We’re huddled in phosphorus moonlight near midnight; there is a nip in the wind, and the last of the day’s heat has dissipated. We wear headdresses made from garden flowers, and nothing else. The distant sough of the sea, on a super-moon low, lures us and we run, giggling, towards it. A knee-deep pool fills the space between sandbars before we reach the water’s edge, slowing us in a cacophony of splashing and panting. The ossified ripples of earlier currents are uneven beneath my feet as I reach the sea.
Some years ago I worked as an outdoor activities instructor, and was also a member of the Dartmoor Search and Rescue Team. I’ve always been partial to lying on my back in the wilds staring at the stars, but I learned a great deal more about how we sense our environment from the more professional approach to being in the wilderness at night. The key point is that while your torch will light the path ahead, it won’t stop you from tripping over because you’re reliant on shadows and often they trick your brain. Your nice, safe light will also knock out your night vision, and that of the others in the vicinity. It takes some minutes for your eyes and your senses to adjust to darkness from light. Then there’s the problem of what you see and what you miss. Your focus is much reduced, to a cell of bright light in the immediate vicinity. It sounds odd, but you can lose entire hills. Navigating in thick fog, where you can’t see more than a few feet, similarly hinders you. Reliant on a map and compass, and perhaps the feel of the angle of incline, you must make a mental leap and change your mindset in order to find the way.
In the sea at night, you feel form in a similar way, except you’re moving in more dimensions and there’s a whole world beneath you as you float. There is an absence of identifiable colour, though black is never purely that.
If you do dispense with your conditioned need for artificial light, another world materialises. It’s very rarely pitch black outdoors at night, but you have to trust your senses to know that. On Dartmoor, you sense the hills and the topography, you find yourself in a multi-dimensional place where sounds are magnified along with breaths of wind and the position of your feet as you walk.
In the sea at night, you feel form in a similar way, except you’re moving in more dimensions and there’s a whole world beneath you as you float. There is an absence of identifiable colour, though black is never purely that. Sea swells lift you just as you sense them looming, blocking out starlight behind, or you might catch a flash of white foam in moonlight, hear it, as the lip of the wave teeters and breaks overhead. You feel enormousness, the infinite ocean-creature as it breathes and lives. You “see” further using your ears, your skin, your balance, your nose, the pull of waves and currents. In our local river Dart the natural foam illuminates the currents on the surface of water that’s the colour of an old penny in daylight. At night it’s like a cormorant, apparently black but tinged with shades of bronze. The familiar grey rocks glow faintly, anchoring us. Trees are silhouetted, reaching out.
NIGHT SWIMMING: WHERE TO GO
Choose a place you know, where you understand the water and the varying conditions. At night, it’s more difficult to see what you’re doing so you’ll need to develop your other senses. Once you’ve done a few night swims, you do start to feel the place and the water in other ways, to sense the environment around you. This is of enormous benefit to your swimming generally because it enables you to disengage that pesky left brain and its barrage of instructions about how you’re supposed to swim. Let the right brain rule; float and think free!
As always, the primary consideration for your night swimming spot is entry and exit points. This is particularly so at night, when you can’t rely entirely on your vision. The lack of visual cues means it’s easy to lose your sense of direction especially if there’s no moon. We like to use small lanterns with tea lights to mark the exit point, or you could use one or two re-usable glow sticks tied to your bag. Just make sure they’re high enough up on a rock or tree to be visible when you’re in the water.
This also helps to prevent mishaps such as the one that befell three of us on a full moon skinny dip. We were bobbing in the sea, in a 3 foot swell, and as the moon disappeared and it began to rain we became mesmerised by phosphorescence trailing from our fingers. Eventually, noticing the cold, we decided to get out. We thought we’d been pulled along shore, so swam back on the diagonal in the hope of exiting near our waiting friend and kit. We beached in navy blue dark and rain. “The bags are over there” said our friend who’d followed the chatter, so off we set. But we couldn’t find them in the dark…
You can buy safety lights, mostly in red or green. These are to make you visible, but they don’t affect night vision in the same way as white torches. They do, however, affect the focus of other people whose eyes are drawn to the bright lights. There are situations where I think they’re invaluable, but they’re not always helpful. There are also re-usable glow sticks that you can tie to the back of your swimsuit – or your head or wrist if you’re not wearing a suit.
If you’re swimming were there’s boat or other water traffic, then this type of light is certainly a good idea because it will help you to be visible. Another popular and clever solution is to use a tow float with a torch inside it, so that it becomes a kind of tow-lantern. You can do this with the cheaper nylon dry bags too.
You can buy safety lights, mostly in red or green. These are to make you visible, but they don’t affect night vision in the same way as white torches. They do, however, affect the focus of other people whose eyes are drawn to the bright lights.
For normal swimming where there’s no traffic, lights really aren’t necessary in my view, and might even be a hindrance. The argument that they keep you safe is akin to the argument for tow floats. If you don’t feel safe to swim in a given situation, no light is going to save you if you do get into trouble. For it to work, you need to have a buddy with you who’s looking out for you. And that’s sensible in any case, so simply buddy up, stay in close touch, and you don’t need a light.
This is true especially in larger groups, where I think it’s far easier to “lose” someone, whether they’re wearing a safety light or not. And the more lights there are, the harder it is to focus on your buddy. So always buddy up in twos or threes. If someone wants to swim off alone, that’s a personal decision.
On one night we met at Wembury; we entered the sea as the glow of the moon appeared behind the hill. As we swam, the moon rose spectacularly behind Wembury Church, illuminating us.
PLANNING A FULL MOON SWIM
We call these swims Moon Gazey Swims after moon gazey hares, who sit mesmerised by the moon. There’s also the famous Star Gazey Pie, traditional in Cornwall where the heads of the pilchards rise above the pastry, like wild swimmers scoffing their way out of a giant cake. Being in Devon, many of our MoonGazey Swims involve mist, rain and thick cloud. It doesn’t usually stop us.
The first consideration is the available moon light, so if it’s forecast to be clear that’s a good start. Moonlight undoubtedly adds to the magic, and also the ease of a swim. It needn’t be the night of the full moon, a day or two either side will give you plenty of light if that suits better.
The next consideration is the time and direction of moon rise. If you want to swim at 8 and moon rise isn’t till 10 then you obviously won’t see the moon, particularly if it’s rising behind big hills or mountains.
Then there’s the azimuth – the direction and angle at which the moon traverses the sky.
If you choose somewhere facing west with high cliffs, where the moon is due to rise from the east, it will be some time before the moon appears overhead. So choose somewhere that gives you the best view of the moon. On one night we met at Wembury; we entered the sea as the glow of the moon appeared behind the hill. As we swam, the moon rose spectacularly behind Wembury Church, illuminating us. Other times we’ve met in the Dart gorge where the moon is visible above the hills and trees only for a short period, and other times not at all. There are various apps and websites where you can find this information. One useful app is LightTrac which makes it simple to visualise moon rise to moon set overlaid on a map of your selected location.