Tag Archives: RNLI

The Worst Three Minutes

Over a year ago I wrote a popular post called The First Three Minutes, which investigated just the first few minutes of a cold water swim. (A real cold water swim, not your balmy 10 degree Celsius getting a tan (50F) water for softies).

We know, us cold water swimmers, that passers-by focus on the water and the time of year. They ask themselves and us, how could anyone possibly get into bitterly cold water in the depth of an Irish winter, without a wet-suit. It’s behaviour that borders on the insane to everyone else. It certainly is at best aberrant, definitely risky, beyond any conceivable reward.  The tourists, passersby and pass-remarkers extrapolate from their own personal experience of cold on land or an occasional cold shower and from that they believe they can understand our world. Or at least believe that what we are doing is a sign that we are lacking in something.

They cannot and will never comprehend why we do what we do and though I have explained why we swim in cold water, that explanation will only resonate with fellow cold water swimmers or similar adventurers.

I had long thought that those first three minutes though were not the worst three minutes. Nor indeed was the worst time during swimming , afterdrop or when enduring the usual mild or moderate hypothermia that many of us endure on a regular basis.

The worst three minutes occur at T-minus. That is, the worst part of cold water swimming happens before you swim, or at least, before I swim.

It’s a cold mid-January Saturday. It’s lunchtime, past mid-day, late for a weekend swim. I didn’t sleep much of the previous night, I’ve been oscillating into and out of insomnia for months now and the previous night I got almost no sleep, finally drifting off only shortly before dawn, and stumbling awake after a couple of hours. The morning was the cold wet grey that is Ireland’s other natural colour. On such a dispiriting morning the lack of rest sapped my desire to get down to the coast but I eventually bestirred myself and arrived at the Newtown and Guillamene car park about 1 p.m., with the car thermometer reading 2.5 degrees Celsius. The bay at least was calm but that only meant that the light breeze was cross-offshore which meant cold. Combine that with the air and the ambient temperature felt about zero degrees. Wind chill is a stupid phrase. Winter swimming is stupid.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain. Out in the bay the big Dunmore East RNLI Trent-class lifeboat was steaming toward Powerstown Head, quartering the bay. Dunmore East is about 10 miles away, the local big fishing port. The reason the Elizabeth-and-Ronald (as an entirely charitable organisation which receives no government funds, RNLI boats are named after significant philanthropists) was in the bay was to search for the body of a poor lost soul, likely jumped from Powerstown Head across the bay, two days previously.

RNLI lifeboat in rain P1020036.resized.rotated
(Thanks to David Dammerman for the camera! A friendly and generous gesture more appreciated than he maybe realises).

Down on the concrete, the morning polar bear dippers had all left. Just myself, the breeze, the rain, the cold. Given the rain I put the box in the single occupant alcove which I only use in these circumstances. I took my thermometer out of the box and stood there and looked out. Rain dropped off the rocks into which the alcove is hewn, the yellow-green algae and lichen everywhere seeming almost to glow in the wet conditions.

The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.
The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.

Clad in my heavy winter coat I gingerly went down the steps to the water’s edge, the algae on the steps having reached a dangerously lethal slippiness since last week. The tide was almost out, so all the steps were exposed down to the final ladder. Spring tide, over five metres range between high tide and low tide.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide. 

Such was the surface underfoot that I had to use the stainless steel railings on either side. The steel was colder than ice-cubes and utterly necessary. By the time I’d measured the water (7.4 degrees Celsius, ~ 45 F., up three-quarters of a degree since the previous weekend but the combined air and water temperature was colder) and made it back to the alcove, my hands were painfully cold.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide, cold water, tired.

No-one around for a quick chat or  hello. A lifeboat in the bay looking for the body of another likely victim of the recession in Ireland. Grim.

I started to get undressed, pulled my freezing cold and wet togs over my bare luminous white arse, there being no-one around to require the towel-dance. Togs on, coat still on, I stopped. I just … stopped.

I stood there. In the alcove, my feet getting cold, my hands sore even before I was ready. So tired that I knew the cold would hurt more than usual.

It wasn’t the first time. There have been other days, other winters like this. Every winter has days like this. If it happens, this is the worst three minutes.

All you have to do either swim or go home. Nothing will happen if you go home. The world won’t end. Except, you tell yourself, or I tell myself, maybe this will be the first crack. Fail to get in the water once for no good reason, and maybe the next time it’ll be easier to not get in. Worse, next time, maybe it’ll be easier to stay at home. Maybe not getting in the water means it’ll be all over for me. Maybe I’ll lose the thing keeping me going.

I stood there, and there was no epiphany. It remained desolate, cold, wet and grey. No lesson about anything here. I imagined I looked grey because I felt grey. Pathetic fallacy writ large. Nothing new for an open water swimmer. Nothing to see here.

And then I finished getting ready and I got in the water and I swam. And afterwards I went home.

They think cold water is tough? They don’t really know what’s the hard part. The worst part. And this week there was no Reverie. There was just paying the price of entrance, paying now for some warmer swim later or some other cold swim, swimming in the bay watching the lifeboats searching for another soul lost at sea, similar to me. And like all entry fees, there’s a single person supplement. A lone swimmer supplement.

A temporary sandbar appears at lowest tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy
A temporary sandbar appears at lowest Spring tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy. Maybe I am the only person who ever walked on it. I walked around the edge so not to leave even footprints.

How To: Using Tide Tables

Because I live and swim in Ireland, I am constantly made aware of the large tidal range here.

I’ve written extensively about tides previously because I feel they are an aspect of open water swimming not appreciated by enough swimmers and because global variations can mean that many people never see nor even realise the apparent extremities of a higher tidal range in other locations. I therefore think a better understanding of tides is important for open waters for safety reasons.

To understand tides better is to increase your knowledge, your range of options and responses and locations and therefore your safety around the coast. Combined with this is that tidal knowledge is sometimes incorrect, that people make very basic incorrect assumptions, that the tide goes directly in and out from the shore regardless of the coastal position, is amongst the most common misconception (which is only true in some locations).

Because of this North East Atlantic tidal variation, most experienced Irish and United Kingdom sea-goers are used to checking tide times when the sea is not immediately visible to them daily.

You can revisit some of the more detailed tide articles I’ve written but for a brief recap let’s remember that each tide is about six hours and fifteen minutes, which means that high and low tide times change each day. A practical consequence of this is that Sandycove, which is usually swum above half-tide, usually only swim times designated for group swims every second weekend. (I am luckier at the Guillamenes as it is deeper water and can be swum on any tide).

Let’s a look at some graphs and data of a daily tide cycle, for the week I’m writing this. This data comes from MagicSeaweed’s Tramore tide report.  The undulating sine wave indicates the rising and falling tide. You can see that there are four tides in each 24 hour period and that each tide on this current cycle varies from just under six hours to about six and a half, with rising tides being longer than falling tides. On each chart you can also see the tide heights of high and low tide. As the four days pass the range between high and low decreases, and the high tide gets lower as the low tide gets higher, all indicators that the tide is moving from a Spring tide to a Neap tide, this pattern of changes from springs to neaps and visa versa repeating every two weeks.

tide graph 2

Tide programs and applications are usually similar in this presentation and a good understanding can mean a quick glance at a tide table can tell you a lot. Since I know that spring tides here are over 5 metres, I can tell immediately from this where in the lunar tide cycle we are. Lower tidal range means lower tidal currents, (not usually a concern for me anyway), important information for some locations.

The other usual tide tool, which I prefer myself, is an annual national tide table. These are currently about €3.00 for the pocket-sized book and I keep one in the car. There are two types of tide table books. Those often issued by the local port or regional publishing company, and a national one. Ireland is small enough that a localised tide table is too specific and of little utility if one is visiting the far side of the country.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI find physical Tide Tables more utilitarian. Always to hand when needed, and useful for longer term planning many months in advance. Free and online tide apps usually don’t provide future tide times.

More importantly in Ireland, the island nature of the country makes the tidal situation far more complicated than many people realise, with the tides washing around the coast in diverging or even opposing directions. Therefore the Tide Table is sub-divided into five regions with further tide time offsets (delays) to even more localised ports. This provides a level of forecasting that gives a far greater level of accuracy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe detail is of the same type, date and day, high and low water (tide), with tide heights and in this case, moon phase to indicate more easily the spring and neap tides. On the page above can also be seen the variation of other locations from the Cobh location, Cobh being the Standard (reference) Port, i.e. the main tidal location, for the south-west to south-east Irish coast. A fuller list of Secondary Ports for each region is also included.

What’s equally important about these tide tables, and hidden in a note inside the back, is that the data is compiled from the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, which, bizarrely and which I haven’t mentioned in a couple of years, owns the tide data for all of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and from which it must be licensed. Not that I am in favour of this arrangement, but it does mean you can be sure of the table accuracy, unlike with many free tide applications where license fees haven’t been paid.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A local sources of tidal information if you are unsure or without any better information is to check any RNLI  or local inshore rescue stations across Ireland and the United Kingdom which at least usually display the month’s local tide times on the outside of the stations. These always use the accurate UKHO (below) tide data. Some broadsheet newspapers can carry the information also in the weather section.

The important points therefore are:

* Tide tables are essential for coastal safety in area with high tidal ranges, such as across the continental European coast.

* When using tide tables note the tidal height as well and high and low tide times.

* If you are using tide prediction tools, safety is important and to this end, the origin of the data is vital.

eBay Grants for Top 3 Charities – Support the RNLI (for nothing)

Most of our swims have a charity fundraising element. My own EC swim was for the RNLI.

eBay are giving grants for the Top 3 voted charities at the end of the summer. All you have to do is visit http://bit.ly/duUibX and vote!

For once this costs nothing and us OW irish & UK swimmers all know and respect the RNLI.