Against the Tide
by Jim Standing, co-founder of fourth element and open water swimming convert
The water looks inviting. Even though it is the middle of February, the winter sun manages to create an inviting turquoise colour as it reflects and refracts. So it isn’t until I hurl myself off the rocks into the water to begin my swim that I realise that looks really are deceiving.
As soon as I am immersed I feel different, released from gravity and stresses seem to wash away. There is one thing that’s not quite right though. It’s cold. My face smarts and my hands immediately begin to pink up; enshrouded in neoprene, the rest of my body is ready to get on with it, so I do, my little red marker buoy trailing behind me as I begin the long swim.
I say long – it’s a mere blip in comparison with most – a few hundred meters around the headland at the mouth of the Helford River before cruising along to one of the beaches that line the Cornish estuary. The winds are light and there is only a little swell, I should be crushing it, but in my eagerness to escape the ties of lockdown and get my daily dose of exercise endorphins, I have forgotten to check the tides. If I stop swimming to adjust my goggles I immediately begin to lose the ground I have just covered.
Fronds of seaweed, dragged by the outflowing tide running counter to the direction I need to swim, whip gently from side to side and I think about abandoning the swim and admitting defeat. But this has become such an important ritual to me, that I just put my head down and churn. I’d love to describe it as graceful, I’d even settle for powerful or smooth, but even a kind commentator would be hard pressed to describe it as anything other than grim. With each stroke I gain a metre, giving me ample time to inspect the sea bed below: occasional wrasse wriggle from the weeds as I pass overhead and smaller fish cruise past me as if there is no current at all. It is only the cormorant fishing nearby that makes me feel a little less useless as it dives beneath the surface, swims ahead of me and then pops up to be swept behind me again. I am really close to the shore – no more than 20m. It would be easy to swim in and climb out.
As my arms and shoulders begin to burn with the exertion, I squeeze round a small headland and suddenly the current eases, and I am flying, above a green carpeted bed of seagrass. The current is still present but the aching in my lungs subsides and I can focus on what lies beneath. In summer this is a playground for small fish, in winter, the murky visibility ensures only the larger inhabitants are apparent. A huge thornback ray rests on the seabed while nearby a dogfish is curled up, looking more like its canine namesake as a result. A solitary scallop sinks slightly into the silt as I pass overhead with a characteristic horseshoe of expelled cloudy water ,and a crab languidly brandishes a claw as I pass over the tyre that is has chosen as its home. It’s enough to make me forget that I am supposed to be exercising.
Half an hour has passed and my hands and face are feeling the chill, but the exertion of the swim means the rest of me is only starting to feel the temperature. The tidal flow is picking up as I emerge from the protection of the small bay and head for my destination. It is a hard final ten minutes until my fingertips graze the gravel of the beach and I drag myself upright, and gravity resumes its grip.
Open Water Swimming became a passion for me due to the coronavirus pandemic closing the local swimming pool. Denied my usual four times weekly swims, I began to feel lethargic and despite going out walking and cycling, could not find that same motivation I felt in the water. As lockdown progressed and I lost fitness and gained weight, I was encouraged to try sea swimming with a local group where I would be able to work on technique and get a good workout. One session, and I was hooked and I don’t want to go back to the chlorine scented pool. Continuing through winter has been an exercise in find the right thermal solutions – additional layers to keep the torso and head warm, additional neck seals to minimise water ingress, but it is all worth it, because, as Jules Verne so eloquently put it, in the sea I recognise no masters, there I am free”. I still need to lose that lockdown weight though!
Photo credits: Matt Burtwell : Aerial Cornwall