To Appletree and beyond

My day off, and it was perfect weather for a long swim. I'd checked XC Weather the night before and wind speeds for this morning were forecast to be only 3-5 mph. It was high tide at 7.40am but even on a receding tide this was too good an opportunity to miss. So much so that when I got up at 6 o'clock I thought I really ought to just head out then before nerves set in. I have to confess, I'm not a natural water baby. This big swim is quite a challenge for me which is why I want to do it. I was a late learner as far as swimming is concerned. When all the other kids were confident at diving in at the deep end and joining up to swimming club I was still in water wings at 10 years old, much to my embarrassment. I'd had a setback when I was younger - after a swimming lesson I was climbing the steps to get out of the swimming pool and a boy put his foot onto the top of my head and kept it there as he pushed me back under, holding me there, trapped. I was out of my depth and couldn't let go of the handrail and seemed to be stuck underwater for minutes. The bully laughed as I finally surfaced, coughing and spluttering. This encounter undermined me at a time when I didn't really have much confidence anyway. Nowadays I'm a strong swimmer, but that anxiety is still with me, and I'm aware of my fear I when I'm out in the open water. I'm driven to overcome this but will always choose to swim on a calm day if I can.

And today was certainly calm. I got into the water at 9.45 am and gently headed South towards Appletree Bay. The plan was to go as far as was comfortable without aims or limits, just to see how it goes. The previous long lone swim I had was amazing and it's always going to be difficult to rival such an experience. This morning there was a bit of cloud cover making the sea more of a dull azure green. We'd had a bit of wild weather recently too which had stirred up sand into the sea so it wasn't as clear as before. However, conditions were still pretty much perfect and I was happy to at last be in the water rather than contemplating how it would be. I know it's crazy to have a hobby which makes you anxious, but I seem to need a challenge in my life and this currently is it. At a time when we're all being encouraged to be more active and improve our health, sea swimming is the perfect form of exercise as far as I'm concerned - it's free, it's right on my doorstep and the cold water is such a good boost for the immune system - why not jump in?

The practicalities of the kit are always interesting with sometimes my goggles fogging up, or the time when I wore my neoprene boots for the first time and put them over my wetsuit. That was hilarious. By the time I got out, my legs and boots were bulging with water like the Michelin Man! Today I seemed to have not tightened my neck seal firmly enough and was scooping water down my back within the first few strokes. I tried to re-adjust the tab, but as I was wearing gloves my grip wasn't very good and they also kept on getting attached to the Velcro - oh what fun! I carried on, hoping that I wouldn't fill up like a balloon again. The sea was calm for the main part, with only the odd passing boat sending it's wash my way. My breathing was relaxed leaving me the brain space to enjoy the sight of shoals of tiny fish darting around, taking cover in seaweed as I passed. It was a lower tide today so I came across more seaweed as I swam towards the sweep of Appletree Bay. I could see a couple on the beach stooping from time to time, probably picking up shells or sea glass. Hunting for cowrie shells is favourite pastime for visitors, but curiously not something I've done myself. I think it's like that thing of Londoners not seeing all the shows or visiting every the tourist attraction. If it's on your doorstep you've not got that sense of urgency, you'll get around to it sometime. I really ought to see if I can find a cowrie shell or two.

The next raft of seaweed at Carn Near neck was much more shallow too and I was quite surprised to find I was suddenly touching sand. I got up onto my feet to see a boatload of visitors had just been disgorged and were making their way along the road which overlooks the beach. Some were looking at this neoprened figure, orange buoy attached to her waist, staggering about over the rocks and seaweed - I expect I looked a strange sight. As soon as possible I lunged back into the water and headed around the rocks to Carn Near. As I rounded the quay I decided to get out to fix the leaky neck issue. I clambered up the steps and sat down for a moment. A thought occurred as to how easy it would be just to walk home from here. It felt like cheating though. I wasn't tired, but this little area on either side of the quay isn't my favourite spot. Firstly, because I feel vulnerable being where the boats dock, but mostly because the weed here makes the water taste odd. Generally sea water just tastes salty, but clean. Around here there's a pronounced taste, kind of reminiscent of smelly cabbage water. As I swim off again I'm even aware of an aroma. Maybe our sense of taste and smell are so tightly connected I'm just imagining I can smell this too. Before long I'm away and past this spot, and swim over a bed of swaying seaweed that looks just like an unmown lawn. It's a very Jacques Cousteau moment for me, as I scan the sea floor looking for fish or crustaceans lurking there. I didn't see this patch last time, so maybe my course is slightly different this time.

I head on towards the end of Bathing House beach and am looking for the way around Skirt Island where I turned the corner last time. But this reveals itself to be a dead end. The tide has gone out so far that all there's left is rocks and seaweed. I stand up and try to puzzle out what to do next. Do I hike up the beach and traverse this corner until I reach the sea or do I turn around and head out into deeper water and potentially the boat lane? Behind me some 200 yards away I see a woman on a paddle board. She's heading out around the rocks and that decides it for me, I'll follow her lead. I put my goggles back on and strike out. I round the rocks and continue to follow the paddle boarder. My focus has changed and I seem to be drawn in her wake, believing she knows the way better than I do. I swim on, hypnotised by the motion of the paddle dipping in and out of the water, a rhythmic pull, a siren's call weaving it's spell on me. The cloud has cleared, the sun is shining and the sea has taken on a wonderful turquoise hue. I see the sand below me is pristine and weed free, dotted with shells. My swim is unfolding into a charmed waterway of dreamy thoughts, the strokes a pulse of energy, making easy progress. And suddenly I'm woken out of my reverie. I notice that I'm well out into the boating channel heading towards St Martin's, but I'm not on a paddle board, nor do I have a safety boat with me. As I turn sharply left towards the shore I'm shocked at how I was lured away, my mind distracted. To be fair, the water wasn't overly deep, but I was too far from the shore if I'd suddenly got cramp as I've had before.

So here I was once again, gliding through the waters of Pentle Bay and feeling completely in the zone. Time has lost it's meaning, thoughts drift in and out, and I swim on, breathing easy, no fatigue and no reason to stop. Perhaps I can just cruise along on to Old Grimsby again? I can see a family having a picnic on the beach, toddlers bobbling about on the sand. It's a blissful summer's day, a perfect day off, a wonderful time to be out in the water. I can see Round Island Lighthouse in the distance, and a jet boat chugs lazily ahead of me in the shallow waters, crossing from Lower Town to Old Grimsby. For a moment there's the smell of boat fuel in the air and then it's gone. I can't believe I'm on the last lap as I round the sandy hump of Blockhouse Point. The tide is low as I skim over some bright green dancing seaweed, and catch sight of the scuttling sideways march of a large brown crab as he tries to make himself scarce. The final stretch across Green Beach is gone like a shot and suddenly I'm washed up onto the shoreline. The swim seems less epic this time, probably the novelty value is gone, but the distance remains - 4.2 miles I've discovered. As I make my way up the beach I meet a young couple and ask them the time. It's 12.25 pm. I'm quietly impressed. That 10 year old girl in water wings has made good progress.


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