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The Slingshot

By Alpkit
03, Dec, 2014

Experimental tidal outdoor swimming adventures in the Bristol Channel

Slingshot title

We were delighted to support this years Outdoor Swimming Society Adventure Series, one of which was put on by Jim Whittaker of Channel Training Ltd who organised a swim out in the Bristol Channel ...

"It's often bandied about that the Bristol Channel has the second highest tidal range in the world. People talk in hushed tones, or very loudly, about streams and eddies that will eat an aircraft carrier whole. Before breakfast. The reality must be different and we decided to check it out from that most humble of stances - that of a group of unsupported swimmers in the oggin on the ebb after one of the biggest spring tides of the year. Abstract: we didn't make it back anywhere near as elegantly as we left...

We left Watermouth Cove about half an hour after high water to explore the caves - beautiful - and swam out into the tide together. Such a stunning place to bob around with picture postcard views wherever you look, clear water and huge skies. A reasonably brisk North Easterly had started to pick the sea up and the remnants of the wind over tide chop made for a great introduction to the water. I can't think of a better way to spend a Saturday morning. A group of people brought together by a love of open water, a sense of adventure and a couple of emails. A stretch of coast begging to be explored without the clutter of boats and engines. A time of year and topography that would guarantee some tidal antics.

The plan was to swim with the tide West around the Burrow's Nose and Sexton's Burrow into Watermouth Harbour before experimenting with the back-tide (!) behind the Burrow and through the gully behind the Nose. Now, the grand title 'The Slingshot' was rooted in the idea that we would be 'slung' around into the harbour by the tide. I allowed romance to cloud my unassailable understanding that no such thing would happen, and it didn't. In fact if slingshots worked like this, Goliath would still be knocking about and the Romans would have stuck to loos. We were scooting past the rocks at over 3 knots (felt like 30mph), beaming at each other and loving the feeling of being genuinely immersed in such a powerful environment. The wind with tide had by now created a quite significant rolling swell, and for the first time we actually had to swim quite hard, eventually all making it out of the stream and into the peace of what must be one of the most lovely natural harbours anywhere. Time for a get together and a chat with a couple of friendly sea kayakers who were to prove fairly valuable over the next hour or so. Interesting to note that the boaters had been surfing the waves into the harbour mouth...

The next section behind the Burrow was amazing.

There was indeed a bit of back tide; this, against the wind driven swell from the East, produced breaking waves through which we swam and floated, marvelling at the currents as they tugged our legs one way and bodies the other. Short- lived though as a matter of minutes later we left the eddy and started to swim against the tide. Technical swimming now as breathing was complex in the confused sea and we were working hard. Sighting each other and making steady progress were not compatible and we were glad of our friends in their boats paddling ahead who came into view more easily than heads in the water. We arrived at the narrow gully behind the Nose. By now the water here was only a metre deep and the gully five metres wide at its narrowest point. It was a river and must have been flowing at over 5 knots. The boats struggled to eddy hop through and only just managed it. Even the strongest members of our team were swept back out in seconds attempting the swim.

Dignity gone, we made progress by fingertips on barnacled rock to get through the fastest flowing sections and took stock on the other side. Some of us were tiring and we agreed to make the next hundred metres or so a deciding leg. A hard swim into breaking waves was indeed a decider for some and three of us retreated back through the gully at quite exhilarating speed leaving the rest of the group to carry on. Round the corner the choice for us was the swim back into the harbour or a difficult egress over the rocks. Timing the waves, we managed to get out without too much barnacle rash and scrambled up 20ft or so to gain ledges and walk off.

In very high spirits we walked barefoot through bracken down to the harbour, enjoying the incredible contrast between the wildness of where we had come from and the tranquility of a summer stroll. Once down we looked out over the harbour to see what looked like another group of swimmers in the distance... surely not... Surely was. Having made some progress after we retreated, the others had soon reached a point where the tide was flowing too consistently to work against and they had swum out and around to re-enter the harbour and walk out. What a great atmosphere. Perma-grins all round as we walked back to the cove together - everyone had found a real adventure and had an awe-inspiring encounter with the natural world just minutes from the car.

So what about the tall tales of the sea now? Well my stories will be about what makes outdoor swimming adventures so profoundly satisfying and utterly compelling: stunning locations, breathtaking experience of the natural world and great new friends to share it all with. Do you have an adventure crying out to be done on your doorstep? Can I come? Many thanks to the folks at Watermouth Cove Holiday Park - the perfect access for this bit of coast and a superb base to stay and explore the area.

Also to Darren and Mark whose "fairly spicy" (their words) paddle was made a touch different by the visiting sea life.

Jim Whittaker, October 2014 Snuggled happily in his Filo jacket after another chilly swim... thanks Alpkit..."

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