been there since…1968. It’s a gorgeous little cove surrounded by red sandstone cliffs and woodland. The end chunk of cliff sports a considerable crack down half its length, so it won’t be long till that tumbles down into the sea.

WWS Snapping at Starfish (photo Allan Macfadyen)

WWS Snapping Starfish (photo Allan Macfadyen)

We swam out stroked by kelp on a low spring, in sea that was misted and coloured shades of aquamarine. Constellations of starfish were scattered across sandy patches, and once we reached the caves they multiplied to a veritable milky way.  As ever on this piece of coastline, the colours of rocks and sea zing in a perfect Matisse palette. Although the sea was flat calm, it sucked and soughed through the cave, cooler than outside and stinking of seal breath. Layers of life forms meshed on the rocks to form a collage of mineral, plant and animal, so that it’s hard to see the divide between life and death.

Starfish!

Starfish!

I swam across to Bell Rock, but felt too cold to sidle through the slim gap. I also suspect after months of limited exercise that my capacious arse might have caused me to wedge fast in the narrows where I would probably stay till the next low tide. So Nancy and I headed back, leaving the rest to forage and exclaim. I managed I think around 300m of front crawl, with little in the way of pain. Here’s hoping…By the way, the beach cafe at Watcombe is a top place with fantastic, crispy thin chips. Hardly conducive to shrinking the bum.

Cave...

Cave…

Swimming Round the Point

Swimming Round the Point

Swimming Deaths and Risk

Spate in the Tavy - One of WWS's Dipping Spots

Spate in the Tavy – at one of WWW’s favourite dipping spots (though only a fool would enter the river on this day!)

A few months ago I stepped in as acting Outdoor Swimming Society Press Officer, and was immediately embroiled in a controversy involving an attack on our Wild Swim Map by a river ‘safety’ group. This is the resultant OSS piece.

Every summer we see stories in the media prompted by water-related deaths that contain misinformation about swimming and risk. “Undercurrents” drag unfortunate people into “hidden whirlpools”. Open water is icy and defies the laws of physics by never warming up, even on hot summer’s days. (This is especially so in reservoirs, where swimmers – but not kayakers, sailors or windsurfers – also get sucked down by the big pipes by supernatural currents.)

The premise of these stories is often that swimming outdoors is lethal. Misinformation is recycled by journalists, lake wardens and safety ‘experts’, campaigns are launched to ban swimming in certain places and to fence off flooded quarries.

Each death is a tragedy, and I’d argue that every time nonsense goes out obscuring the real story about deaths, we miss the opportunity to prevent more. It is central to the OSS ethos that people be allowed to swim at their own risk, and that through the OSS community people share and develop knowledge that enables them to better assess the risks they face. I know I am not alone among experienced outdoor swimmers in finding the storm surge of nonsense infuriating. So when I was asked to cover as OSS Press Officer I sensed an opportunity to counter these media-conjured bogeymen.

I did not have to wait long. In April a campaign group called Riverside Awareness UK (RUAK) launched an attack on the OSS Wild Swim Map. Their comments can be seen at http://wildswim.com/river-wharfe-at-collingham, and include the dangers of our old pals “undercurrents” and “hidden whirlpools” and “a horse and carriage” vanishing in the river at this beauty spot. “No river is ever safe!!!” was one of the assertions.

The story was picked up by a couple of local newspapers in Wetherby and Harrogate and a scare-mongering, anti-swimming story appeared accusing the OSS of being “totally irresponsible” for “encouraging” people to swim in a river where people have drowned in the past, and for not doing a risk assessment of spots on the map (a basic appreciation of the fact that rivers are fluid and change in their size, strength and risks from day to day appeared to escape both RUAK and the reporter).

OSS members launched a counter-attack on the Harrogate Advertiser’s website, using facts and figures about drowning risks and pointing out the rafts of badly-informed assumptions in the article, and the implied correlation between water related deaths and swimming deaths. For example, in 2012 ninety-nine water related deaths occurred in rivers. Just four of those were swimmers: twelve people were walking or running; four were angling. Others were engaged in a range of water sports or were simply found in the water (figures from National Water Safety Fatal Incident Reports, on which ROSPA base their information). It’s a fallacy to connect all river deaths to swimmers, just as it is to connect water-related deaths to open water. Looking more broadly at that year, there were 371water-related deaths attributed to accidental or natural causes in the UK. Of those, 26 were swimmers, but 10 died in domestic baths.

The Harrogate Advertiser piece was removed owing to some negative comments about the capabilities of the reporter. We did, however, agree with RAUK that the Wild Swim Map should contain a link to the OSS website Safety Advice, and are addressing that.

Then the Wetherby News contacted me for comment after a Police frogman told them a very sad story from the 1960s about two children drowning in the river Wharfe. He advised never swimming there. Again, I countered this with facts and figures and Dan Graham, a swift-water rescue instructor and OSS member, had a look at the spot on Google Earth. There was nothing in the topography to suggest the river is especially dangerous under normal conditions save some deep water and a couple of weirs. However, this is a flashy river (meaning it rises fast after rain), and it’s a beauty spot where people go to picnic. If you can’t swim, or you’ve been drinking, or you’re unused to the cold, or you don’t predict the increase in the speed of water after rain – that water that might have been friendly on your last visit is ferocious now – then of course this can be a dangerous place.

I gave the Wetherby News some safety pointers, which they printed – after a fashion.

Things have been calmer since then. Last week a paper in York contacted the OSS to comment on a river safety campaign in York, following a series of deaths in the town centre. We had the opportunity to provide safety points to them that helped shape the campaign – resulting, we hope, in information getting to more people that may help keep them safe. (These points are listed at the bottom of the article).

Following that BBC Newcastle radio contacted us to talk about a call from one of their local MPs, Sharon Hodgson from Tyne & Wear, for the government to do more to teach safe swimming in schools, and Kate Rew went on air to discuss swimming risks. (Speaking in a debate Mrs Hodgson has called for things such as every child to be taught the basic principles of water safety education and fundamental personal survival skills; an annual public awareness campaign highlighting the drowning risk; and sufficient safe and affordable public swimming facilities.) It’s the first time the OSS has been asked to comment on something so positive in terms of reducing risk.

People are drawn to water, they will usually ignore advice to stay away from it. Scare mongering is ineffective as a way of keeping people safe, and banning swimming because someone, tragically, loses their life is like banning driving because someone has an accident. ‘Danger: No Swimming’ signs have become meaningless to us now; installed so often in popular swimming places where the landowner would like to ban swimming, but has no right, that they’ve lost any power they ever might have had in places where there really are dangers to swimmers, such as weirs. To me ‘Danger: Deep Water’ has always been ludicrous as a warning – deep water is just what swimmers are looking for, the danger is only if you’re a weak or non-swimmer.

To me, risk and whether it’s acceptable to take it, is a decision that will always lie with the individual. It’s an impossibility to cover each specific eventuality of weather, rainfall, tides in the sea, currents, changes to topography after spates, and individual capability and experience.

This is the piece that appeared in The Press (the York newspaper who are running a river safety campaign in the city). Several OSS members have added comments below the article. I’d be interested to hear your views…

http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/11316989.Open_water_swimming_group_s_safety_warning_for_the_River_Ouse/

Hartland Quay

Hartland Quay

Hartland Quay

The plan today was to swim from Hope Cove to Thurlestone, only with a pesky southerly blowing we thought it might be a tad frisky. So we went instead to Hartland Quay where we found the usual crashing and foaming around the rocks; it’s almost always wild around here.

Andrew, Plum and I got in fairly easily off the sheltered slipway and began to bounce in glowing, aquamarine sea. Earlier we’d been on the more reckless side of a Facebook debate on the dangers of being struck by lightning while swimming, so of course we were interrupted by a crashing rumble that I initially took to be a big wave dumping on pebbles; obviously it was thunder. We laughed in its face and continued with our swim, reasoning that there are plenty of high rocks and cliffs around here to attract strikes and we’re barely breaking the surface. Anyway, nothing short of death was going to get us out of this slightly nippy lushness.

Andrew Leaps

Andrew Leaps

The geology here always takes my breath away. Reefs like crashed wafer biscuits point out to sea, overwhelmed by cliffs layered and snapped into jagged points like petrified storm waves. We swam over, then back to the big rock from where Andrew climbed and jumped while Plum and I bobbed, pulled this way and that by the crazy currents from waves surging through and around rocks.

After around three quarters of an hour we walked back up the slipway and sniggered at the potential irony of being struck by lightning before we got to the pub, but survived to order a pint of Tribute each. Inside in a dark corner slouched a young couple watching movies on an iPad. Two hours later they were still there, Skyping their friends about the lovely weather. Really.

With thanks to Plum for the photos.

Stunned by Geological Marvels

Stunned by Geological Marvels

Bel Pool with Panda and Woody

Somewhat Nippy

Somewhat Nippy

We have visitors today; Panda and Woody from Deepest Dorset. It’s a beautiful morning, and we can still smell bluebells although they’re past their best. The Dart is middling-high after the rain, and the colour of a pub ceiling before the smoking ban. As we change at the lower end of Bel Pool a foam berg floats past, revolving gently in the current. It’s fairly easy to swim upstream on the island side, then suddenly I’m whipped by a speeding eddy to the cascade. Floating backwards the cappuccino foam splats spurts and spumes in a crazy dance, sending us over to the rocks. Woody and I both climb up and leap in, it’s invigorating to say the least. The sun hasn’t quite reached the pool, but I feel the warmth as I contemplate the fresh oak leaves overhead. The juddering after drop shows the water is as cold as it felt.

Clambering In

Clambering In

Strip in the Lyd

Waterfall

Waterfall

Continued downpours have left our little river the colour of Jail Ale and with a foaming head. Helen and I were intending to skinny dip, only there’s a couple just downstream setting up camp for the night and a lone walker on the far bank heading our way. So we wimp out and don our cozzies.  We’re still chatting about Helen’s trip to Russia and are properly iced by the swirly wind before we get in.

Helen Pre-Strip

Helen Pre-Strip

We duck, swim to the waterfall and explore for a time till I notice Helen is mid strip. So I join her and we toss our swimsuits over to the rocks. Although we’re almost naked, Helen is wearing goggles and I a pair of neoprene boots. How very English. So we whip those off too and lob them to the shallows. The surge beneath the big rock resembles ghostly frogspawn and I imagine ranks of frogs squatting in the depths, bums aloft.

We take turns to swim breast stroke against the flow. So many sensations, and far more subtle than a jacuzzi: the cold; currents that push and pummel howling like gales, or waft gently past like summer breezes; effervescence like birds’ wings brushing on skin, fizzing louder than the roar of the cascade. Each bubble oscillates and atomises on our faces. Our eyes are level with the surface so we see tiny spheres meld and grow before scatting across the pool in the wind. There’s nothing to beat skinny dipping in this exposed place.

Honey's Downward Dog

Honey’s Downward Dog

The wind whips around and chills wet hair so we dive back under to warm up. I open my eyes and float through beer that turns gold like scrumpy. We begin another chat, rolling and wallowing with the water but cold sidles around and we’re suddenly numbed to the core. After we leave, reluctantly, I can’t feel my towel nor whether I’m wet or dry. A current of ice runs along my spine and radiates like the sun.

The Bubble Uprush

Frogspawn Bubble Uprush

 

Supernatural Force

After Jackie's Rescue

Before Jackie’s Dunking

We meandered up to the little falls for a dip. This is one of the tamer jacuzzis on the Double Dart, perfect for a sparkling pick me up with minimal effort. Jackie floated across ready to wallow, and disappeared suddenly under the bubbles, to be rescued from the deep by Carole. We shot downstream in shadow on the far side in a heavy current, returning via the central eddy. The water was distinctly nippy and black.

Back at the jacuzzi I worked my way in, bouldering in the water around the mossy hand holds on the rocks. As I neared the falls a judo black belt of a current whipped my legs away to the side. I reattached from the right and struggled to move my feet and legs along, fighting an underwater flume. Then my feet flew upwards like a meteor as the force reversed. I managed to cling to the rock and wedged myself precariously half in, near to the surface. Rachel noticed the river is shallower downstream, and we guessed that the January spates must have scoured and bulldozed the underwater boulders and somehow channeled the current into this scary entity. The force is completely out of proportion to the size of the falls, which is around three feet. From the rocks we were able to see the downward draft to the left, and then the surge up a couple of feet down and to the right. One to explore when the water’s really low, which we hope will happen this summer.

Crazy Falls

Crazy Falls

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