Taking the Plunge At Orcombe Point

plunge

Orcombe Point

What follows was based on 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 but I leave it as originally written the better to exemplify shoddy thinking.

As a rough guide, the sea temperature off Orcombe Point near Exmouth 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). [For the uninitiated Orcombe Point is 50° 36’ 26” N and 3° 23’ 7” W.]

Starting in the summer of 2010, I took to swimming in the sea once or twice a week between Orcombe Point and Rodney Point, Exmouth. By ‘swim’ I mean total immersion; dry hair is paddling. That summer I would run 4 to 8 miles before swimming and then run the mile or so back home. Come the winter of 2010/2011, I took to cycling to Queen's Drive, adjacent to the sea front, so I didn't have too far to run home when cold and wet. Winter runs were 3 to 5 miles. Distance back to my bike after swimming was about ½ a mile. Given the chance, I ran and swam only on ‘nice’ days. Being a wimp I didn't like running in rain, so ‘nice’ meant dry on the run. Temperature was deemed irrelevant, and indeed became so. The whole sea-swimming thing was accidental mission creep. The summer was hot and running was hot. The beaches and sea around Orcombe Point are clean and inviting, so having a swim to cool down a no-brainer. Luxuriating in an Indian Summer I decided to continue with the run-swim routine until it became unendurable. It never became unendurable but, quite the reverse. I found the colder it was the more invigorating it became and thus established a pattern that continued for 5 or 6 years until a change of circumstances meant I no longer went running in Exmouth. Attire; trunks, no rubber. I swam alone.

Time in the water in winter was generally 4 to 5 minutes. Winter swims consisted of 50 strokes for France before realizing I was not going to make it and turned back. The beach off Orcombe Point is ideal as it slopes gradually, with no sudden surprises - mostly. (But see 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 round Orcombe Point is limited to ± 1½ hours of 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 the 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 had 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 were fine, but if approaching from the east they were unreachable dry. The tide chart below is for calculating LOW water heights and times for Exmouth Approaches.

tides Click to enlarge.

So, what is swimming off Orcombe Point like in winter? In a nutshell, cold. No surprises there then. The coldest water I swam in, when icicles were hanging off the cliff at Straight Point, was slightly less than 7° C. [I got the temperatures at the time from a website giving detailed sea-temperatures for the area.] Even in winter, after running a few miles I was quite hot. I stripped off a.s.a.p. and got straight in. First impressions, registered on feet and legs, was of cold but no more; not agonizing. As I waded in I splashed two or three handfuls of water on the back of my neck. I didn't avoid waves or swell but embrace them! To avoid getting cold, return to the beach, dress and score nul points. Otherwise, plough on. Once the water was up to my waist I squatted down, neck deep, to take stock before setting off. I never experienced involuntary gasping or breathlessness. Talking would not have been a problem.

Wi muckle ado and not wishing to hang about I got going with 50 strokes breast-stroke southwards. I noticed a reluctance to take full, sweeping, normal strokes, as if by taking small rapid strokes it would be over quicker or conserve core temperature. I declared this wimpish and I gave myself a stern talking-to. Occasionally mermaids lashed me with fronds of kelp. Previous awareness of the cold was replaced by a not unpleasant slight numbing. Breathing was fine. Having run for half an hour or so, my pulse before entering the water was 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. On entering the sea it took me 2 minutes to get immersed up to the neck, so starting pulse in the water was in the region of 100. Any increase I assumed could 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. At the time I was 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 became aware of some fatigue. I could easily have done more but did not want to get chilled to the point where running back to my bike was a problem. The initial feelings of discomfort had gone. I found I could enjoy splashing around and looking at the view etc. When ready to get out I swam back as far as I could i.e. I didn't put my feet down as soon as possible, but kept swimming until swimming was impractical before wading ashore to dry and dress. There was never any sign of the mermaids. I heard them singing, each to each, but do not think they sang to me.

Once out of the water, the only cold I noticed, and that only occasionally, was on my feet. My body was fairly bright red and tingled 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 did I ever shiver - unlike in the summer, but then I'm in for longer in summer. My geese had no pimples. Fingers tying laces were neither numb nor awkward. The only odd effect I noticed was when I started running again. There was a feeling of disconnect between body and the ability to judge its performance. The limbs felt strangely inarticulate. I ran at my normal pace but my legs felt sluggish and heavy - possibly belonging to someone else. 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, there is the occasional rocky excrescence with which, to start with, I had frequent disagreements, and got cuts and grazes nearly every time I went swimming. I didn't have goggles at first, but once Santa provided me with some, there were no further collisions. It's not so much the rocks as the barnacles on them that do the damage. I came to know the ground where I swam in every detail - eventually.
  2. 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 in winter if swept out of your depth. If in doubt, stay within your depth. The best strategy is to swim parallel to the shore - 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 judgement 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 rock and a wave 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. Have a dry warm layer to put on when you get out. I found a sleeveless polyester/viscose running singlet ideal. Damp [and cold] running kit went back on top.
  5. The above unavoidably means carrying stuff which I disliked. But a small bum bag held a ‘hand’ towel or speedo, dry top, and in my case goggles. In your case, anything you want. One thing I always wanted but almost invariably forgot was chocolate and I cursed myself for a fool every time I forgot.
  6. There's no point trying to kid yourself it won't be cold; it will be. That's part of the strategy, being honest with yourself about what is to come. But remind yourself also that it will be exhilarating and you will feel terrific - but probably not till afterwards!

swimmer

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater