Rari nantes in gurgite vasto

What follows is from my own personal experience; while true for me, my conclusions may not be for everyone. Take note! Some of what follows should be modified in the light of A Salutary Experience (q.v. under Posts) but I leave it as originally written the better to exemplify shoddy thinking!

The data feed for sea temperatures, surf and weather outlook for Exmouth has discontinued. If I can find another I will put it back here. Till then, as a rough guide, the sea temperature in summer reaches about 16° C (or higher if you’re lucky), and in winter drops to about 7° (or less if you’re unlucky).

Since summer 2010, I have been swimming in the sea roughly every week off or near Orcombe Point, Exmouth. By ‘swim’ I mean total immersion; dry hair is paddling. In summer I run 4 to 8 miles before swimming and then running the mile or so back home. This winter, 2010/2011, I have taken to driving to Queen’s Drive, adjacent to the sea front, and parking there so I don’t have too far to go when cold and wet. Winter runs are 3 to 5 miles. Distance back to car after swimming is about ½ a mile. Given the chance, I run and swim only on ‘nice’ days. Attire; trunks, no rubber. I swim alone.


Time in the water in winter is generally 4 to 5 minutes. Winter swims consist of 50 strokes for France before realizing I’m not going to make it and turning back. The beach off Orcombe Point is ideal as it slopes gradually, with no sudden surprises. After 50 strokes I am barely out of my depth. (But see post A Salutary Experience.) For those who don’t know the area, Orcombe Point is a sandstone buttress jutting out of the coastal cliffs slightly east of Exmouth with lovely sandy beaches to east and west. Uninterrupted access along the beach is limited to low water. As a rule of thumb, the tidal depth must be less than 1.5 ms above chart datum to keep your powder dry getting around Orcombe Point – see tide chart below. Hence, as often as not, the need to swim. Beats going back to Sandy Bay and up the cliff path – especially since the National Trust have failed in their obligation to reinstate the steps up the cliff at Orcombe Point, the bottom section of which collapsed a number of years ago. The steps up Rodney Point just to the west are fine, but you may find yourself cut off from those if approaching from the east. The tide chart below is for calculating LOW water heights and times for Exmouth Approaches.


Exmouth low water


So, what’s it like? In a nutshell, cold! No surprises there then. The coldest water I have swum in, when icicles were hanging off the cliff at Straight Point, was slightly less than 8° C. Even in winter, after running a few miles I’m quite warm. I strip off as quickly as possible and go straight in. First impressions, registered on feet and legs, is of cold but no more; not agonizing. As I wade in I splash two or three handfuls of water on the back of my neck. I don’t avoid waves or swell but embrace them! To avoid the inevitable, return to the beach, dress and score “nul points”. Otherwise, plough on. Once the water is up to my waist I squat down neck deep to take stock before setting off. I have yet to experience involuntary gasping or breathlessness. Talking would not be a problem. I often hear someone say “fuck me it’s cold!” but disdain a reply “for I hae muckle ado.”


Not wishing to hang about I get going as soon as possible to execute 50 strokes breast-stroke. I have noticed a reluctance to take full, sweeping, normal strokes, as if by taking small rapid strokes it will be over quicker and conserve core temperature. This is wimpish and I give myself a stern talking-to. Occasionally mermaids lash me with fronds of kelp. Previous awareness of the cold is replaced by a not unpleasant slight numbing. Breathing is fine. Having run for half an hour or so, my pulse before entering the water will be around 140 beats a minute. For the record; at rest = 56-60 beats a minute; after 30+ minutes running; at STOP 140 beats; at STOP+ 1 minute 100 beats; at STOP + 2 minutes still 100 beats… After running, it probably takes me 2 minutes to get immersed up to the neck, so starting pulse in the water should be in the region of 100. Any increase I assume can be ascribed to the body’s normal physiological response to cold which is, inter alia, an increased pulse rate. My pulse on 24.ii.11 in water about 9° C after 1 minute’s immersion up to the neck but before swimming was 120 beats. I am 62+ That’s years, not °C!. Fiat experimentum in corpore vili and all that jazz.


If you don’t want to bother with the run and plan to swim ‘cold’, then you should ‘warm up’ for a minute or two by immersing neck deep to give your body a chance of realising what you are expecting of it before you start swimming. Of course you should not swim if you find yourself gasping uncontrollably or out of breath or floating face down and turning purple. Not good for the kidney!


After the initial 50 strokes I am aware of some fatigue. I could easily do more but do not want to get chilled to the point of collapse, or make running back to the car a problem. The initial feelings of discomfort have gone. I can enjoy splashing around and looking at the view etc. I swim back as far as I can i.e. I don’t put my feet down as soon as possible, but keep swimming until swimming is impractical. Then wade ashore, dry and dress. There is no no sign of the mermaids. I hear them singing, each to each, but do not think they sing to me.


Once out of the water, the only cold I notice – and that only occasionally – is on my feet. My body is fairly bright red and tingles sharply all over. Imagine being in the electric chair but with the juice turned low – maybe for a minor parking offence. State of mind; very positive, high affect, exhilarated. The best hit going and entirely free! At no time have I ever shivered – unlike in the summer, but then I’m in for longer in summer. My geese have no pimples. Fingers tying laces are neither numb nor awkward. The only odd effect I usually notice is when I start running again. There is a feeling of disconnect between body and the ability to judge its performance. The limbs feel strangely inarticulate. I think I run at my normal pace but it feels as if the legs are sluggish and heavy – possibly belonging to someone else. I suspect the mermaids may have played a prank. Once home, quick shower then curry and a pint. Brilliant – and I commend it to the house. But see A Salutary etc.


A Few Practical Considerations

  1. Know your coast. Best is to check it all out at low water. Even though the littoral off Orcombe Point is largely sandy, to start with I got cuts and grazes nearly every time I went swimming from colliding with rocks etc. I didn’t have goggles at first, but since Santa provided me with some, there have been no collisions. It’s not so much the rocks as the barnacles on them that do the damage. But now I know the ground EXACTLY of where I swim. [Or I thought I did!]
  2. Hey! This is a good one. Take care with the tide! If it’s going out BEWARE the drag off shore. You won’t last long if swept out of your depth. If in doubt, stay within your depth. Swim parallel to the shore if necessary – but remember the barnacles are waiting to get you! Make a note of at least one transit shore mark and keep an eye on it. Make an early judgment i.e. while still well in your depth, of your ability to contend with whatever current there may be.
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of moving water. Quite small waves pack a big punch. If you miscalculate and find yourself between a wave and a rock BRACE YOURSELF! Guaranteed, the rock will be what it says on the tin, and the wave will be the ‘hard’ place. You will be the meat in the sandwich. I speak from experience! If the wave is large, best place is UNDER the water and AWAY from the rock.
  4. If you can find anyone stupid enough to accompany you, some might consider it safer. Huh!
  5. Have a dry warm layer to put on when you get out. I find a sleeveless polyester/viscose running singlet sufficient. Damp [and cold] running kit goes back on top.
  6. This unavoidably means carrying stuff which I dislike. But a small bumbag holds a ‘hand’ towel, dry top, and in my case goggles. In your case, anything you want.
  7. Must remember to take chocolate. I never have yet and curse myself for a fool every time.
  8. There’s no point trying to kid yourself it won’t be cold; it will be. But remind yourself also that it will be exhilarating and you will feel terrific – but probably not till afterwards!

Θαλαττα Θαλαττα!


Written on February 18th, 2011

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