Into the Blue | We Went on a Wild Swimming Adventure in Stormy Seas Around Devon
"There’s something romantic and Famous Five-like about the thought of swimming round an island."
Words by Sam Haddad
I feel like I’m starring in a disaster movie set in the middle of the Atlantic. Or perhaps a 19th century adventure novel in which I’ve been shipwrecked. For all around me is high water and huge waves, which are coming at me head on with such height they cause my stomach to plummet as they pass.
I’m surprised I’m not seasick. Or scared. But I’m actually neither, not even close. In fact it’s quite the opposite: I’m buzzing from the experience.
"I’m surprised I’m not seasick. Or scared. But I’m actually neither…"
I reach forward and paddle into the oncoming swell kicking hard against the current and tide. When I next take a breath I lift my head up as the wave drops and catch sight of my guide. His neon orange rashie serving as a Belisha beacon of safety in this stormy sea, plus he helpfully stops us from going too close to the shore and getting bashed up on the rocks.
Our guide is called Pete Carr and he has an amazing 37 seasons of beach lifeguarding experience. He’s also one of the reasons why none of this is remotely worrying me, along with his back-up team, which consists of three other lifeguards on paddle-boards for our party of 9 (we were originally 11 but two dropped out after seeing the state of the sea). There’s also an actual safety boat with an engine.
I’m here with swim adventure travel company SwimTrek, and our challenge today is to circumnavigate Burgh Island in Devon. A pretty, or moody depending on the weather, craggy rock just off the seaside village of Bigburg-on-sea.
It’s an atmospheric place, the murder-mystery writer Agatha Christie set two novels here and today in the windy chop and fast-moving clouds it’s easy to see why. The front side facing the mainland has a cool-looking art deco hotel, reachable on foot at low tide or by a special water tractor at high tide, while the backside is more remote and desolate. When we swam around the back we were alone except for the cormorants.
"The murder-mystery writer Agatha Christie set two novels here and today in the windy chop and fast-moving clouds it’s easy to see why"
With a distance of 2 km, the trip is billed as an introduction to open water swimming. But in reality our group has mixed motives for being here. Some really are just getting to grips with swimming in the sea, where as one guy is a regular triathlete looking to spice up his training programme. I’m a reasonable swimmer with enough experience in the sea to be now totally bored of swimming pools but this also just wasn’t a swim I’d do by myself.
I crave adventurous stuff but unlike your regular adrenaline junkie, or stereotype of that person anyway, I’m really not into taking risks. I like experts and trust them implicitly. And while I’ve been wanting to swim around Burgh Island for some time now I would be no more likely to take it on by myself than I would snowboard off-piste in a place I’ve never been before without a guide or responsible local.
It’s not sea monsters, fictitious or real in the form of say sharks or jellyfish, that I’m scared of it’s just being out of sight of people. And this is where the idea of a guided swim around Burgh Island came in. As for me there’s something impossibly romantic and Famous Five-like about the thought of swimming round an island. About taking it on; making it all the way around. It captures the imagination and appeals to the completist in me.
It was a similar kind of yearning mentality that led the Australian-born UK-dwelling Simon Murie to set up SwimTrek in the first place back in 2003. He was inspired by reading about Byron’s crossing of the fabled Hellespont, the narrow channel which divides Europe and Asia in north-west Turkey. It was made famous in Greek mythology by Leander’s nightly swims across it to his lover Hero. She would hold a torch out to guide Leander’s way. Lord Bryon, the English poet, was the first known person to cross the strait in 1810 in homage to Leander.
When Simon Murie tried to copy Bryon’s feat in the early 00s he found it a logistical nightmare, with weeks of planning required for just a one-hour swim and so the idea of SwimTrek was born. He tells me: “One of the reasons I set SwimTrek up was to organise iconic swims in stunning locations and to take the hassle of organising it away from people. It’s one of the main reasons why we have such a high rate of repeat customers at around 65 per cent."
People understandably just don’t like the faff. Alongside a series of one-day swims in the UK, including Durdle Door on the Jurassic Coast and the Gulf of Corryvreckan in Scotland, they organise iconic world swims including the Bosphorus Cross Continental Swim and Alcatraz off San Francisco, which recreates that infamous prison break scenario. They also run week-long swimming breaks around the world, with the ones to the Greek Cyclades and Croatia looking particularly beguiling.
"When you swim from one island to another island… you have arrived in a way that no one else who arrived by say a ferry possibly could"
Murie also believes there’s something magical about island swimming. “When you swim from one island to another island, you arrive on the new island appreciating where you have arrived in a way that no one else who arrived by say a ferry possibly could. In essence, you understand the effort you have made in getting there," he says.
And the unpredictability of the sea merely adds to that appeal. “Another reason people, including myself, get hooked to sea swimming is the fact that no two swims are ever the same, even though you might swim in the same spot," he says. “Currents, temperatures, sea state and conditions are different on every swim. In the pool, no matter how many times you go back, the swim will be exactly the same."
My experience certainly echoes that attraction. I’ve been to Burgh Island on a super-calm day, yet today, as I’ve previously mentioned, the first half of our swim has been choppy and challenging. But our guide kept smiling the whole way while also passing on some useful tips, such as breathe into the crook of your arm to avoid swallowing water on each breath.
"The battle was over and the current carried us forward as if we were swimming on a travelator rather than straight into a typhoon"
He also said the second half of the swim would be a lot easier and so it was. We turned the corner both literally and metaphorically and suddenly the sea was still and calm. The battle was over and the current carried us forward as if we were swimming on a travelator rather than straight into a typhoon.
My strokes become calmer and I get in a more meditative groove, enjoying the deep blue of the ocean, and the trail of bubbles my breath and arms pulling through the water are making beneath me. Looking up to my left I see the island’s long grassy slopes and jagged rocky channels (which groups swim through on calm days, Pete would later tell me). When I breathe to the right, it’s just endless sky. Your local leisure centre this is not.
We power back in towards the beach, and are all smiles as we reach the shore and turn to look at the island we’ve just circled. We could have showed up today and found the sun shining and sea with a glass-like calm, but I'm far happier with the adventure we just had as we learnt a lot about ourselves and open water swimming along the way.
“Doing swims like this, can bring a real positivity to people’s lives," Murie later tells me. He’s not wrong. I drive away through Devon’s rolling hills and high hedgerows with my eyes shining and my spirits high.
To find out more about SwimTrek head here
To read the rest of September's Back to School issue head here