A week in the wonderful world of open water swimming (and a few postcards) by Katia Vastiau
29th November 2018
Let’s rewind to one summer ago, when I found myself in mid-July, on crutches, non load-bearing for the next 10 months, with a heavily bandaged knee in a Robocop style knee brace ; not the sort of circumstances I tend to welcome, even if the last few years had given me plenty of crutch practice…
So what to do? Well, accept an offer to go cat sitting in a house at the top of a hill on the South Devon Coast of course!
With no holidays planned, the thought of spending a week in beautiful Devon, by the sea, was exciting, but it was only on approaching Wembury that I remembered how hilly Devon could be and that the house, was indeed, perched at the top of a hill above the coast. A place where we’d usually walk or run, body surf or cycle….hmm
This is also when I remembered what my son Tom had told me upon my return from hospital:
“ Well, as you always say, you can always swim…swimming would be good for that”
And this, was to be the beginning of the most awesome DIY swimming holiday!
I contacted a couple of friends who lived fairly locally to arrange a catch up sometime that week, pointing out that it would have to be a fairly sedentary affair, but that we could always grab some food preferably by the sea and that I should be able to swim if they were up for it.
Little did I know that they would, all, over-deliver!
Bring on the wonderful world of open water swimming and the positive power of social media. Most of those friends I had met over the years, swimming, and kept in touch with, despite the distance. And, with their typical outdoors swimmer adventurous and positive attitude, they all said “yes”.
First to turn up was my friend Conrad, who I had met on my first ever open water event, the Blue Mile, in 2011. Conrad is an amazing sailor – think Vendee Globe and more recently Channel 4’s Mutiny on the Bounty – runs Sport Environment and had organised the Blue Mile, together with the WWF, Ecover and the MCS. Buit he is also a good swimmer! After a close encounter at the finish of the kayaking leg (I will never let him get away with this), we got chatting, stayed in touch and probably teamed up for a watery adventure most years since.
We decided to meet up at Mothecombe Beach to grab some food. On the day he couldn’t swim due to an ear infection, but after a nice lunch in a little quirky café, he suggested I’d go for a swim anyway whilst he’d watch my stuff and whilst my partner Jon went for a run.
And so it started! Crossing the sandy beach on crutches and bum hopping into the sea was less than glamourous, but as soon as it was deep enough, I was free! Rugged cliffs and little caves on one side, green rolling hills as a backdrop on the other, it was delicious! 45 min later I was back on the beach with the biggest smile.
This is also when I met Skip. He had stopped on the beach for a break on his way paddling a beautiful outrigger from Falmouth to Poole, highlighting plastic pollution and doing beach cleans along the way! A brief encounter, but as “water” people often do, we stayed in touch, and this year, it was Skip who chummed me on a swim out to Old Harry Rocks! When people are drawn to the outdoors and the water, friendships are easy and generous! How awesome!
Chatting about swimming that afternoon, Conrad mentioned swooshing at Bantham, which was fairly local….
An Instagram post later (did I mention the positive power of social media), and up came Sean, a coach and great athlete from OxfordTri. He said he happened to stay in Bantham that week and would love to go for a swim. And so the next day, I found myself following a few typical swim peeps directions about a parking and a little path and met up with Sean, who knows the area like the back of his hand. Local knowledge is always a wonderful thing. He had arranged for someone to drop us at the end of the estuary with a dingy and a kayak for Jon to follow us on our swim. More excitingly, the swoosh was upgraded to a Burgh Island tour AND a swoosh! Two swims I’d wanted to do for ages.
Atypically, we swam around Burgh anticlockwise at low tide, which meant we could see much more of the island , including some little rocky pools we got to venture in at the back and higher rock cliff! It was so beautiful and perfectly timed, so that after a bumpy swim back around the other side – with views of the famous “Agatha Christie” Art Deco hotel, we caught a reverse fast swoosh back into Bantham! It was epic and so fast, and delivered me to the bottom of the stairs of the house for a warm coffee! Another day ending with a massive smile and a great seafood meal at the pub!
The next day I got to hang out with Conrad again and visit the Bounty, now moored in Plymouth, and used for educational and social purposes, and mooched through sailing trophies, photographs and books back at the office. Another little heaven of adventure, positivity and social responsibility projects! People really are fabulous.
The most iconic view from Wembury, were we were staying, is that of the Mew Stone. The Great Mewstone, a small rocky island, stands about 3/4 of a mile out and dominates the view out from the bay. Google it and you’ll find endless photographs of the stone at sunset, at sunrise, in a storm…..but of course, to me, it immediately looked like a swim destination.
So, the next day, it is the wonderful Marisa, who joined the next adventure!
I’d met Marisa in 2013, when as a med student in Oxford, she was also training at Queenford Lakes for her Channel Crossing. We quickly became friends and I had the privilege to crew on her successful crossing that summer. I still refer to Marisa as the “Smiling Channel Swimmer”, as she literally smiled her way across to France! Amazing.
Marisa, now temporarily a junior doctor in her home grounds of Plymouth, picked me up in the morning and after hatching a plan based on local info and tides, we set off towards the Mewstone. It was a beautiful swim once again, with a few stops now and again to adjust our direction and take in the views. We spend a bit of time mermaiding in the shallow rock pools at the back of the island again, looking at the wildlife and the tiny croft on the island, wondering what it would have been like to find yourself on the island in winter; before swimming back to shore for a few coffees and cake at the National Trust café by the beach. And, yes, out came the big smiles again, the exhilaration after a lovely swim and reaching a destination, and chatting about our lives and future plans.
After a week of looking at coastal maps and discovering new spots, there was one last thing I wanted to do : swim through the arch at Thurlestone. It looked like starting from the cute little village of Hope Cove would be a good idea. I could head out of the bay and turn right along the coast and Jon could head left for a picturesque run along the Coastal path and then meet up again in Hope Cove for some food afterwards. This swim was going to be a solo swim. I’d never ventured far out at sea on my own before, but over the week I had built up my awareness and confidence and a safety check list of what I had to know and what I needed to take with me.
As soon as we approached Hope Cove we could tell something was going on: cars everywhere, overflowing car parks and crowds. There was a village fete beach activities! Full on summer atmosphere, with a crowded beach you could hardly plant a crutch through. In the end, after a bit of one-legged acrobatics, I reached the lifeguard station. I thought it would be a good idea to let them know what I was intending to do, get a bit of advice and make sure they wouldn’t send out a rescue boat when they saw me head out of the bay.
Fantastic nad supportive as they always are, they offered to look after my clothes and my crutches and contacted the other lifeguards on duty along my way to ask them to look out for me. This was really perfect and reassuring. So off I went, hopped to the shore, went through the now well-oiled routine of taking off my articulated brace, stuffing it in my tow dry bag with my phone, spare goggles and a bottle of water, and I snaked in on my belly until it was deep enough to swim.
As soon as I turned out of the bay, the mayhem of the crowded beach died out. A few hundred meters further another beach appeared, flanked by rocky cliffs, and totally empty but for a few gulls. And this was to be repeated a few times along the way…empty pristine beaches, cliffs, rocks emerging from the sea with gatherings of majestic gulls. Every now and then, there would be a dingy on the beach and a couple of people enjoying a picnic, but mainly just the noise of the crushing waves and underwater, the sounds of foraging wildlife. And then the arch appeared. It’s just a stone arch you can swim through, but somehow, it is so exciting! I swam through it several times and there was only a pair of kayakers around doing the same thing. I swam under it front crawl, then backstroke, then front crawl again, then I dived under as far as my tow float would let me…..there is something magical about that, trying to imagine how it ended up being there. Something that makes you feel very small in size and in time, and yet powerful. I loved it. On my way back I came across a few scuba divers and more birds, crabs, eels and small fish. I just HAD to land myself on one of those empty beaches for 5 min, because, well… I could. More time to look around and take in the scenery and the geology! After that I made my way home swimming fast, because, again, I could.
And then I was back on the crowded beach again. The tide had come up significantly which meant it was a much shorter maize-hop to the lifeguard station. Navigating the busy town on crutches wasn’t ideal so we headed off and grabbed one of the biggest sweet bun I have ever seen from a local bakery further down the road. And that was our last day in Devon, another great day, discovering a new part of the coast and yes…salty skin, wind-swept faces and big smiles again!
This week was totally free and freeing, from no plans, it turned into an adventure built as the days went by and one of my most memorable sea holidays.
So what was this all about?
Two things mainly:
- Water is a healer: When you’re feeling down or stuck, when you can’t walk, when you can’t take impacts, the water is always your friend! So long as you don’t have an open wound (or a cast…and even then there is always ducktape…), the one thing you can always do is swim or float…with a little help from your friends! Water carries you, it lets you move, it increases your senses, it is both exciting and calming.
- The open water swimming world is a big community made of timeless friendships, sometimes unlikely, carved around a common joy, almost childlike, of swimming and embracing the natural world ; a sense of freedom, peace, challenge, adventure. It has no borders or limits. I have found it to be supportive, non-judgmental and mainly just…easy going! I am sure there are other such communities around, but I haven’t found anything else quite like it yet!
And this is also the spirit that has carried through #TeamSelkie this year.
New friends, new places, inspiration from each other, pushing boundaries, new challenges, and many many laughs.
We might be dotted all over the country, and we don’t see each other very often, but we keep in touch, we chat often, we share ideas and suggestions, we hatch plans, we take interest in each other’s plans and we spur each other on! And hopefully, we inspire a few others along the way.
Outdoor swimmers just feel like one big family and it’s wonderful!